IAIN ROBERTSON 

Audi at Le Mans

Audi at Le Mans

The pandemic has upset the plans of many companies and events, not the least in the field of motorsport, which Iain Robertson suggests has been decimated by a variety of extenuating circumstances, including money and cancelled dates.

The rampant nature of the Chinese disease has wrought untold problems for event organisers, racing teams, commercial sponsors and the fans. Two of the most popular and historic events cancelled include the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix, which is worth millions of Euros annually to the Principality, as it usually expands its resident population by a factor of at least six. The other is Le Mans, the 24-Hours sportscar endurance race held in central France. Both are important to British motor racing fans that have kept them buoyant for many years.

However, Le Mans has proved to be an Audi staple since 1999, when the German company debuted its prototype R8R open cockpit racing car. The two cars finished in 3rd and 4th places most auspiciously, raising enthusiasm levels for the team. In fact, entering its all-new R8 model for the year 2000, little did Audi realise that it would dominate both the French race, winning it five times, and the US Series until 2006 (no less than seven consecutive championship victories), making the sportscar one of the most successful in the category’s history.

Audi at Le Mans

Audi at Le Mans

Then, the company turned the championship on its head in 2006, with the phenomenal V12 engined R10 TDi. Diesel powered, it was the first of its type to win at Le Mans, its 5.5-litre bi-turbo engine developing a remarkable 650bhp. However, it also managed exceptional fuel economy for a racing car, which meant that it did not have to pit for refuelling as frequently as its rivals. Audi lifted the overall honours for the next three years.

In 2009, a radically revised R15 TDi, featuring a lighter V10 diesel engine, was launched and took its maiden victory at Sebring. It was not so lucky at Le Mans, where Peugeot, also running in the diesel category, claimed the outright honours. Suitably chastened, Audi revised its R15 and set about hunting down the significantly faster French opposition, in 2010, to take the top three podium positions in France.

However, the days of big engines were halted at Le Mans and the R18 powered by a 3.7-litre V6 engine working in combination with a pair of electric motors that delivered drive to the front axle under certain circumstances, meant that Audi could pursue a new lightweight formula that also extolled the virtues of partial electrification, as well as ‘quattro’ 4×4 technology. The wins continued to pile up, all the way to the 2016 season and Audi’s final year in the endurance racing scene. For 2017, Audi turned its manufacturer focus to the Formula E single-seater racing series, winning the first championship outright.

Audi at Le Mans Tom Kristensen

Tom Kristensen

Although several seasoned drivers formed part of the Audi equipe, including Scot Alan McNish and Frenchman Loic Duval, the team’s most feted driver was Dane Tom Kristensen, who won an outstanding nine times at Le Mans. Always approachable, he recalled how his history with Audi commenced: “I was invited by Doctor Wolfgang Ullrich, then Audi Head of Motorsport, to a meeting at Ingolstadt in autumn 1999. He introduced me to some of the Audi Sport engineers and mechanics, and showed me a drawing of the R8 race car.  On the spot, I said I would like to be part of the team. We shook hands, and that was the best decision I ever made in racing.”

Tom tested the car before the 12 Hours of Sebring (in the US) in March 2000. It was an interim car between the older R8R that Audi had raced in 1999 and the new R8. The front end was still the old car, while the rear was from the R8, but Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Tom won at Sebring in it. Reflecting on that season, Tom remembered: “‘At Le Mans 2000 I drove with Biela and Italian driver Pirro. We had two sister cars, one crewed by Laurent Aïello, Allan McNish and Stéphane Ortelli, with the other by Christian Abt, Michele Alboreto and Rinaldo Capello.

“Dr Ullrich showed great commitment and passion, and he made sure that we all worked well together and shared all the feedback. He ensured we all had an equal chance and that there was never any additional support for one crew over another. He always did his utmost to create a level playing field, which was very motivating, not only for the drivers but also the mechanics and the engineers.”

Audi at Le Mans

Audi at Le Mans

Some critics suggested that Audi took a conservative approach with the R8, certainly compared with some of the more state-of-the-art and wilder race cars that followed it. The philosophy was, ‘If there is any problem, we need to be able to fix it’, and that came all the way from board level down. The number-one priority was reliability. Without reliability, the drivers could not have 100 per cent trust in their equipment, and their performance would suffer. It was the perfect approach for Le Mans. Yet, the team needed to satisfy the demands of each of its drivers, in the three-per-car set-up.

Tom highlighted: “In this class of racing car you were traveling at the speed of a small aircraft, just trying to keep it nailed to the ground. The cars were extremely aggressive at the limit but, if you were alone on the track, it was fine. In traffic, or in close fights with rivals, we would look out for aerodynamic upset caused by their slipstreams. Invisible, they could be pretty dramatic, and if you didn’t expect them, you could be sure to go off when they arrived.”

Yet, Tom retained his winning streak and, although Audi no longer competes at Le Mans, the past two decades reinforced its successes, all of which are geared to enhancing its position as a leading brand of road car.

Conclusion:      The Germanic ’sledgehammer’ approach to racing success was seldom more obvious than with Audi. While it assesses its future on track, reflecting on a stellar 20 years at the top of its game highlights its will to win.

Audi at Le Mans

Audi at Le Mans