THE LE MANS SUPREMACY
Before the R18 and its predecessors, runaway success at Le Mans was synonymous with another German manufacturer…
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.