In what has been billed as a realigning of its motorsport strategy, Audi will terminate its FIA WEC commitment, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, at the end of the 2016 season. Instead Audi is taking up a factory-backed commitment in the all-electric Formula E racing series.
Chairman of the Board of Management, Rupert Stadler, announced to the Audi race department staff this week, that it was important for the company to focus on the things that would keep Audi competitive in the years ahead. For this reason, the Board of Management had decided to terminate Audi’s commitment in endurance racing. “We’re going to contest the race for the future on electric power,” said Stadler. “As our production cars are becoming increasingly electric, our motorsport cars, as Audi’s technological spearheads, have to even more so.” Audi’s commitment in FIA Formula E series will commence in 2017, and this all-electric racing series ties in perfectly with the company’s strategy of offering fully battery-electric models starting in 2018. There can be no question, Audi is currently in the greatest transformation stage in the company’s history.
Audi first entered the world of endurance racing in 1999 with its R8R (open top) and R8C (closed top) powered by a 3.6-litre Turbo V8 petrol engine. The R8 won Le Mans five times (2000, 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005), and took the ALMS championship six times in a row (from 2000 to 2005). For these six years, up to and including 2005, the R8 was petrol powered. Audi was the first manufacturer to introduce diesel power when the R10 TDI, powered by a 5.5-litre V12 diesel engine, debuted in 2006. The Audis finished first and third at the 2006 race, making it the first diesel-powered race car to win Le Mans.
In 2007 and 2008 the Audi R10 TDI was powered by the same 5.5-litre V12 diesel engine (at least it was the same spec but probably very different internals). In 2007, Mike Rockenfeller had a huge accident at Tertre Rouge just after we had had a huge downpour, and as the track was drying, Rocky got the backend out of shape and smacked the barriers – there is a photo below of the result. Despite this incident, the R10 TDI won Le Mans in both years. Audi’s run of glory was interrupted by Peugeot in 2009, but the R15 TDI that year was powered by a 5.5-litre Turbo V10 diesel engine. They finished on the podium in 2009 at Le Mans but in third place. The 2010 car was called the R15 TDI plus and was fitted with the same 5.5-litre Turbo V10 engine (although again Audi will point out that every component in the engine was new). In 2010, after the three works Peugeots failed at various stages during the race it was left up to the semi-works Oreca Peugeot to carry the fight to the German team. The Audis could not match the Peugeots for pace, in fact the speed differential was visually noticeable, but the Audis had the upper hand on reliability. At the final reckoning, Audi achieved what every manufacturer dreams of accomplishing at Le Mans, a complete clean sweep of the podium.
Every year the race organisers try to introduce measures to slow the cars, and in 2011 a regulation change required LMP1 manufacturers to downsize engines, and so the all-new Audi R18 TDI broke cover with its 3.7 L Turbo V6 diesel engine. Audi once again took the Le Mans 24-Hour race honours but they were chased home by four Peugeot 908s. The other two Audis were both involved in horrific accidents when firstly, Allan McNish had his accident in the Esses in the first hour of the race, and secondly when Rockenfeller was side-swiped around midnight, resulting in a high speed accident that had all 700 journalists in the press centre holding their breath.
The following year, 2012, Audi once again pioneered new technology, taking the top three places when its two new e-tron quattro Hybrid diesels finished in first and second, and the R18 TDI ultra in third place. In 2013, two Audi R18 e-tron quattros were on the podium in first and third places, powered by the same 3.7-litre spec engine. It seemed that the Audi juggernaut was unstoppable, but changes were in the air because Porsche was set to re-enter the fray in 2014. Much fanfare was made about Porsche’s return, and perhaps in anticipation of this, Audi upped the engine capacity in the R18 e-tron quattro which was now powered by a 4.0-litre Turbo V6 diesel engine.
There was certainly an air of expectancy about the race with Porsche’s return to Le Mans in 2014, and although the 919 Hybrids were not successful that year, they did take the 24-Hour of Le Mans title away from Audi in 2015. The R18 e-tron quattro featured the same spec engine that year, but the Hybrid system was increased from 2MJ to 4MJ in 2015, which saw them finish in third place behind two Porsches. The engine spec of the 2016 Audi remained the same, but again the Hybrid power was increased from 4J to 6MJ, and once again they finished in third place at Le Mans.
In 2014, 2015 and 2016, the Audis had two very capable rivals in Porsche and Toyota. While Audi was still dominant in 2014, it was Porsche’s year in 2015, and had it not been for the #5 Toyota failing on the penultimate lap in 2016 at Le Mans, Audi would not have featured on the podium that year.
Having had the privilege of covering the awesome 24-Hours of Le Mans since 2007, it has been interesting to see how the Audis have changed since that time. Standing track side and photographing these magnificent cars, it is still hard to imagine how much power they produce and yet how silent they are. When trying to anticipate the approaching sound of a certain car so as to photograph it, it is somewhat easier when that car makes a distinctive sound like the Ferrari, Corvette or Aston Martin. The Audi, though, makes just about no sound, and so it approaches without warning and with the speed differential between these and other cars, it is quite a challenge to capture it with a slow shutter speed while panning.
It remains to be seen how 2017 will turn out, but one thing is for sure, the Audis will be sorely missed. With this background, Virtual Motorpix has dug deep into its archives to bring our readers a selection of Audi racing images that we have taken over the last few years at Silverstone, Le Mans and other events. It would be good to hear some stories and opinions from our readers, so please feel free to leave a comment.
More images can be found at: http://bit.ly/2feiaPt
Words by: Glen Smale
Photos by: Glen Smale & John Mountney