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Audi eyes Ducati

Diavel in the detail: Audi is reportedly planning to buy Italian motorcycle brand Ducati, which has ties with Mercedes-AMG.

Mercedes-AMG to cut Ducati ties if Audi buys Italian bike brand

Audi logo14 Mar 2012

By MARTON PETTENDY

MERCEDES-BENZ says it will continue to collaborate with Ducati until the red-blooded Italian motorcycle brand is sold to Audi, or any other potential purchaser.

Volkswagen’s luxury brand – which released 12 new models, increased sales 19 per cent to a record 1.3 million and posted a 69 per cent after-tax profit last year, making it one of the most profitable companies in the industry – has apparently taken the first step in buying the sportsbike maker.

Audi has reportedly signed an agreement that gives it the first right to buy out Ducati until mid-April. If the premium German auto brand closes a deal to purchase the luxury Italian motorcycle brand, it would extend Audi’s rivalry with BMW not only into the motorcycle market but into world superbike racing.

A number of car-makers - including Mini, Smart, Renault and Nissan – have recently delved into producing scooters or other two-wheelers, as part of an effort to attract buyers to their brand at a younger age, and to offer a low-emissions two-wheeled solution to its existing customers in traffic-choked mega-cities of developing nations.

Apart from joining Honda, Suzuki and BMW (whose Motorrad division has produced motorcycles since the 1920s) as a volume manufacturer of both two- and four-wheeled vehicles, the move would see Europe’s largest auto-maker acquire its 11th automotive brand alongside industrial luminaries VW cars and commercials, Audi, Seat, Skoda, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini and truck companies Scania and MAN.

 center imageLeft: Audi CEO Dr Martin Winterkorn.

The Volkswagen Group is yet to formally merge with its major share-holder, Porsche SE, but is close to purchasing the remaining 50.1 percent stake in Porsche’s auto-making business, which it already controls.

VW remains tight-lipped on the possibility of an Audi-Ducati deal, which was first reported by the UK’s CAR magazine on Monday, with CEO Dr Martin Winterkorn refusing to confirm or deny the rumour during a press conference to announce the company’s 2011 financial results in Germany later that day.

However, when asked this week if VW was interested in Ducati, current chairman and grandson of VW Beetle creator Ferdinand Porsche, Ferdinand Piech said: “I like everything that’s red”.

VW chiefs have long been keen to add a prestigious motorcycle brand to their group’s portfolio. Mr Piech, a current Ducati owner, abandoned a plan to acquire Germany’s reborn Horex brand, which made single- and twin-cylinder bikes between 1936 and 1956, because it lacked brand recognition, and said he regretted not buying Ducati when the Bologna-based company was on the brink of bankruptcy in 2008.

The same year in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, he said VW could learn from Ducati's approach to building lightweight engines.

“A one-litre engine can produce 200 horsepower. Small engines are also lower from the point of view of fuel consumption. We can learn something here.”

Last month Ducati’s major shareholder, Investindustrial, said it was looking for a “world-class industrial partner” to help fund Ducati’s overseas expansion and The Financial Times this week cited InvestIndustrial chairman Andrea Bonomi, who has said he views Ducati as “the two-wheeled equal of Audi”, as saying it was looking to sell.

The report said InvestIndustrial’s asking price for Ducati, which makes about 35,000 bikes a year, was about €850 million ($A1.05 billion), of which about €800 million ($A993m) would be acquired debt.

InvestIndustrial is believed to be in talks with other potential investors, including sovereign wealth funds, and Indian giants Mahindra & Mahindra and Hero MotoCorp are also reportedly interested in Ducati.

BMW, which bought Husqvarna Motorcycles in 2007 before building an R&D centre 300km north of Ducati’s base in Bologna, said last month it was not interested in Ducati.

According to Reuters, Audi – whose exclusivity deal appears to make it the front-runner – is currently conducting due diligence and a purchase decision is due by mid-April.

While an Audi-Ducati tie-up would see the financially troubled bike-maker receive a vital cash injection and access to new technology, VW would receive small-engine know-how from Ducati and, according to some reports, the ability to launch a new range of urban commuter vehicles under the historic NSU badge, which Audi owns.

However, arch-rival to both Audi and BMW, Mercedes-Benz, says the existing marketing arrangement between Ducati and its AMG performance brand – the most tangible evidence of which is the limited-edition Diavel AMG super-cruiser – will continue until Ducati is sold.

“We have an agreement (with Ducati) and until such time that any purchase of Ducati is confirmed, either by Audi or anyone else, we will continue this agreement along the lines we have set out,” a Mercedes spokesman told British journal Autocar.

Brokered in 2010, the AMG-Ducati deal was viewed by many in the industry as the first step in a Daimler takeover of the famous bike brand, which has an enviable history on both the road and racetrack.

Founded in 1926, Ducati has won 17 manufacturer’s world championships over the past 60 years and last year won the World Superbike Championship. Its most dominant victories came at the hands of Australian riders Casey Stoner and Troy Bayliss, who won the MotoGP and WSC titles respectively in recent years.

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