With the announcement today that Audi Sport is moving on from its LMP1 commitments at the end of the 2016 season, it’s a good time to reflect on the remarkable achievements by the brand in sportscar racing since 1999, which firmly placed it on the ‘Mount Rushmore’ of the sport.
Audi will be remembered by the masses as the brand which has dominated the Le Mans 24 Hours since 2000, scoring 13 overall wins between the R8’s debut at the race and its last win back in 2014 with the R18 e-tron quattro. Such consistency in its performances at La Sarthe has been paramount, giving birth to numerous motorsport legends in the driving seat, and on the pit wall too, providing the sport with enough figureheads and ambassadors to last a lifetime.
While Audi has been there, done that and got the t-shirt in just about every endurance race eligible for prototypes, above all it was the big race in France each year which really helped Audi thrive as a brand in motorsport, and that’s also where it all started at the turn of the century.
Audi’s story in prototypes began with a two-car, two-class effort at the 1999 running of the Le Mans 24 Hours, which showcased its intentions as a factory over the backdrop of its fellow German brand Mercedes having disastrous outing with its CLRs that would put an end to its Le Mans plans. It also turned out to be the final dance for BMW, Toyota and Nissan at the time.
Nevertheless, the open-topped Audi R8R and the Audi R8C coupe that both competed that year, in the LMP and LMGTP classes respectively, turned a lot of heads.
While the two R8Cs in the race run by Audi Sport Team UK failed to finish, the highest placed R8R – #7 of Frank Biela, Didier Theys and Emanuele Pirro – came home third overall, ahead of the sister car from Audi Sport Team Joest which crossed the line just shy of the podium in fourth.
Despite such an impressive debut for the R8R, it would be the only appearance at La Sarthe for both it and the R8C
Despite such an impressive debut for the R8R, it would be the only appearance at La Sarthe for both it and the R8C, as Audi would return to France in 2000 with the R8, which in turn changed the face of LMP racing for years to come. With much of its blue-chip competition gone that first year, the dominant run began, and Audi went on to earn the respect of everyone in the motorsport world.
Taking the world by storm
Fending off stiff competition from Pescarolo Sport and Panoz, Audi’s first win came in the Audi R8’s first attempt at the French classic. Frank Biela, Tom Kristensen and Emanuelle Pirro headlined the win finishing a lap ahead of Team Joest’s other two R8s in the race that formed the first of five 1-2-3 finishes at the event.
In parallel with its Le Mans appearances, 2000 also kicked off Audi’s winning tradition outside of Europe dominating the then young American Le Mans Series, winning nine races that season, including its first win at Sebring and Petit Le Mans as well as a memorable victory on the streets of Adelaide in the ‘Race of a Thousand Years’.
The Audi R8 would go on to win big in every form of competition it could, winning Le Mans five out of six years, with its sister brand Bentley the only one able to topple it in 2003. Winning at Sebring and Petit Le Mans also became a habit for the car, as it took home all the big prizes from both of the big American races for six-straight years. And over in Europe, when the Le Mans Endurance Series was born in 2004, Audi won that title too, finishing first in all four rounds of its inaugural season.
The Audi R8 would go on to win big in every form of competition it could, winning Le Mans five out of six years, with its sister brand Bentley the only one able to topple it in 2003
The R8’s final big win though, and the one that will live in the memories of sportscar fans forever, came at the 2005 Le Mans 24 Hours. Taking its fifth win at the race not only solidified the R8’s status as a world beater, outlasting Henri Pescarolo’s pair of C60 Judds in the scorching summer sun, but also crowned Audi’s beloved champion Tom Kristensen as ‘Mr Le Mans’ with his seventh overall win and at the time, sixth in a row.
“Of all the wins, the first was the most important, without it there could not have been any more,” Kristensen told DSC after the race. “But of all the wins, I’ll remember this one the best!”
A change of tune
As the 2006 season dawned, Audi debuted the diesel-powered R10 TDI in Paris much to the surprise of many. It turned out to be the second car which Audi would go on to rack up a lengthy list of accolades with during its tenure.
Like the R8 before it, it was immediately successful, winning its debut at Sebring after breaking the lap record during qualifying on its way to pole. From that point onwards it went on an unbeaten run at Le Mans, providing a plethora of memorable moments battling Pescarolo Sport once again in 2006 (scoring the first win for a diesel car in the race) and then Peugeot Sport which entered the fray with its 908 HDI FAP diesel P1 car in 2007.
The rivalry didn’t just play out at Le Mans though, as Audi and Peugeot went head-to-head over in the American and European Le Mans Series’, with LMP2 cars in the ALMS also challenging the R10 for wins throughout 2007 and 2008 in the hands of Penske and Dyson Racing among others.
The R10 kept winning though, and took three LMP1 championships in three seasons of ALMS competition, with Allan McNish and Dindo Capello winning in 2006 and 2007 before Marco Werner and Lucas Luhr achieved the feat in 2008.
During its three-year lifecycle as a factory-entered car, the R10’s three Le Mans wins also helped the brand campaign and create awareness for advancements in diesel technology, which boosted its road car sales dramatically. The car served as a reminder of what endurance racing can do for an automotive brand and for the industry. And in true R8 fashion, its final win at Le Mans (in 2008), was arguably its most prominent.
The triumph was Tom Kristensen’s eighth, and arguably his most memorable performance driving for the team, beating all odds, and Peugeot, while capping off the first era of Audi’s relationship with using diesel to fuel its prototypes.
The road to hybrid
Over the next three seasons following on from the R10, Audi would debut three new LMP1 cars, with varying levels of success and fanfare.
First came the R15, which burst onto the scene with a bang in 2009, winning the Sebring 12 Hours in its first competitive race, but its story at Le Mans was a stark contrast. With an air of uncertainty heading into the 2009 race stemming from reduced amounts of testing and racing due to the financial crisis, as well as a protest by Peugeot, the car was beaten thoroughly by the French team’s improved 908.
In defeat Audi was forced to think on its feet, and in retaliation came out swinging a year later with the updated R15 plus, that in the most unlikely circumstances claimed a 1-2-3 at Le Mans. All four Peugeot 908s that year retired from the race with similar failures, despite the French brand seemingly having it under control throughout.
Not only would it top the 2008 race as Audi’s most unlikely victory, with reliability and serviceability proving to be more important than outright pace, it would be the last time which Audi won Le Mans with an open-topped LMP1 prototype.
By 2011 it was clear that the ACO had its sights set on creating a globe-trotting championship for sportscars once again, with the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup that was founded in 2010 growing, coinciding with Audi’s last crack at a pure-diesel LMP1 challenger.
In what turned out to be a season to remember – for being Peugeot’s last as much as anything – Audi claimed just one win: Le Mans. Benoit Treluyer, who went on to stand atop the podium with Andre Lotterer and Marcel Fassler, recored Audi’s first pole since 2006 in Qualifying ahead of the race too, as the ‘Four Rings’ and ‘Lion’ battled one last time in France.
Even with 10 victories at La Sarthe to its name, Audi didn’t give up in its pursuit of Porsche’s record
The 97th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours was marred by two hefty shunts though, involving two of Audi’s R18s: Allan McNish hitting the barriers hard at the Dunlop Esses early in the race and Mike Rockenfeller reducing the sister #1 car to its bare tub after hitting the armco hard on the run down to Indianapolis at the halfway mark.
Thankfully (and remarkably) both walked away, proving the benefits of Audi’s ultra-lightweight technology in a public setting and inspiring the sole-remaining crew in the #2 R18 to an incredible victory, beating Peugeot to the line after a thrilling second half of the race.
Even then, with 10 victories at La Sarthe to its name, Audi still refused give up in its pursuit of Porsche’s record, and continued to support the ACO in its attempts to create a new era for the sport.
With Peugeot gone, and the World Endurance Championship on the brink of collapsing before its first race meeting, Audi persevered and showcased the R18 e-tron quattro, the R18 as we knew it, but with a hybrid energy-recovery system. It marked the beginning of the current era in LMP1 racing and creation of a platform which attracted two storied programmes back to the sport: Toyota and Porsche.
In 2012, Audi were crowned inaugural World Endurance Champions, winning six of the eight races that season against Toyota’s TS030 that took its first two wins at the very end of the season. The collection of victories that year included Audi’s 11th at Le Mans (the first for any hybrid car) and 10th at Sebring.
The R18 e-tron quattro then went on to achieve the same feats in 2013, with the wins at Le Mans representing the final for both Kristensen, who ended his career with nine, and McNish who had raised his total to three. For TK it was emotional for many reasons, but mainly due to the passing of fellow Dane Allan Simonsen in the opening laps of the race.
Then a year later, Audi’s 13th Le Mans win was a sight to be hold for many reasons, and with Audi in the midst of a young talent influx, it put Lotterer, Fassler and Treluyer at the forefront of the programme with their third win as a trio.
With Porsche back in the sport and on an upward curve, and Toyota’s TS040 winning the WEC title, it was a Audi’s final big victory.
And in hindsight it was the last time that Audi, looked like Audi.
The beginning of the end
For the VAG group, the emissions scandal dominated 2015 in terms of its focus and PR, but Audi persevered and continued its LMP programme, though it failed to win Le Mans or the WEC title.
It was by no means a wasted effort, though the fallout of ‘Dieselgate’ forced it into reducing its Le Mans (and Spa) efforts to two R18s for 2016, along with Porsche which also followed suit.
It’s been a tough year, with bad luck and small errors during races as well as the overhanging rumours of the 2016 season being its last effecting its results
As it turns out 2016 thus far has served as a continuation of the trend too. The latest iteration of the R18 has been fast but fragile, and Audi as a result has struggled to recapture its past form. At Silverstone to kick off the season, the #7 should have won but failed post-race scrutineering, and at Spa the #8 managed to come home first but in a race that saw just about everyone on the grid suffer issues or get involved in a collision.
Le Mans was a similar story. On the back foot with its package, Audi was only able to score third, continuing its streak of Le Mans podiums because Toyota’s leading car retired on final lap of the race.
It’s been a tough year, with bad luck and small errors during races as well as the overhanging rumours of the 2016 season being its last effecting its results. Nevertheless there’s still two races remaining in the season and the #8 Audi of Oliver Jarvis, Lucas di Grassi and Loic Duval is firmly in the title race.
Without Audi, the sport wouldn’t be the same
After 106 victories, 80 pole positions and 94 fastest race laps, including 13 Le Mans wins, 9 ALMS titles, 2 WEC titles, an LMES title, 11 Sebring wins, 9 Petit Le Mans wins and countless other achievements, there’s just 12 hours of racing left for its long-standing project.
It’s an incredibly sad day for sportscar racing, but also a time for reflection. Without Audi, the sport wouldn’t be the same, its dedication to field cars through thick and thin for motorsport and the world economy has been admirable, and its list of accolades earned in the process is almost unrivalled in motorsport.
So before we begin to look ahead to life after Audi, just be thankful there’s still time for one last hurrah.