Volkswagen Group: Why the Audi chief developer really has to go

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Why the Audi chief developer really has to go

Volkswagen Group: Why the Audi chief developer really has to go-chief

VW Board Member for Development Ulrich Hackenberg (left) will replace his colleague Wolfgang Durheimer at Audi on July 1. Durheimer remains Group Representative for Motorsport, Hackenberg will also coordinate group-wide car development

Source: Volkswagen AG / pa / Sven Simon

Audi‘s triumph at the 24 Hours of Le Mans is not only overshadowed by a fatal accident. The dismissal of the development board also distracts from the victory. The company’s parent company VW is to blame.

W.olfgang Durheimer is a good engineer, he is not a good actor. Audi’s chief development officer affably approached employees on Wednesday last week and asked whether they had everything under control for Le Mans. He was looking forward to the 24-hour race, after all, he is also authorized representative for motorsport, and Audi is a series winner on the legendary track. Durheimer probably had no idea what would happen the next day.

Thursday was his 55th birthday, and then, of all times, what Volkswagen confirmed on Friday, one day before the start of the race, leaked out: Wolfgang Durheimer will lose his position on the Board of Management on July 1; Ulrich Hackenberg, who has been the brand’s development director to date, will take over VW.

Durheimer remains responsible for motorsport, he should take on a leading position again in the future, but of course that is a defeat. After VW, Audi is the most important brand in the group, and the position of Chief Development Officer is the best job you can get in the automotive industry after that of CEO. Whatever Durheimer does next: he is not about to climb.

Only nine months in office

The whole thing would be nothing more than a high-ranking personality if Durheimer’s term of office hadn’t been so short: he had only started work at Audi on September 1, 2012, before he was head of the luxury brands Bentley and Bugatti, and before that he was Head of Development at Porsche. The leadership around CEO Martin Winterkorn (66), supervisory board chairman Ferdinand Piëch (76) and Audi boss Rupert Stadler (50) did not call a lightweight to Ingolstadt.

Today only the attributes “excellent” and “very good” are used when top managers in the Durheimer concern describe Durheimer’s work as an engineer. Perhaps Durheimer would still be in office if it weren’t for this one over-engineer at Volkswagen AG: Ulrich Hackenberg (63). "He is the second man in the group and undisputed," says Stefan Bratzel, professor for the automotive industry at the Bergisch Gladbach University of Applied Sciences. "He also knows Audi inside and out."

Because Hackenberg was also head of development at Audi from 2002 to 2007. He then followed his CEO Martin Winterkorn, who moved from Audi to the top of the group, to Wolfsburg. Since then, Hackenberg has been responsible for developing the VW brand.

But at the same time he is considered the secret development director of the entire group, even if Martin Winterkorn officially bears this title and does more than some engineer would like. But Hackenberg turns the strategies of Winterkorn and Piëch into reality. It was Hackenberg who created the so-called modular longitudinal construction kit (MLB) for Audi, a technical platform on which different models can be built flexibly and at comparatively low costs.

A construction kit is Hackenberg’s power base

While the MLB is only suitable for cars with longitudinally installed engines, i.e. for the larger Audi types from the A4 upwards, the modular transverse matrix (MQB), which Hackenberg also implemented after five years of planning, is the blueprint for a disproportionately larger number of small ones and compact models.

So if the MLB was an Audi project by the Audi chief developer, the even more flexible MQB is a corporate project from VW. Not just the VW Golf and many other models from the Polo to the Passat will be based on this construction kit in the future, including corresponding cars from Skoda, Seat and of course Audi – the current A3 is the first example. There are currently four MQB models on the market (A3, Golf, Seat Leon, Skoda Octavia), with 40 to 50 more to follow.

Hackenberg has the strength to give the other developers specifications – the MQB is not only a technical platform, but also a power base. In any case, those who want changes to the MQB for their brand have to go to Wolfsburg and often get a negative answer. The MQB must not be watered down; it is a prerequisite for Volkswagen to become the world’s largest automaker by 2018, as planned.

Hackenberg’s exceptional position is also documented by a new position description: Although he is switching from the main brand VW to the subsidiary Audi, which is nominally a step back, at the same time he becomes "Head of the cross-brand development management of the Volkswagen Group".

Officially, age is not an issue

In view of his skills and career, Ulrich Hackenberg would be the ideal successor for CEO Winterkorn, whose contract runs until the end of 2016. But then Hackenberg will be 66 years old; it is more likely to look for candidates among today’s 50-year-olds.

Rupert Stadler is one of them, who used to be Piëch’s office manager, and Durheimer has already been given the top job – probably too prematurely. Hackenberg’s successor to the post of VW head of development, Heinz-Jakob Neuber, should also automatically move into the center of interest. He has had a steep career at Porsche and VW, most recently as head of engine development in the group. Neusser was responsible for everything that drives cars across the group, including the future issue of consumption. And he’s 53 years old.

However, the topic of age is officially not an issue at Volkswagen. "I have the feeling that old hands in industry can work up to 65 or 67," says Stadler of Hackenberg. "He’s got a five-year contract, and he’s going to fulfill that."

Over the next two or three years, the new Chief Development Officer will not only be responsible for integrating the MQB into Audi‘s design and production, but will also have to manage the expansion of the range of models. Up to five new SUV models are coming onto the market, the Q2, Q4, Q6, Q8 and even a Q9 (as a luxury model for Asia that is well over five meters long).

Double-digit billion investments

In addition, the successor to the Q7 is currently in development. The A4 mid-range car is about to go on sale, and someone has to start thinking about upgrading the A6 and A8 business and luxury sedans. From the top of the group it is said that Audi will be investing two-digit billions in the next few years.

The brand slogan “Vorsprung durch Technik” should also be brought back to life after the competition no longer freezes in awe when an Audi quattro with a TDI engine and aluminum body drives up. Good all-wheel drives, interesting diesel engines and lightweight construction strategies can also be found elsewhere. “You have to give this slogan substance again with a symbolic innovation,” says Observer Bratzel. BMW is currently setting stronger signals.

BMW in general. Audi boss Stadler had already planned for 2015 to overtake the market leader among premium manufacturers; this goal has now been postponed to “2020 at the latest”. Durheimer should actually step on the gas again after his predecessor Michael Dick was blamed for sluggish development and was retired.

Apparently, Piëch and Winterkorn are now most likely to trust Hackenberg to deal with the increase in complexity and diversity (from currently 44 to soon 60 models) and to withstand the resulting pressure. According to Bratzel, Durheimer also had to struggle with atmospheric problems. “He did address the issues, but there was great dissatisfaction in terms of chemistry. I think very highly of Durheimer, but he didn’t manage to get his team behind him. "

Unrest in the racing engine department

With the decision not to bring the electrically powered R8 e-tron sports car onto the market, Durheimer also disappointed a very motivated development team. It is true that stopping such a project is not the responsibility of the development board alone, and Rupert Stadler also publicly supports it by questioning the sales opportunities of the Mercedes SLS AMG electric drive: “What the core competitor from Stuttgart presents will not be enough.” But Durheimer is the one who defended the end of the R8 e-tron most aggressively, internally and externally.

He is also said to have alienated the racing engine department, which is so important for the success at Le Mans, by announcing that it would be relocated from Neckarsulm in Baden-Wurttemberg to Neuburg in Bavaria. This decision is now off the table, Audi’s racing engine boss Ulrich Baretzky announced a few hours before the start of the race at Le Mans that the department would remain in Neckarsulm. The way his eyes shone it showed that he’s not a good actor either.

"world"-Reporter Stefan Anker regularly tweets spontaneous car news and observations from everyday driving and testing and is pleased if you are here click and follow him. Or check out his Facebook page past.

The trip to the 24 Hours of Le Mans was supported by Audi. You can find our standards of transparency and journalistic independence at www.axelspringer.de/unabhaengigkeit

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