Audi's first season at Le Mans was good, they raced the Audi R8R in 1999 which took 3rd and 4th place respectively. Not a bad start, but with the R8 waiting in the wings, success was not far behind them.
The Arrival of the R8
From 2000 to 2006 the Audi R8 dominated the Le Mans track, making it arguably the most successful long-distance car ever. The team, led by Tom Kristensen, were all on a level playing field going into the 2000 race – something Kristensen said was really motivating for the entire team of drivers and engineers.
One key element that made the R8 so successful at Le Mans was its reliability, it was the perfect approach for Le Mans and although some argued the R8 was conservative in its approach – it certainly paid off.
On the other hand, areas that provided a challenge for the drivers was the introduction of power steering, which is something the drivers had to get used to. In fact, the power steering was completely unique to each driver. The team also had issues with the brakes, throughout the race they had to change the brake discs and pads – it wasn’t just because of the power of the V8 engine, they suffered from turbo lag leaving the drivers to battle with their own car as well as the others on the track.
Speaking of power, in the LMP1 race cars, Kristensen compares it to driving a small aircraft, ‘you are just trying to keep it nailed to the ground,’ he explains, ‘you always have to be alert. The cars are very aggressive at the limit…in traffic, or in close fights with your rivals, you always have to be on the lookout for aerodynamic upset cause by the other cars.’
The Audi R8 and its team managed to overcome these obstacles and with 30 minutes left to race, Doctor Ullrich – the head of Audi Motorsport at the time – froze the race order at 1-2-3. Coincidentally, or by design, the cars crossed the line in red, orange and black – the colours of the German flag.
The R8 went onto win 63 races at different race tracks across the world, secured seven championship victories at the American Le Mans Series and took the 24hr Le Mans title five times. But 2006 was the last time we were going to see this model race.
The R8 and Beyond
After the departure of the Audi R8, people were unsure whether this meant the end of Audi’s success at Le Mans. They were very wrong, as the Audi R10 TDI (the first diesel-powered car to race) gave Audi their sixth Le Mans victory in seven years in 2006.
Fast forward to 2009, the R15 TDI competed for the top spot at Le Mans. The victory did elude Audi for the first year, losing the top spot to Peugeot in 20019, however they came back fighting in 2010 and took another 1-2-3 finish.
Between 2012 and 2015 Audi decided to look to the future by developing its e-tron hybrids at race level. They secured another Le Mans win in 2013 with the R18 e-tron Quattro, coincidentally Tom Kristensen’s ninth and final victory, which they repeated in 2014 (with 22% less fuel).
2016 was the final time Audi participated in Le Mans, finishing third. Since then Audi has turned its focus to Formula E to continue improving the e-tron programme. You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that success has not eluded the Audi team in that competition either, winning the championship in its debut 2017/18 season.