MO­TOR­SPORT MO­MENT Re­count­ing Audi’s 1999 Le Mans cam­paign

Evo India - - CONTENTS -

Although Audi wouldn’t get its first taste of Le Mans glory for an­other 12 months, 1999 proved a sem­i­nal year for the firm in mo­tor­sport

IT’S THE LE MANS 24 HOURS RACE, 1999, and four Audi pro­to­types line up to take the start, a new era in mo­tor­sport for the Ger­man man­u­fac­turer. What no one could have known then was that this was also the dawn of an ex­tra­or­di­nary new chap­ter in the his­tory of Le Mans, and the wider mo­tor­sport world, and would lead to Audi chal­leng­ing Porsche’s tow­er­ing record of out­right wins at la Sarthe, as well as bring­ing new lev­els of pro­fes­sion­al­ism and in­vest­ment to sportscar rac­ing. But just why had Audi en­tered two dif­fer­ent cars from two dif­fer­ent teams?

To un­der­stand this strat­egy is to have a grasp on not just the rules of the time, but also the per­son writ­ing the cheques. The re­cently de­parted Fer­di­nand Piëch was a man with an un­shake­able self-be­lief: right from the mid-1960s he had pos­sessed a burn­ing de­sire to win Le Mans (for the fam­ily firm, Porsche). He was ob­sessed with top speed on the fa­mous, long, Mul­sanne Straight, and be­lieved the way to achieve this was by cut­ting aero­dy­namic drag. In turn, the in­cred­i­ble se­ries of pro­to­types he over­saw in the small, close-knit Porsche fac­tory team – 906, 907, 908, 917 – were all slip­pery, low-drag shapes, with min­i­mal cool­ing and ven­ti­la­tion aper­tures in their ‘Langheck’ (long tail) form. They were ner­vous, un­sta­ble and, in the case of the early 917, trag­i­cally also lethal.

Fast for­ward to 1998, and things weren’t go­ing well with the new Audi LMP project. In­gol­stadt had com­mis­sioned Ital­ian mo­tor­sport spe­cial­ist Dal­lara to de­sign a tub, and tasked the Rein­hold Joest team to run the car, but there were prob­lems. The so­lu­tion came in the form of Tony South­gate, one of the UK’s pre-em­i­nent race car de­sign­ers, who found him­self at a loose end af­ter the re­cent fold­ing of TWR, where he’d penned the vic­to­ri­ous Group C Jaguars that, iron­i­cally, had fi­nally beaten old ri­val Porsche.

‘Word got around I was with­out work,’ says South­gate, ‘and one day I got a call from Dal­lara [Gian Paolo]. He said he was mak­ing a tub for Audi but the project was a mess – would I be in­ter­ested? The car was ba­si­cally way off the pace. The aero was poor, it was very heavy. Ideally we would have started afresh. How­ever, they did have a good en­gine, and af­ter lots of aero test­ing and many changes, it was bet­ter.’

Af­ter the demise of the GT1 ma­chines, in 1999 there were two classes at the top of the field: LMP and LMP GTP. The for­mer was for open cars, but the lat­ter al­lowed cars from the for­mer GT1 class, such as the Toy­ota GT-One, to con­tinue rac­ing. The GTP cars fea­tured a more re­laxed air re­stric­tor, so made more power, as well as in­trin­si­cally of­fer­ing less drag, but the max­i­mum width of the rear tyres was 50mm nar­rower than on the LMP ma­chines and the fuel tank smaller. It was a com­pro­mise meant to equalise the field.

‘Piëch sud­denly said: “I’m not con­vinced. What we want is one of each!”’ re­calls

South­gate. He couldn’t be­lieve a road­ster would win Le Mans. So Rac­ing Technology Nor­folk (RTN) started work on a coupe ver­sion of the new chal­lenger, with the en­gine, trans­mis­sion and up­rights shared with the road­ster. Sadly, time was against the project. The R8R (road­ster) had fin­ished third at Se­bring in March, but South­gate feels rush­ing meant the R8C (coupe) nei­ther pro­duced enough down­force nor had enough test­ing be­fore the race in June. In­trigu­ingly, the R8Rs also fea­tured a novel new pneu­matic op­er­a­tion of their se­quen­tial gear­boxes, which the R8Cs didn’t have…

Af­ter a tough week­end of at­tri­tion, which saw the Mercedes cars flip­ping on the straight, Toy­otas in the wall and the lone sur­viv­ing BMW LMR take the win, the Audi R8Rs came home third and fourth, but both R8Cs re­tired with gear­box/dif­fer­en­tial is­sues af­ter be­ing plagued by them in the race. ‘As they crossed the line, I said, “That’s a bloody good re­sult for a first time at Le Mans,”’ re­flects South­gate of the R8Cs, ‘and a di­rec­tor said sternly, “That’s the min­i­mum we ex­pect.”

The legacy? South­gate stayed to de­velop the new R8 (no suf­fix let­ter). A heav­ily de­vel­oped R8R, with a new nose and a sin­gle­hoop rollover bar, which scored a dom­i­nant 1-23 the fol­low­ing year and went on to win four of the next five races at Le Mans (and an aw­ful lot more be­sides). The ex­cep­tion was 2003, when a Bent­ley won. It was de­vel­oped by RTN and bore a strik­ing re­sem­blance to the R8C…

Audi in­tro­duced diesel power in 2006 with the fear­some R10 road­ster, be­fore achiev­ing yet more suc­cess with the R15 and R18, fi­nally pulling out at the end of 2016 af­ter an in­cred­i­ble 12 Le Mans vic­to­ries. Its dom­i­nance dur­ing what was a tough 15 years for the sport ei­ther kept it afloat or made it drea­rily pre­dictable, depend­ing on your viewpoint, but it en­abled sparkling ca­reers for driv­ers such as Al­lan McNish and An­dré Lot­terer to name just two, and turned Tom Kris­tensen into a nine-time Le Mans win­ner. It also proved that, oc­ca­sion­ally, even Fer­di­nand Piëch could get things wrong.

Right: The 13 Audis that took the che­quered flag at Le Mans be­tween 2000 and 2014, in­clud­ing the 2005 ADT Cham­pion Rac­ing R8 (back row, sec­ond from right)

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