Of all the cars which arrived in the BTCC in the Super Touring era, the Audi A4 Quattro was perhaps the most controversial and arguably one of the most successful of the lot. After seeing rival manufacturers Alfa Romeo and BMW achieve BTCC success in the early 1990s, Audi entered the BTCC in 1996 with Apex Motorsport. Known as Audi Sport UK, the team would storm to the BTCC title in their first season of competition with the A4 Quattro stirring up a barrage of controversy along the way. I’ve taken a look back at the Audi A4 Quattro’s time in the BTCC in this edition of BTCC History.
The Audi A4 is a car that can trace its roots back to 1994. The successor to the Audi 80, the A4 made its debut in October 1994 before going on sale for the first time a month later. Designed by Imre Hasanic and Jurgen Albamonte, the A4 was built on the Volkswagen Group B5 Platform and the first generation A4 which raced in the BTCC saw over 1.6 million cars built between 1994 and 2001.
Audi had tasted success with the Audi 80 Quattro in the German, French and Italian touring car championships in the early 90s helped by its advanced all-wheel-drive technology. When the 80 was replaced by the A4, Audi’s Quattro all-wheel-drive system was bought along with it and crucially for Audi, they were allowed to bring the technology into the BTCC.
Audi Sport UK was formed in 1996 with the aim of operating Audi’s factory BTCC team. David Ingram and Richard Lloyd formed the team, and John Wickham was bought in to manage it with the cars built out of Audi’s Ingolstadt headquarters, but the team run from its Buckinghamshire base.
1996 – Immediate Success
Audi’s arrival into the BTCC came at the height of the Super Touring era and the German manufacturer was one of eight fully-fledged factory teams participating in the 1996 season. The driver lineup was a mix of youth and experience with 1991 Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft champion Frank Biela joining BTCC rookie John Bintcliffe behind the wheel. Whilst Biela’s relationship with Audi had begun in 1991 and even included a year in the A4 Quattro in 1995, Bintcliffe’s racing experience included wins in the Renault Clio Cup and Ford Fiesta series in 1994 and 1995, the BTCC’s traditional feeder series’ in the 1990s. Crucially, whilst Biela had previous experience of racing with four-wheel-drive, Bintcliffe did not having come from a front-wheel-drive background.
Audi’s BTCC debut was a perfect one, even with the cars being 65kg heavier than their front wheel drive counterparts from the outset. Frank Biela won both races in the season opener at Donington Park and stormed into an early championship lead by winning twice again at Brands Hatch. Biela continued his early season success by winning at Thruxton and Silverstone as the Audi A4 won five of the first eight races of the year. Bintcliffe also finished on the podium at Thruxton and Silverstone but there was a clear opinion in the BTCC paddock among rival manufacturers that the quattro all-wheel-drive system gave Audi an inherent advantage. The extra traction meant the A4 excelled in wet conditions and the quattro system also gave the car exception balance and braking stability. The Audi A4 was also strong aerodynamically, which helped the car overcome the power deficit compared to its rivals. Whilst the Renault and Ford engines in 1996 were regularly putting out over 300bhp, the A4 never made more than about 290bhp.
Four rounds into the 1996 BTCC season, TOCA announced that the two Audi A4’s were be required to add an additional 30kg of weight to the car, bringing the new weight to 1070kg, 95kg heavier than the competition. However whilst the weight penalty had the effect of slowing down the A4s slightly, Biela still went on to finish second for the next three races at Oulton Park and the first race at Snetterton before being disqualified in race two.
Biela would win again at Knockhill, Oulton Park and Brands Hatch Indy in the season finale as he stormed to the 1996 drivers title beating nearest rival Alain Menu by 92 points. Bintcliffe picked up five podiums on his way to 7th in the standings and Audi and Audi Sport UK won both the manufacturers and teams crowns beating German rivals BMW Team Schnitzer.
1997 – More Penalties
Controversy followed Audi into 1997 as they remained with the A4 Quattro as their challenger of choice. Biela stayed to defend his title and Bintcliffe was also kept on as the look of the team remained the same heading into the start of the season. However, due to the success of the car the year before, even with the added weight, TOCA added even more ballast to the A4 ahead of the new season.
1997 is synonymous with Renault in the BTCC, but even as Alain Menu won the first four races of the season in the Williams Racing Laguna, Biela was up there on pace despite registering two DNFs. It wasn’t until race five of the 1997 season that Audi and Biela opened their win account for the year at Thruxton. By Oulton Park at the end of May, Audi had decided that the extra weight added for 1997 meant it was being unfairly penalised, and team manager John Wickman lobbied TOCA and race director Alan Gow for the extra 30kg ballast to be removed. Audi’s campaign to remove the extra ballast was successful, and the weight of the car was lowered to what it was at the end of 1996.
The change in weight of the A4 had an immediate effect, and the car won six races during the remainder of the season. Biela won at Donington Park, Thruxton, Knockhill and Brands Hatch, and Bintcliffe would score his only two BTCC race victories in Audi clean sweep weekends at Thruxton and Knockhill. The Audi A4 was back as the car to beat in the BTCC, but the strength of the Renault Laguna, particularly in the opening half of the season meant that Menu would beat Biela to the title. The defending champion finished the season in 2nd whilst Bintcliffle would again finish in 7th. Renault beat Audi to both the teams and constructors titles.
1998 – All Wheel Drive Outlawed
1998 was the Audi A4’s Quattro’s final season in the BTCC, and it’s least successful by some margin. Four-wheel-drive was banned by the BTCC, meaning Audi’s quattro system wasn’t allowed in the series as the Audi A4 changed to a front-wheel-drive car. Biela left the team to focus on Audi’s sportscar projects but in came 1995 French touring car champion Yvan Muller, who had spent the 1997 season racing and developing the front-wheel-drive Audi A4 in the German Super Tourenwagen Cup. The car had seen reasonable success in the hands of Muller, finishing 7th the standings in 1997. Bintcliffe remained with the team for a third straight season.
From the outset, it was clear that the Audi A4’s quattro advantage had hit the team hard, and the new front-wheel-drive A4 wasn’t able to keep pace with the series leading Volvos and Nissans. Roger King, Biela’s race engineer at Audi in the 1996 and 1997 seasons remarked that the A4 had so much weight over the front wheels that it would lift its rear tyres under braking, and Muller’s 2nd place finish at Knockhill late in the season would be the car’s best result. Muller went on to finish on the podium twice more at Oulton Park and Silverstone on his way to 7th in the standings. Bintcliffe had his toughest season in the BTCC, and would register a season-high finish of 7th at Snetterton on his way to 15th in the championship. Audi finished 6th in both the team’s and the manufacturer’s championship, their lowest placings in their three-year BTCC stay.
Departure From The BTCC
Audi and the Audi A4 left the BTCC at the end of the 1998 season as Audi focused its resources on sportscar racing. Muller would switch to Vauxhall and Bintcliffe left the series as a driver.
The Audi A4’s success in the 1996 season remains a story etched into BTCC folklore. The car is still, over 20 years later fondly remembered as one of the greatest cars of the super touring era. Audi’s short stay in the BTCC was one highlighted by success from a manufacturer standpoint as it secured the title in its first season, finished 2nd in 1997 before struggling to 6th in 1998. The A4 did continue to achieve touring car success in 1999 in Europe, as Christian Abt won the Super Tourenwagen Cup and future DTM champion Mattias Ekstrom won the Swedish Touring Car Championship. Whilst four-wheel-drive looks set to stay far away from the BTCC in the years to come, the memories of the Audi A4 Quattro’s success in 96 and 97 will still remain, and it fully deserves its place in BTCC history.