What, you might ask, is it like to enjoy cigars and brandy on a warm, summer night in Le Mans, France — a nightcap with a man accused of crimes that could land him in jail for five years. The offences? Fraud and false advertising.

The accused is Bavarian Rupert Stadler. Before I tell you about France, a little about the man and his alleged criminality.

Stadler (right) with former boss and Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn, who is expected to go on trial next year for crimes similar to those for which Stadler is now on trial.

Stadler is the one-time wunderkind of the Volkswagen Group. His arrest in June 2018 turned his charmed life upside down and ended a 28-year career at VW and Audi and Lamborghini. Stadler led Audi through years of a product renaissance, spectacular sales growth and rich profits that were the envy of his peers.

He was once among the most important auto executives in the world and well on his way to the Automotive Hall of Fame. He seemed to lead a charmed life and was a study of corporate achievement. Within seven years of joining Audi in 1990, he was running the Office of the Board of Management of the entire VW Group. That role would have put him inside all the most important decisions at a global automotive colossus that today ranks as the world’s largest car company by sales.

Five years later, in 2002, he was Head of Group Product Planning and in 2010 he was named permanent Chairman and CEO of Audi, though he had run the brand on an interim basis for some time and had been its finance chief for years.

While he also served on other corporate boards and the Management Board of VW Group, perhaps the most glamorous role he enjoyed was as Vice-chairman of the storied Bayern FC football club. Both Audi and BMW are headquartered in Bavaria and make cars that are valued and admired. But football – Bayern football – is something of a religion for the locals and millions around the world.

Stadler was the boss when Audi launched the brilliant R8 super car in 2006. I’d argue the R8 was the trigger than launched Audi into the elite sphere of global premium automakers. Before the R8, Audi had struggled to make the transition from the novelty of being the “quattro” car brand to serious challenger to crosstown rival BMW, as well as Mercedes-Benz to the north. Stadler had become something of a Bavarian prince.

The 2011 Le Man winner, an R18 wearing Number 2.

I found him charming, well-spoken and nicely mannered. His English, impeccable. In 2011, as we sat on the steps of the Audi Hotel at the 24 Hours of Lemans, sipping brandy, puffing on Havanas as the sounds of race cars split the night, I never could have imagined that less than a decade later, Stadler would be in a disgraced former corporate titan languishing in a jail cell awaiting trial.

Under his watch, the German prosecution asserts, Audi, Porsche and Volkswagen continued to sell diesel cars with illegal software. Authorities had uncovered cheating software that allowed Audi’s cars to meet air-quality standards during testing, only to pump noxious diesel into the atmosphere during real-world driving.

Some suggest Stadler is a fall guy for a broader corporate scandal that has cost VW tens of billions in fines and settlements. Still, some wonder if the prosecutors will be able to get a rare conviction of a top corporate officer insulated by, as The New York Times notes, “layers of underlings.”

If convicted, Stadler would be among the very few white collar criminals to serve real time behind bars.

If Stadler does real time, it will he will be an outlier among white collar criminals who rarely see the inside of a jail cell even if convicted. It’s not unusual for large corporations to be fined for wrongdoing, but as the world saw in the wake of the last global financial crisis, the white collar criminals can rob millions of billions, they can be at the centre of widespread criminality, yet the bosses almost never end up behind bars.

It appears German prosecutors, closely watched by peers around the world, aim to make an example of Stadler. Leading up to the trial which started in late September, prosecutors labeled the 57-year-old Stadler a flight risk or worse, reports The Times. Thus, he spent the months leading up to the start of the trial in September in pre-trial detention. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.

During his long run atop Audi, I interviewed Stadler numerous times and chatted with him from time to time even more often. On that June night at the Audi Hotel I was sitting on the steps enjoying a lovely, clear evening when his chauffeured sedan pulled up.

The Audi Hotel at Le Mans was the temporary lodging for Audi guests and corporate types attending the 24-hour race. For years, Audi converted a trackside warehouse into a warren of temporary, makeshift rooms complete with bathrobes and slippers and a spa-like communal shower and washrooms.

The R8, the most important car in Audi history.

The Hotel was something of a magical oasis of luxury and calm in the midst of a storm of racing that raged just metres away. Year after year, Audi won Le Mans, often taking the top three places as it introduced new technological advancements, including hybrid technology.

The Audi triumphs were a proof point of the company’s self-avowed brilliance. A room at the Audi Hotel guaranteed you a place at the centre of a tremendous celebration of Audi, by Audi, for Audi. The luxurious setting was matched only by Audi’s hubris.

The peak for all this, arguably, arrived in 2012, when Audi’s R18 Ultra won Le Mans, along with the R18 E-Tron Quattro. The former was a spectacular Le Mans race car powered by a 3.7-litre turbocharged V-6 diesel engine and comprised of an innovative single-piece chassis; the latter was Audi’s first race car powered by hybrid technology. A dual triumph.

A year before, I was there at Le Mans when Stadler returned from a sumptuous dinner that night in June and he was in a celebratory mood, warmed, I thought, by very expensive wines and his company’s success. He paused to say hello and good evening.

“A cigar?” he asked.

“Yes, of course,” I replied.

The Audi Hotel at Le Mans: temporary home to 1,000 VIP guests and others.

He then looked to one of his minions, waving a hand.

“Cigars and brandy,” said Stadler, motioning inside, to the hotel’s well-stocked bar.

“Yes, sir,” bowed the staffer, rushing away.

Then Stadler turned to me.

“Another win tomorrow?” I asked

“Perhaps,” he said. “But it’s racing. Anything can happen.”

The staffer, nervous and sweaty, returned with snifters and cigars. Our nightcap.

“You might recall,” I said, “our last meeting. It was in the autumn. You roared up to me and my Car/Business co-host, Michael Vaughan – he of the funny hat and round glasses — in front of the Audi Museum and delivery centre. It was in Ingolstadt. I think you drove up in a racy S4.”

“Yes, yes,” said Stadler, though I doubt he actually remembered me and Vaughan.

Stadler at the launch of the Audi TT in Geneva.

Stadler had jumped out of the car, marched over to us, shaking our hands as if we were fast friends. Then we proceeded to our television interview, the museum as backdrop.

“Jeremy, Michael! So good to see you,” Stadler said that night. “Welcome to Germany.” If you’d seen it, you would have thought we’d gone to school together.

The truth: he had been thoroughly briefed by his PR team. The former product planner with the manners of a diplomat and the sharp mind of a millionaire car executive with a knack for numbers, would not have known us from the Mayor of Mississauga, but he had our names down pat.

We grilled him, as we always did with the executives we had on Car/Business. No softball questions. This wasn’t the CBC. We wanted to know why and how Audi charged premium prices for dressed up Volkswagens. He told us we were mistaken, of course. He assured us Audis were so much more than mere Volkswagens.

Stadler, as the prosecution is arguing in the trial, was central to a conspiracy and coverup – the Dieselgate scandal. As The Times reports, “Stadler and three co-defendants, including Wolfgang Hatz, a former head of engine development at Audi, will be the first of dozens of former employees of Volkswagen to face trial in Germany in connection with the scandal.”

I don’t know if Stadler is guilty, but I will be eyeing his testimony carefully because I have been witness to his skill and charm with an interrogator. Still, his story is tragic and because I’ve known him a little, I find it all a little sad. The former corporate titan, locked up for months, now refers to himself as a “freelance consultant.”

It’s been a hard fall from the heights of Le Mans, so to speak.




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