The circumstances were different the first time Audi rose to prominence on the global motorsport scene. After some initial success in rallying front-wheel drive cars, the company joined the World Rally Championship (WRC) full-time in 1981 with the all-wheel drive Audi Quattro. It was a momentous occasion for the brand and for motorsport – and it paved the way for new thinking about vehicle dynamics.
On that debut, during a snowy Monte Carlo Rally in January, 1981, driver Hannu Mikkola gained more than a minute on a rear-wheel drive Lancia Stratos in the opening 10 kilometres of the first special stage, an unheard of display of dominance. The Audi surged past the Italian supercar and sent engineers around the world scurrying back to the drawing board to rethink everything they thought they knew about traction and speed.
In just six seasons, the Quattro made an indelible imprint with 23 wins and four world championships. The factory withdrew from the WRC in 1986 when the cars became too fast, putting both competitors and spectators at risk.
Impressively, the company's subsequent foray into world championship racing overshadowed its accomplishments from the first time around.
In the late 1990s, Audi developed prototype race cars to compete in prestigious endurance races, most notably the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Audi spent one mildly competitive season testing different cars to determine which would work best with the race's evolving rules and regulations.
In 2000, the decision was made to build and develop an open-top Le Mans LMP1 (Le Mans Prototype; class 1), dubbed the Audi R8. It was a good call – the car finished 1-2-3 at its debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Actually, it was an exceptional call: The Audi R8 also captured the endurance classic in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005. (Audi did not field a factory entry in 2003; the Bentley Speed 8, a prototype powered by Audi technology, finished first and second ahead of two privateer R8s.)
"Endurance racing not only derives its special thrill from the races that feature strategic diversity," says Christian Schueller, director of marketing and product for Audi Canada. "In terms of technology, this world championship can claim a leading position as well. No other series makes such a wide variety of innovations possible."
The R8 certainly proved the merits of its 3.6-litre V-8 gasoline engine, which set the stage for fuel-stratified injection (FSI) technology to debut in the Audi road car fleet. Customer teams campaigned the R8, successfully, in 2004 and 2005. Then, the factory announced a return to Le Mans and an audacious one at that – in 2006, it showed up with the Audi R10 TDI, a race car powered by a twin-turbocharged 5.5-litre V-12 diesel.
Diesels had been used in other race cars, but this was the first time a car manufacturer attempted to win a major international race with this technology. The R10 TDI proved successful, taking popular victory on its debut. The R10 won at Le Mans again in 2007 and 2008 before being replaced by the R15 TDI, which featured a lighter and more efficient 5.5-litre V-10 diesel. While the R15 managed only third place at Le Mans in 2009 – it was beaten by diesel-powered Peugeot prototypes – it helped fine-tune the diesel engine technology that paved the way for Audi to make further inroads into the North American market.
"While the use of diesel engines in top-calibre racing was hardly conceivable before, they became the benchmark in endurance racing thanks to Audi," says Schueller. "(With the TDI engine), fuel economy, torque, power development and noise emissions reached previously unknown levels."
The R15 returned with a vengeance in 2010, taking the win at Le Mans, before giving way to the R18 TDI, an evolution of the Audi prototype with an even more efficient, 3.7-litre V-6 diesel. This car scored on its Le Mans debut in 2011 and was thereafter earmarked for early retirement as another bold venture was taking place at Audi HQ in Ingolstadt, Germany – the Audi R18 e-tron quattro.
Based on the Audi R18 TDI, this prototype racer features a hybrid drive system that utilizes a kinetic energy recovery system similar to that pioneered in Formula One racing. At speeds of 120 km/h and above, the energy harvested is directed to the front wheels while the diesel engine drives the rear wheels, giving the car true all-wheel drive – or "quattro" as Audi has preferred to call it for decades.
With the R18 e-tron quattro, Audi has won the last three 24 Hours of Le Mans, giving the manufacturer 13 victories in the past 15 years. And, true to form, there is now a road-going Audi e-tron, the Audi A3 Sportback, which is set to arrive in Canada in 2015.
While some years at Le Mans have not been the strongest in terms of competition, it's fascinating to see how Audi approaches it. It doesn't rest on its laurels. Instead, it returns year after year with new cars and technologies, daring other manufacturers to catch up. It uses the regular revisions to the Le Mans rules as a springboard to find new ways to go fast – and new ways to win.
"For more than 30 years, Audi has been active in the top categories of motorsport," Schueller says. "[Our aim is] achieving technological progress through on-track success and to transfer the findings gained in racing to production automobiles. The list of these milestone achievements, which started with four-wheel drive in the 1980s, is becoming longer and more valuable year by year."
The writer was a guest of the auto maker.
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