2011 Audi R18 TDI Aims to Continue Ingolstadt’s Dominance at Le Mans
In case you haven’t been following international endurance sports car racing for the last decade (Put another way: You’re 98.7% of American motorsports fans.), there’s really just one name that has defined the discipline during that timeframe: Audi. The German nameplate that cleaned house in rallying and sedan racing before making the quantum leap to sports prototypes in 1999 has made success at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and other races around the globe (particularly here in the U.S.) look like a piece of strudel.
The first-year effort was a split program between the open-cockpit R8R and the R8C coupe. The coupe was dropped for the following season and the roadster was redesigned and renamed the R8, and it was with the R8 that the company’s run of dominance began. The R8 was followed in 2006 by the radical R10 TDI, which was powered by a 5.5L V12 turbodiesel. Competition from Peugeot’s 908 HDi FAP – another diesel V12-motivated prototype, except it was a coupe – drove Audi to roll out the more compact R15 TDI (with V10 diesel power) in 2009. But after staging battle after epic battle, both the Audis and Peugeots are being shepherded into early retirement by rule changes aimed at curtailing speeds, costs and fuel consumption. And while we’ve yet to see what ze French will be sending into battle next year, we now know what will be wearing the famed Four Rings on track.
As you can see, the new steed – the R18 TDI – marks a return to enclosed prototypes for Audi. Computer simulations (and, presumably, getting spanked by Peugeot in terms of straightline speed) suggested that it was time to call time on the open-top configuration. Another factor in putting a lid on things was the change in the engine regulations; the 3.7L V6 turbodiesel will serve up considerably less power, so Audi wanted to make the R18 as aerodynamically slippery as possible (while still generating plenty of downforce for the turns, of course). As with the R15 and countless other modern racing cars, a paddle-shifted 6-speed manual transmission will be putting the power to the pavement.
In addition to the coupe body configuration and downsized engine, the R18 TDI packs other big breaks with tradition. The carbon driver’s compartment is molded in one piece, whereas most other closed prototypes have theirs made from two pieces that are bonded together. This increases the structure’s stiffness and reduces weight. The mandatory fin running back from the roof to the rear wing is intended to keep the car from getting airborne when it spins at high speeds (something that has caused a few frightening incidents in recent years). Finally, up front, the headlights are all-LED affairs, a first for a Le Mans racer and an example of technology transfer from road to track, since the same can be said of the new A8’s optional headlights.
If you’re hoping to check out the R18 in person, you’re going to have to wait a while if you live on this continent; its only scheduled North American appearance next year will be the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 1 (The R15 will have a farewell outing at the 12 Hours of Sebring on March 19.). The R18 will make its competition debut at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium on May 8, followed by the 24 Hours of Le Mans the second weekend in June and three other races in addition to Petit Le Mans. As longtime sports car racing fans, we’re decidedly eager to see how the R18 and the other new cars will stack up against each other.