MOTORSPORT MOMENT Recounting Audi’s 1999 Le Mans campaign
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)