Audi’s relationship with World Rallying soured in the wake of the demise of Group B at the end of 1986, and while the firm did homologate and campaign a variant of the 200 for Group A in 1987, it was never more than a side-show. The factory was more concerned with events across the pond by that point and therefore redoubled its Pikes Peak efforts, battling with old sparring partner Peugeot for ‘king of the hill’ bragging rights.

Yet Ingolstadt felt that it had largely proved the worth of its Quattro concept by this point, certainly as far as off-road competition was concerned. It therefore switched focus, yet with one eye still fixed on the lucrative American market; Audi was going racing. 

200 Quattro Trans Am

The first evidence of Ingolstadt’s switch from gravel to tar came in 1988, when the team pitched up for the beginning of the Trans-Am series with a suitable unhinged, silhouette variant of the 200 Quattro. The car owed its origins to the Group B programme, which meant that it waded into battle with an almighty trump card, Torsen all-wheel drive. It made the massed ranks of Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets look positively agricultural. 

Its 2.1 turbocharged five-pot was also powerful and, thanks to repeated Group B batisms, reliable. 510bhp at 3BAR was the quoted output but of course there was always the prospect of plenty more as and when required. 

Audi’s drivers were also several cuts above their rivals, with the team boasting a veritable ‘who’s who’ of ‘80s road and rally motorsport pedigree. Walter Rohrl had been convinced of the worth of making the jump from stage to circuit, and he was joined by local man Hurley Haywood and sports and touring car legend, Hans Stuck. 

The result of all this rally expertise and budget was, not to put too fine a point on it, dramatic. Audi drivers won 8 of the 13 rounds, Haywood took the drivers’ crown and Audi the manufacturers’ title. All-wheel drive was outlawed at the end of the year and Audi, its point amply proved, switched focus to the IMSA series.

90 Quattro IMSA GTO

Audi picked up its toys, departed Trans-Am as champions and instead turned to IMSA, an even higher profile series and one with more challenging opposition. The recipe for success remained largely unchanged; Audi’s charge would again be led by an all-wheel drive, space-framed monster powered by a bellowing five-pot, but this time the road car the racer would pay the most cursory of nods to would be the 90.  

It really was only the briefest of nods, too; the roof panel was the only one carried over from the road car, with every other piece being both highly modified and rendered in lightweight composite material in order to save weight. The mammoth arches were home to wheels a comical 14in in width, while an extended spell in Audi’s wind tunnel had resulted in an aero-honed, be-winged monster. 

The engine itself had grown in size to 2.2L and now made a massive 700bhp thanks to a correspondingly huge KKK turbo, mated to Audi’s now standard all-wheel drive system. There was also a six-speed gearbox, but as IMSA rules stipulated only five-speeds were permitted the top one was blanked off. Again, it was enough to make Audi’s conventionally propelled opponents look both agricultural and, in time, utterly pedestrian in comparison. 

Another element carried over unchanged was the driver lineup, with Haywood once again acting as the foundation stone for Audi’s title push, with Stuck in the sister car. Both could call upon the talents of Rohrl and Scott Goodyear for endurance, long haul races.

Ah yes, endurance races – there were two of them on the 1988 calendar, the Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours, and together they represented a fearsome challenge for a company like Audi, one with no experience of endurance racing at all (needless to say, this wouldn’t remain the case for much longer).

Concerned about the long term reliability of its new car and keen not to lose face in front of one of the biggest and most significant car markets on earth, Audi baulked; the 90 would miss both Daytona and Sebring and the team would instead focus on ‘sprint’ races which made up the rest of the championship.

While saving the team’s blushes from a potential retirement made a good deal of sense from a PR and marketing perspective, it did nothing for the team’s championship chances. Said chances were dealt a further blow when both 90s retired from their first race of the year at Miami Beach, one through a crash and another due to a gearbox failure.

Things picked up in rather dramatic fashion thereafter and the Audi charge was soon at full throttle, Hans Stuck leading the way. The German won 7 times over the remainder of the season, comfortably more than any of his rivals, but his team’s decision to skip the 2 long distance tests cost him overall championship honours to Pete Halsmer and the Mercury Cougar XR7.

The breathtakingly dormant display put on by the 90 GTOs for the duration of the 1989 season meant that everyone – from Audi USA downwards – assumed that the title would be there’s the the following year, and it probably would’ve been had the company’s top brass back in Germany not had other ideas.

The wheels had already been set in motion by this point and nothing the fans, the authorities or even Audi USA could do could was enough to sway the men in Ingolstadt to reconsider; the 90 GTO’s 1989 season would be its one and only IMSA season. The factory was effectively taking its Quattro toys back home to contest the DTM series, which is a story for another day and a different article.

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