Be­fore the R18 and its pre­de­ces­sors, run­away suc­cess at Le Mans was syn­ony­mous with an­other Ger­man man­u­fac­turer…

CAR (UK) - - Car Interactive - Words Ben Miller | Pho­tog­ra­phy Wil­son Hen­nesey

ON AN AIR­PORT car park shut­tle bus in June, hours af­ter the end of the 85th run­ning of the Le Mans 24 Hours, I got talk­ing to a chap with an AMG-branded bag. He hadn’t been at the race and he didn’t know the re­sult. ‘Audi win it, did they?’ he asked, al­most rhetor­i­cally. They didn’t, of course. Not this time. But only be­cause they weren’t there, hav­ing pulled out of top-flight en­durance rac­ing at the end of last sea­son. But it speaks vol­umes about the to­tal­ity of Audi’s re­cent dom­i­nance that it, and not Porsche, is now syn­ony­mous with victory at Le Mans.

Thir­teen wins from 17 starts. Four gen­er­a­tions of in­no­va­tive rac­ers stretch­ing back to the R8 that tri­umphed in 2000. First diesel Le Mans win­ner. First hy­brid-elec­tric win­ner. And the kind of re­lent­less ded­i­ca­tion to suc­cess that few mo­tor­sport pro­grammes have sus­tained with such in­ten­sity for so long.

Over time Audi Sport end­lessly evolved both the rule­book and its cars, lever­ag­ing its sta­tus to main­tain what it saw as a cru­cial link be­tween its vast mo­tor­sport spend and the de­vel­op­ment and pro­mo­tion of road-rel­e­vant tech­nol­ogy; per­for­mance diesels, nigh­tas-day head­lights, and hy­brid sys­tems. Its rac­ers shifted shape and sound, from open cock­pits and petrol power (3.6-litre twin-turbo V8) through the diesel R10 and R15 TDIs (5.5-litre V12 and V10, four Le Mans wins) to the closed-cock­pit, diesel/ elec­tric hy­brid R18s.


The car you see here is a 2013 R18, the num­ber 2 e-tron qu­at­tro that won in the hands of Tom Kris­tensen, Al­lan McNish and Loïc Du­val, a full lap ahead of the Toy­ota in sec­ond. ‘That R18 was ex­treme, with wide tyres, a small cock­pit and very dif­fi­cult vis­i­bil­ity,’ re­calls Kris­tensen. ‘We worked hard to op­ti­mise the hy­brid sys­tem, lift­ing and coast­ing to get an­other lap from each tank of fuel. In cor­ners you wanted the hy­brid power to come in early, for the best exit speed, but not so early you that you up­set the car with un­der­steer. The 2014 car was eas­ier to drive.’

In the flesh the R18 is tiny, like an 80% scale model. Just get­ting in, let alone get­ting com­fort­able, looks un­likely for any­one who’s ever eaten a burger. Cosily lodged along­side the driver’s seat is the 500kJ fly­wheel stor­age sys­tem, part of the pow­er­train’s en­ergy re­cov­ery sys­tem. Neat lit­tle elas­tic fas­ten­ers hold the race har­ness belts out of the way for fast driver changes. The roof wears a NASA-ex­pen­sive heatre­sis­tant fin­ish. The fins and curves of the car’s com­pos­ite body are as con­spic­u­ously soft­ware-sculpted as any F1 car’s.

Audi’s eye-wa­ter­ing rac­ing war chest and its stead­fast re­fusal to coast dur­ing its re­mark­able reign meant that, de­spite win­ning the race in 2013 with this it­er­a­tion of the R18, the car was com­pletely re­designed for 2014 – only the name re­mained the same. In came a clean-sheet mono­coque and an all-new tur­bod­iesel V6, the lat­ter work­ing with a sim­pli­fied en­ergy re­cov­ery sys­tem.

Was it any good? Nat­u­rally. Did it win? Of course.

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