Where aesthetics and performance intersect.
An accomplished yachtsman, Audi’s Design Head, Marc Lichte, sees a great many similarities between boats and vehicles when it comes to design and aerodynamics.
Piotr Kożuch & Rouven Steinke
11 September, 2023
'I only sail fast boats, very fast boats. But my boats must always be extremely aesthetic'
For the past decade he has defined Audi’s design language, penning some of the most stunning vehicle’s in the brand’s modern era including the Audi e-tron GT which he considers the most beautiful car he has ever designed. But Marc Lichte is not a man who ever rests on past performance and is always looking for ways to improve and refine or even start from scratch when required and throw away the rule book in the pursuit of the perfect design.
When he is not designing vehicles for Audi, Lichte is a passionate yachtsman, a sport he has embraced since childhood, and the two apparently disparate activities have more similarities than you might realise.
From the shape of the boats that slip so elegantly through the water, to the vehicle shapes that efficiently cut through the wind there are lessons to be learned and design elements to be explored. So, the question is – Does Marc Lichte dedicate his life to aesthetics or to flow? “It’s not a question of either, or,” says the celebrated designer.
“I shall be happy when both come together in perfection. For me, sailing is always performance. I only sail fast boats, very fast boats. But my boats must always be extremely aesthetic, every single one of them. And this is also true for Audi. One of Audi’s core values is performance. And maximum aesthetics, of course.”
We caught up with Marc Lichte in an Audi Design Studio in Ingolstadt right before Kiel Week – one of the world's largest sailing events and one at which Lichte has enjoyed considerable success over the years. This year, he will sail his new yacht, a 10-metre ocean racer, at Kiel Week, and as always, his competitive nature will see him chasing success.
“Performance paired with maximum aesthetics,” says Lichte continues, “and performance also means: optimisation down to the last detail,” he emphasises to make it very clear that there is no room for compromise – of himself, aesthetics or performance.
This is a mindset that is very much ingrained in Lichte. Even at the age of eight, he painstakingly optimised the one-design racing boat that he had been assigned by his club, using putty to correct the edges at the stern, and painting it according to his ideas. He did the same with every boat he sailed after that:
“I optimise every boat down to the last detail. Always,” he says. Even customising the flagstaff at the stern of his new yacht. Usually made of fibreglass-reinforced plastic, aluminium or stainless steel and technically rather unimportant, Lichte replaced it with a new unit made of carbon and aerodynamically optimised – all for that fractional gain in performance.
“I’m all for a lightweight design of my yacht,” he says.“The yacht itself is white, but I keep all the superstructures black. Really all of them!” Lichte says of the aesthetics, paying attention to every single detail and devoting himself to it with complete dedication.
When it comes to the aesthetic performance of a car, Audi’s aerodynamicists came up with the idea of so-called 'air curtains’ at the sides of the car’s nose. These are air intakes that direct the air from the front into the wheel arches to optimise the flow.
“This input from the wind tunnel is an ingenious aerodynamic detail,” enthuses Lichte.
“We apply this to the formal design of all our electric vehicles. It’s a key feature that signals ‘this car is efficient’.”
Even at the age of eight, he painstakingly optimised the one-design racing boat that he had been assigned by his club
'If form and function – and function includes good aerodynamics – are in perfect harmony, it’s a good design'
At a very early stage in the development of a new vehicle, Audi designers will place different proportional models into the wind tunnel and the design with the best drag coefficient will go into series production. ‘Aerostaetics’ is what they call it amongst themselves – aesthetics that evolve from the wind tunnel.
Lichte, every bit the sailor, points out that the shape of a boat can, of course, also be optimised to enable the best possible flow, though using a different technique.
“We may use wind tunnels in vehicle development, but we use towing tanks in the development of performance boats.”
“The basis of good design is proportion. This is true both for a boat and for a car.”
The flatter the hull, according to Lichte, the more aesthetically pleasing the design of a boat. It should be extremely slim, with little volume in the forecastle and the focus should be placed on the widest point, with a defined, trailing edge at the stern of the boat.
“It should create a harmonious look. It’s not much different when we are looking at cars – a flat car is more efficient, more aerodynamic. Prominent lines create a beautiful shape. And the aerodynamic flow should remain on the sides and the roof for as long as possible – and finally break off in a maximally defined way.” Length determines speed – this is true both for the design of a boat and of a vehicle.
And his idea of the perfect design?
“Form follows function,” he says simply.
“If form and function – and function includes good aerodynamics – are in perfect harmony, it’s a good design. It’s what drives us all here at Audi.”
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