In 2006 Audi won the Le Mans 24-Hours with the R10 TDI, the first diesel powered race car ever to win this coveted event. Since then, diesel engines have powered all of Audi’s Le Mans winners totalling eight victories out of the next ten races. The diesel debate, which has seen a lot of column inches in all the mainstream media outlets of late rumbles on, but there is more to it than meets the eye.
Quite apart from the issues of emissions testing and the behind the scenes electronics wizardry that has taken place, diesel power was pushed our way by both government and manufacturer alike. So who is the guilty party here? That is a question that will be argued over many a pint, the length and breadth of the country, and for years to come.
What is interesting though is how some manufacturers sought to develop their diesel technology, and how the marketing department used the advances made on the track to promote their road cars. An obvious case in point is Audi, who have been immensely successful in both arenas.
Although the firm from Ingolstadt notched up five wins in six races at Le Mans between 2000 and 2005, the R8 used a 3.6-litre twin-turbo V8 petrol engine during this time. In 2006 the first of Audi’s diesel cars arrived at Le Mans, the R10 TDI, powered by a 5.5-litre twin-turbo V12 diesel engine, and they won that year and the two years that followed, using the same engine. In 2006, Audi sold 926,180 road cars worldwide, an increase of just short of 115,000 units over the previous year. This was at a time when sales increases had been previously bumping along at 20,000-40,000 units annually.
Audi dominated at Le Mans again in 2007 and 2008 with the R10 TDI, but were bettered by Peugeot in 2009. Although Audi’s road car sales increase had slowed when compared to the 2006 increase, they did break through the 1-million car mark for the first time in 2008, and, frankly, they have not looked back. Peugeot took first and second in the 2009 Le Mans with their 908 HDI FAP LMP1 car, also a 5.5-litre V12 diesel powered racer, so diesel power was in the ascendancy. That year Audi finished third with their R15 TDI, 5.5-litre turbo V10 engine.
An observation about these two manufacturers can perhaps be drawn from the way in which they used their success on the race track to bolster the marketing campaigns of their road cars. Audi has always been big on advertising and marketing, and their road car sales have benefited enormously, but can the same be said of Peugeot? There seems little sense in putting so much money into racing at the highest level, if it does not benefit the cars in the showroom from a technology perspective.
In 2010 Audi was back with the R15 TDI Plus, again a 5.5-litre turbo V10 engine, and this time they occupied all three steps of the podium at Le Mans. In 2011, brandishing their latest weapon, the R18 TDI, the Audi team were again dominant but this time the car was powered by a 3.7-litre V6 diesel engine. Sales of their road cars in 2011 took the biggest annual jump to date, increasing a whopping 210,000 units over the previous year. Diesel was king, no doubt about it.
There was a seismic shift in World Endurance motor sport in 2012, when Audi introduced the R18 e-tron quattro, the first hybrid powered race car at Le Mans. Race regulations dictated that manufacturers had to go further on less fuel, and the diesel engined hybrid Audi rose to the challenge winning Le Mans in 2012, 2013 and 2014, although in ’14 the engine size had increased to 4-litre. Between 2011 and 2012 sales of Audi road cars jumped again by no less than 152,000 units, which just proves that over the years nothing has changed…when you win on Sunday, you sell on Monday!
Since 2006, Audi road car sales have risen every year by an amount that defied the rest of the industry, and this had everything to do with the company’s technology advances in diesel research and development. A good deal of this phenomenal rise in sales also had a lot to do with the quality of engineering of the Audi products which is today so good, it stands apart in the industry. But there was an underlying belief that diesel power would continue to grow, at the expense of petrol power. In Europe today, almost half the cars sold have diesel engines, which shows that it is not only Audi that have ridden the diesel wave.
Through the mid-noughties, more money clearly went into the development of diesel engines, and ways of making them more efficient, quiet, and consumer friendly were found. This trend happened at the expense of the development of petrol engine technology, but perhaps the pendulum is about to swing back the other way again. Around two years back, the tide began to show signs of turning, as cars at the smaller end of the spectrum began to be fitted with turbocharged/supercharged petrol engines of smaller capacity, and with ‘Cylinder on Demand’ (CoD) technology. Today, with the diesel and emissions developments in the industry, will this be the single factor that pushes us back towards driving petrol cars?
The diesel debate rumbles on, but the question is: Are we at a fork in the road? Do we as consumers have to make our preferences known to the government and to manufacturers? The author for one has driven a diesel engined car for the last eight years and has been very happy doing so. But for sure, interesting times lie ahead.
Written by: Glen Smale