Twenty years ago, Audi’s R8 race cars crossed the finish line of the Le Mans 24 Hours race in 1-2-3 formation. The Vorsprung durch Technik brand’s sports car racing programme ran for 18 years, during which time Audi won the epic endurance race 13 times – a 72 per cent success rate. We hear from Denmark’s Tom Kristensen, who won for Audi in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2013, and celebrate the cars that beat the opposition, and the clock.
Tom Kristensen won Le Mans nine times. Here, he recalls Audi’s first victory in the famous 24-hour race in 2000.
Sealed with a handshake
‘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.’
Victory first time out
‘I 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 I won Sebring in it, which was very important.’
A strong team and a level playing field
‘At Le Mans 2000 I drove with Biela and Pirro again, and we had two sister cars – one crewed by Laurent Aïello, Allan McNish and Stéphane Ortelli, 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. Dr Ullrich always did his utmost to create a level playing field, and that was very motivating, not only for the drivers but also the mechanics and the engineers.’
Reliability was the number-one priority – and it paid off
‘Some people would say Audi took a conservative approach with the R8, certainly compared with some of the more state-of-the-art and – shall we say – ‘bananas’ race cars that followed. 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, you cannot have 100 per cent trust in your equipment, and you cannot perform. It was the perfect approach for Le Mans.’
Finding one set-up to please three different drivers
‘The R8 was the first LMP1 Le Mans prototype I drove with power steering. I was used to heavy steering that took a real effort to turn into corners, which gave me a lot of confidence. It took me some time to get used to the lightness of the R8’s steering, whereas Frank Biela was very happy with it. He used to say, “It gives you quick hands, and you can control it faster.” But it took a long time to get the set-up right for everyone because the input from the drivers was different. Eventually, it became smoother and more progressive, and in the end we were all happy with it.’
A wild ride at Le Mans
‘We had a bit of an issue with the brakes – we had to change discs and pads. The car was very fast, but in that first year the twin-turbocharged V8 engine had a lot of turbo lag, followed by a very aggressive response. It was like a delayed time bomb – nothing, nothing, and then BOOM! That improved a lot the following year when Audi introduced the FSI system, which injected petrol directly into the combustion chambers. That was very helpful for the drivability of the engine, and it was also a lot more efficient and an excellent development for road cars. The first R8 had a lot of understeer, too. So, you had a car with a wild engine response that was set up to feel settled and more consistent as the tyres wore, but as a result felt quite nervous and twitchy on fresh tyres.’
Drop your guard for a split second and you’re off
‘In an LMP1 car you are going at the speed of a small aircraft, and you are just trying to keep it nailed to the ground. You always have to be alert. The cars are very aggressive at the limit. If you are alone on the track, it’s fine, you can be calm. But in traffic, or in close fights with your rivals, you always have to look out for aerodynamic upset caused by the slipstream of other cars, which can buffet and bounce your car around. These things aren’t visible, but they can be pretty dramatic, and if you don’t expect them, you can be sure you will go off when they arrive.’
It’s not over till the final minute
‘We were holding the lead towards the end of the 2000 race. Frank Biela was cool as ever – as long as you gave him time to have his cigarette. He was fit, he was strong, he was calm. Emanuele was always Italian – always emotional, you know? Ready to celebrate the victory before the end, which was something I hated. Maybe you would say my approach was pessimistic, but I didn’t want anything – no handshakes – before the chequered flag.’
Crossing the line 1-2-3
‘About 30 minutes before the end, Dr Ullrich froze the race order, and we were able to cross the line 1-2-3. And the colours of the cars were red, yellow and black, as in the colours of the German flag.’
The R8 went on to become the most successful LMP1 car ever
‘The Audi R8 won four more Le Mans, and I was part of the winning driving team each time. You could win in that car at Mont-Tremblant in Canada, at Mid-Ohio, at Sebring and Laguna Seca in the US, at Donington in the UK, at Jarama in Spain and at Le Mans in France. You could win in the R8 at so many different tracks all over the world.’
Can’t keep a good car down
‘The regulations were always restricting the performance of the R8. In 2005, when we won with it for the final time at Le Mans, before it was replaced by the R10 TDI, we were three-and-a-half seconds slower than the Pescarolo LMP1 around one lap of the circuit. This was mainly due to a smaller air intake, a weight increase of 50kg and a narrower rear wing. And yet we still won.’
Coming back stronger
‘Every time the car went into the garage after a race, it would always come back stronger, one way or another. That is how it was at Audi. There was always a competition to see who could come up with ideas, and then we would use them to see how we could improve together. And every year, as drivers, we were so motivated to win, even before we went to the ceremony in Saint-Nicolas in the city of Le Mans and touched our own handprints in the bronze plaque celebrating the previous year’s victory.’
Audi R8R – 1999
Audi campaigned this predecessor to the R8 in 1999, achieving 3rd and 4th overall in that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours. Powered by a 3.6-litre, twin-turbocharged V8 engine producing in excess of 540PS, the R8R was built to LMP (Le Mans prototype) regulations and featured an open-cockpit design.
Audi R8C – 1999
During its first year of sports car racing, Audi also experimented with this closed-cockpit car. Like the R8R, the British-built R8C featured a twin-turbocharged V8 engine, but was constructed to comply with LMGTP (Le Mans GT prototype) regulations. Audi Sport UK entered two examples in the epic French 24-hour race, but both retired with transmission problems.
Audi R8 – 2000 – 2006
Arguably the most successful long-distance racing car ever. From 2000 to 2006, the R8 dominated the sports car scene on both sides of the Atlantic, winning 63 races including the Le Mans 24 Hours five times, and helping Audi to seven championship victories in the American Le Mans Series. Built around a carbon-fibre chassis and carbon-fibre composite safety cage, drive was supplied to the rear wheels from the twin-turbocharged V8 engine via a pneumatically operated six-speed transmission.
Audi R10 TDI – 2006 – 2008
In 2006 Audi took its sixth Le Mans victory in seven years – and became the first manufacturer to win the race with a diesel-powered car. The ground-breaking Audi R10 TDI was based on well over a decade of TDI turbodiesel technology (the very first TDI road car was launched by Audi in 1989). The R10 TDI prototype was powered by a twin-turbo 5.5-litre V12 that delivered 650PS and outstanding fuel economy. Its 2006 triumph was the first of three consecutive Le Mans wins for the car.
Audi R15 TDI/R15 TDI plus – 2009 – 2011
A winner on its debut at Sebring in 2009, the R15 TDI featured a new V10 TDI engine that produced more than 600PS and over 1050Nm of torque. Lighter and more compact than the R10 TDI’s V12, it enabled better fuel economy, greater weight distribution, enhanced agility, superior response and lower CO2 emissions. The following season, Audi introduced the redesigned R15 TDI plus. The company had lost the 2009 Le Mans to Peugeot, and in 2010 the faster Peugeot 908s started out strongly, qualifying 1-2-3-4. But the three works Audis relentlessly hunted down their rivals, literally to the point of destruction. None of the French cars stood the course, and the R15 TDI plus swept the field, claiming all three spots on the podium.
Audi R18 TDI – 2011
During its final six years of competition at Le Mans, Audi won the race on four further occasions, taking its victory tally to 13 in just 18 years. In contrast to the previous open-cockpit R8, R10 and R15 models, the new R18 TDI featured a closed-roof design. It was also right-hand drive, enabling faster driver changes.
Audi R18 ultra & R18 e-tron quattro – 2012
In 2012, the company ran four cars at Le Mans – two R18 ultras and two R18 e-tron quattros. Both had turbodiesel engines and, incredibly, despite having half the cylinders of the 5.5-litre V12 turbodiesel that powered the R10 TDI in 2006, the latest 3.7-litre V6 turbodiesel was not only faster but also significantly more fuel-efficient.
Audi continued to use motorsport competition to fast-track road-car technology, with the ‘ultra’ brand used to develop lightweight technologies. For the R18 e-tron quattro, the engineers deployed hybrid technology to enable two electric motors to deliver drive to the front wheels in certain circumstances – a new breed of ‘electric’ quattro that helped deliver further success at Le Mans.
R18 e-tron quattro – 2013
For the 2013 season, Audi retired the non-hybrid ultra model and concentrated on advancing hybrid technology with the R18 e-tron quattro. Once again, the four rings triumphed at Le Mans, with Denmark’s Tom Kristensen taking his ninth (and final) victory alongside Scotland’s Allan McNish and France’s Loïc Duval.
Audi R18 e-tron quattro – 2014 – 2015
The 2014 car had been extensively revised from the previous version, with a more powerful hybrid system and (in line with regulations) a new, larger 4.0-litre V6 TDI engine that delivered gains in both performance and efficiency. It continued Audi’s winning streak in 2014 – and did so using 22 per cent less fuel than the victorious 2013 car.
Audi R18 – 2016
For its final endurance racing season, Audi campaigned the even more aerodynamically advanced R18. While the e-tron quattro name was dropped, the hybrid and all-wheel-drive technologies were retained. The R18 was the most powerful and efficient Audi race car to date, using 46 per cent less fuel than the 2006 TDI race car, while its modified hybrid system utilised lithium-ion batteries for optimum energy storage. Having won the Six Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, it finished third at Le Mans (Audi’s final podium in the 24 Hours race to date) before signing off with a 1-2 at Bahrain to end the season. Audi then turned its focus to Formula E, joining the all-electric series as a manufacturer for the 2017/18 season and winning the title in its debut year.