Years from now, when people look back on the state of racing in the early 21st century, Audi will stand out as the dominant force in endurance contests. Of the 16 annual 24 Hours of Le Mans this century, the company’s racing team has won 13 of them, with Volkswagen Auto Group and stablemates Bentley and Porsche taking two of the other three. But now the brand is between a rock and a hard place, with its venerable diesel-hybrid R18 e-tron quattros finishing third, fourth, and seventh last year behind Porsche’s newer 919 hybrid cars.
Then there’s the Volkswagen diesel scandal, which Audi is firmly ensnared in, it is causing the company to slash budgets left and right as it prepares to shell out billions in fines and repairs. Unfortunately, those cuts are extending deep into the company’s racing budget as well, threatening to loosen its grip on the sport. But that doesn’t mean Audi is throwing in the towel. Instead, it’s responding with one of the most advanced LMP (Le Mans Prototype) racers ever built, sticking with diesel, and hoping that for 2016, less can still mean more.
Audi has just released the all-new fifth-generation R18 in hopes of recapturing its racing glory in the World Endurance Championship, and from here it’s mighty impressive. But because of budget cuts, both the Audi and Porsche teams will be down an extra car next season, meaning that any accidents or mechanical failures, no matter how small, could spell defeat for one or both teams. Still, like an aging star quarterback, if the R18 can stay healthy, it’ll likely give the competition one hell of a performance at Le Mans next spring.
Audi says the R18, while still maintaining its lineage (its R8 and R10 racers were never around this long), has been “technically and visually reworked,” and the car “competes for the first time in the FIA World Endurance Championship and at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with double the hybrid energy amount in the 4 megajoule class.” That means the electric motor alone generates 272 horsepower, while the 4.0 liter turbodiesel V6 contributes 286 horsepower for a grand total of 558. That’s more than enough to keep the rear-wheel drive 1,900 pound car running at over 200 miles per hour on the Mulsanne Straight.
A noticeably reworked front end aids aerodynamics and airflow, highlighted by large air intakes on the fenders and new headlights. Like much of Audi’s European lineup, the car benefits from the brand’s new laser headlights and Matrix LED technology, features that are becoming commonplace on Old World roads while we Americans can only still dream about them.
It’s strange to think of Audi as the underdog at Le Mans, but thanks to Volkswagen’s hubris, well, here we are. Still, with Ford’s GT aiming to capture a win in the GT class 50 years after the brand’s historic one-two-three overall finish, a weakened LMP class could open the door for some big opportunities for an upset. We’re not saying it’s likely, but anything could happen at Le Mans. Who knows, maybe Audi will be able to pull this one off after all.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.
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