Audi withdraws from 2009 ALMS and LMES competition
by David Surace
Confirmation arrived this morning from the current 800 pound gorilla in sportscar racing: due to the current economic clusterf%&* conditions, Audi will not bring its works cars to contest the 2009 American Le Mans Series or its European cousin, the Le Mans Endurance Series, instead choosing to focus on its prototype entries in two major endurance races, the Sebring 12-hour race in early spring, and the 24 Hours of LeMans in the summer. These will be the prototype car’s only two appearances, both run by Audi Sport Team Joest.
Audi will remain focused on its A4 sedan entry in Germany’s astoundingly popular DTM series, and will also offer a racing version of its R8 production car for sale to privateer teams. That car, which was recently unveiled at the motor show in Essen, is being built to FIA GT3 specifications, a series with somewhat similar specifications to the SCCA’s SPEED World Challege GT class.
Far from being a time to stop and rest on one’s laurels, this is a perfect opportunity to evaluate why a top-level motorsport program is no mere frivolous advertisement pitch, but an important development tool for an automaker, even when the money’s tight.
Audi’s modern programs in motorsport, if you don’t count the pre-war Auto Union efforts or the current rules-strictured DTM, have focused on bringing a new technology to a certain race series (typically one which is alien to that technology), then beating competitors around the ears with it.
Their Quattro rally program, starting in 1980, introduced 4WD to what was once a 2WD-only sport, and forced their competition to either figure out a way to power all four wheels or continue to get beaten. Lancia, Peugeot, Rover, Ford and Citroen all stepped up to the challenge with their own exotic 4WD machinery, to eventually compete in the exciting (if ill-fated) FIA Group B rallying category.
The Audi Quattro sports car program in Trans-Am, and eventually IMSA, demonstrated 4WD’s devastating efficiency on a racetrack , though neither was good enough to win a championship outright.
Roughly ten years later, Audi’s open-canopy endurance prototype R8R, and its closed-top sister the R8C, both suffered a rocky start, but the Dallara-chassis R8 sports prototype delivered a shock to endurance racing at LeMans 1999, when crews were able to swap out a failed gearbox by changing the entire rear end of the car in 3 minutes. Even without that neat trick (banned by the ACO in subsequent races) the R8 doled out crushing victories on a constant basis* from 2000 to 2005.
And most of our smart readers can finish the story from there, with the current chapter being Audi’s continued prototype dominance after the introduction of the surprisingly clean, eerily quiet diesel-powered R10 TDI, which has dominated all but the tightest city courses (those deferred to its lesser-classed–though lighter and more agile–second cousin once-removed, the amazing Porsche RS Spyder). As with Audi’s career in rally, the seismic shift to diesel technology has forced competition to keep up, starting with Peugeot’s devastatingly quick diesel challenger, the 908 HDi FAP. In the hopes of raising the bar, Audi’s R10 replacement, highlighted in the press release as the R15, will remain an open-cockpit prototype, but with dramatically different aerodynamics and a smaller, lighter and more efficient diesel powerplant.
Audi’s Quattro system, developed with Torsen, was not the first 4WD system to be used in a race car or even a car with sporting intentions (that honor would be bestowed on 1968’s Jensen FF Interceptor), but it was a system that was exactly right for its time, and eventually found its way into all Audi production vehicles. Today, 4WD and all-wheel-drive are common options on cars with sporting or luxury intentions, and those cars are immensely popular in regional climates where the winters get messy.
The small-displacement turbocharged V-8 in the R8 open-top prototype was used to refine and develop Volkswagen Group’s Fuel Stratified Injection, FSI for short. While not the first of its kind in automotive use (that honor goes to Ford’s ProCo system for the Crown Vic in the 1970’s), the system dumped a fine mist of charged, atomized gas directly into the firing cylinders, noticeably increasing the overall power and fuel efficiency for such a high-strung, high-pressure race engine. The FSI system, having been developed and honed at the track instead of at the hands of consumers, has since made its way successfully into the engine bay of nearly every Volkswagen Group vehicle, including Audi.
TDI on the other hand, Volkswagen Group’s acronym for Turbocharged DIrect Injection, had already gotten its start with the 1989 Audi 100 and had been in service for nearly 20 years before the system was put into service with Audi’s works racing team, in the form of the R10 TDI. The immediately obvious performance gains from a diesel powerplant (more than eight hundred foot-pounds of torque, enough to turn most drive axles into saltwater taffy) made the change worthwhile from a racing standpoint, but overall the name of the game was still development: Audi partnered with Dow Chemical to develop and test the particulate traps and NOx catalytic reduction devices at the tail end of the car, the fruits of which can just now be seen in the current crop of “clean” TDI engines available in the Volkswagen stable of brands.
It’s hoped that in the R8 GT3 program, as with other customer-car programs from Porsche (911 GT3 Cup), Ferrari (430GT and Challenge), Ford (FR500C/R) and Dodge (Viper Competition Coupe), Audi will use this opportunity as a cost-effective means to collect development data from its privateer racing customers.
While that doesn’t sound nearly as nice as being able to see the new R15 at every major city in the US and Europe, the R8 GT3 is still one heck of a sow’s ear with which to start making silk purses.
* – that run was interrupted only in 2003 by the Bentley Speed 8, itself a very heavily modified, closed-top Audi R8.
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