MILAN (Reuters) -- German carmaker Audi is in talks to buy Ducati for its lightweight engine know-how, its racetrack pedigree and the distinctive sound and styling of its motorcycles.
Two sources familiar with the matter said Audi, the premium arm of Europe's top carmaker Volkswagen, was in discussions with the private equity group that controls the Italian firm about a purchase.
A successful deal would extend Audi's long-standing rivalry with BMW to superbikes, and add expertise about high-revving light engines to VW's engineering portfolio, which ranges from cars through heavy trucks to ship engines.
For Audi, whose Ingolstadt headquarters has become a key research and development center for lightweight fuel saving technologies, Ducati's engine technology could add a new development dimension.
Audi is conducting due diligence and a decision about a purchase could come by mid April, one of the sources said.
Volkswagen, Audi and Ducati's main shareholder, Investindustrial, declined comment.
Ducati was founded in 1926, and over the past 60 years it scored 17 manufacturer's World Championship titles and most recently won the 2011 World Superbike Championship title.
On the streets, Ducati counts actors Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt among clients for its distinctive steel-framed machines with the loud, barking engines.
Ferdinand Piech, Volkswagen's current chairman and grandson of VW Beetle creator Ferdinand Porsche, is himself a Ducati owner.
'I like everything red'
Last month, Investindustrial said it was looking for a "world class industrial partner" for Ducati, to help fund overseas expansion.
The Financial Times cited Investindustrial's chairman Andrea Bonomi saying it was looking to sell, and in a report on Tuesday it put the price at about 850 million euros ($1.1 billion) of which 800 million would be acquired debt. Last year a stock market listing for the business was scuttled, according to the paper.
Investindustrial is still in talks with other potential investors, including sovereign wealth funds, a person familiar with the matter said. Potential industrial partners include India's Hero MotoCorp.
A formal auction process is not underway, another person familiar with the matter said.
At his annual earnings conference on Monday, VW chief executive Martin Winterkorn dropped a hint that Europe's largest auto maker may be on the lookout to snap up the Bologna-based maker of the "Ducati Monster" bike.
"I like everything that's red," Winterkorn said when asked about Ducati -- a reference to the fire-engine red fuel tanks which have become a hallmark for Ducati bikes.
Ducati would join carmakers Lamborghini, Skoda, Seat, Bentley, Audi and Bugatti, and truck makers MAN and Scania in the VW stable.
VW's Piech has long coveted the Italian company and on repeated occasions lamented missing an opportunity to buy the motorbike maker after it fell on hard times.
In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in June 2008, Piech said VW could learn from Ducati's approach to building lightweight engines.
"A 1 liter engine can produce 200 horsepower," Piech told the paper. "Small engines are also lower from the point of view of fuel consumption. We can learn something here."
Tapping motorcycle expertise is not unprecedented for automakers.
BMW bought Husqvarna Motorcycles in 2007, and built a research and development centre in Cassinetta di Biandronno, 300 kilometers north of Bologna, where Ducati is based.
BMW, which makes the Ducati rival S 1000 RR superbike, on Tuesday forecast it would reach its long-term sales target for cars four years earlier than planned, presenting Audi with a bigger challenge to clinch the crown of becoming the biggest selling premium auto maker.
India's Hero MotoCorp., is on a global hunt for technology partnerships and acquisitions to bolster its models before a agreement allowing the company to use Honda Motor Co's technology runs out in 2014.
"Hero is in talks with many companies. Ducati is one of them," a spokeswoman for Hero MotoCorp told Reuters, declining to comment on whether the Indian automaker was interested in a bid for Ducati.