Stephan Winkelmann might have been born in Berlin, but he grew up in Rome. And, as the former President and CEO of the now thriving Italian super sports car manufacturer Automobili Lamborghini for more than a decade, take it from me, he’s three parts Italian and one part German.
After 11 years at the helm of the one of the world’s most exciting automotive brands, Winkelmann was called upon to create the same kind of brand magic he made at Lamborghini with Audi’s high-performance sub-brand, Audi Sport GmbH.
Winkelmann spoke exclusively with CarAdvice at the recent launch of the all-new 2017 Audi RS3 Sedan and Sportback.
CarAdvice: After such a long journey at Lamborghini, it must have been sad to have to pack your bags and move on?
Winkelmann: Being there for 11 years leaves an impact, but after being in charge of one company for more than a decade, it was clear that sooner or later the call would come. But I’m thankful that it lasted that long.
But as you know, I was very close to the people there at Lamborghini, so I don’t think of them as colleagues any more, they’re friends. We grew the company together and we were thinking as one unit, and I missed that a lot when I first arrived at Audi Sport.
But I have to say, at Audi Sport, I found a very dedicated and motivated team, with perfect cars, which I never had when I joined Lamborghini. So, I was surprisingly positive. But it’s a completely different company, because one is embedded in the mother company, and the other is completely separate.
Do you think you can bring the same level of excitement to Audi Sport that you managed to inject into Lamborghini, over the next decade or so, and is there another level of excitement you can bring to the brand?
What I learned at Lamborghini, the hard way at the end of the day, is that everything takes time. When I joined Lamborghini, everything was completely new. And to mould a company to a position where everyone thinks the same way takes time, and the results from that process take even more time. So, I was blessed twice in that sense.
I think that at Audi Sport we have huge opportunities, and I think that in a shorter period of time we will see more results because we have more and more models coming through. But in my opinion, what we have to work on at Audi Sport in my opinion is the brand. We are building great products, but in the past, I think we really missed the opportunity to build this brand.
The brand is already there, but we just have to talk about it and put all the elements in a row. Audi Sport has to be a sub-brand. It has to be a company which has the right balance between being credible as Audi Sport, but at the same time as part of Audi.
The point is, we just can’t detach from Audi and be autonomous, because that’s impossible. Our ‘RS’ models are based on what Audi is developing and producing. But if we can achieve something like we did when the first R8 came along, in terms of a lighthouse – not only for Audi Sport but for the brand in general – then that would be perfect.”
CarAdvice: You also have here on display the Audi RS3 LMS race car which is powered by a four-cylinder turbo, so does that provide you with an opportunity to develop a high-powered, four-cylinder version of the RS3 in the future?
For the ‘A’ segment, which caters for younger, new customers, we want to have an exclusive offer which for Audi Sport is the new five-cylinder, all-alloy engine. We don’t want to move away from that, as we developed that engine specifically for this segment, because we want to have an exclusive offer.
How much quicker can you make the RS3 – will we see a sub-four second car at some stage?
I think we still have something in our bag as far as that question goes, but really, it’s not all about the 0-100km/h performance. If you look at the sports car world, we have two extremes. On one side, we have the super sports cars which are meant to be driven on the weekends and not from A to B on a daily basis.
Then on the other hand, we need to have performance-orientated cars, but very comfortable and daily-driveable. This balance, with a perfect design and high level of quality makes the cars so attractive. We don’t want to have a peak with any particular element, we want to have that perfect balance between all those elements.
If the Porsche 911 is the ultimate every-day sports car and under the same Volkswagen Group umbrella, will Audi Sport produce a competitor to the 911 in terms of every-day driveability, outright performance and price?
No, we’re not going to be a competitor, because if you look at the RS6 Avant or the RS7 Sportback you have a four or five-seat sedan with big performance, and with those cars you have everything you need, and let’s say, will cover it all.
Will performance hybrids come next for Audi Sport?
We are looking into the combination of sports and sustainability. But it has to be credible, it has to be something that is trustworthy and reliable and that customers understand in terms of the Audi Sport brand. In other words, is it worthy of the Audi Sport brand?
We have to make a clear statement as to what this new sustainable ‘sportivity’ is all about, and this is difficult turf for us, because we have to understand what is important: range, acceleration, how long you can hold top speed, the weight of the car and how it affects the handling, and mostly, what body style do we start with.
And, of course, we don’t want to over-promise.
What about an all-electric car?
A standalone electric car just for us at Audi Sport would unfeasible with the budget I have. We need to see how battery technology evolves and not rush to be the first.
How many more RS models to come over the next two years?
We intend to release eight new models over a two-year period, so with the release this week of the new RS3 sedan and Sportback, we have six more including the RS5 Coupe, and these will be a combination of new models and replacements.
Stephan Winkelmann is a recipient of Italy’s Grand Cross, the country’s highest order of merit, and is known as one of the car business’s more charismatic leaders.
Along with the re-branding, Audi Sport GmbH (‘GmbH’ being the abbreviated German term for a limited liability company) has confirmed it will launch eight new models in the coming 18 months.
Audi RS 3 Sportback, Sedan
Audi RS Q3, Audi RS Q3 performance
Audi RS 6 Avant, Audi RS 6 Avant performance
Audi RS 7 Sportback, Audi RS 7 Sportback performance
Audi TT RS Coupe, Audi TT RS Roadster
Audi R8 Coupe, Audi R8 Spyder
Audi S8 plus