Audi’s 1999 Le Mans
and coupe entries.
(LEFT) Second win
for the R8 in 2001
put TFSI technology
front and center at
the 24 Hours.
rocked up at the 8.5-mile circuit to promote
sales through speed and romanticism, Audi
Sport’s base in Ingolstadt churned out
pioneering prototypes with clear and
undeniable links back to the parent road
car division. It went west with a mission,
and it was utterly compelling to follow.
Different and fun, accessible in so
many ways, Audi became the primary
story at Le Mans for almost two decades.
Prior to Audi, the likes of Bentley, Ford,
Ferrari and Porsche owned the narrative at
Le Mans, but Audi was the first to stake its
claim and return for 18 consecutive years.
It also managed to add a second narrative
to 24 Hours lore through advancements
contained beneath the bodywork of its
prototypes and how those technologies
fundamentally altered how the race is run.
With Vorsprung durch Technik as the
driving force, Le Mans was transformed
from a survival exercise to an all-out sprint.
Delicate conservation was the accepted
norm before Audi; brakes, clutches,
transmissions and axles were coddled in
order to reach the finish line. By 2000,
Audi’s first overall win with the R8 chassis
signified that a permanent shift was in
motion as the accepted margins of error in
endurance racing design were erased.
Simply lasting 24 hours was no longer
enough to visit the podium; getting to the
finish line faster than the rest with new and
more efficient technology became the new
normal. Out-thinking the opposition in the
R&D center revolutionized endurance
racing, and went hand-in-hand with the
shift to a 24-hour qualifying-pace battle.
Beyond the natural quest to find
advantages through speed, painstaking
efforts were taken by the R8’s creators
during the earliest design stages to allow
rapid component changes. History was
littered with broken driveline componentry,
and to minimize the inevitable time loss,
Ingolstadt’s fine minds transformed the
rear end into a modular masterpiece.
When it stunned its rivals with a four-minute drivetrain replacement during its
charge to that first overall win in 2000,
Audi delivered the memo that prototype
design had fundamentally changed.
“The gearbox was changed in our car in
2000 in the middle of the race and it was a
very different way of doing it,” says three-
time Le Mans winner and Audi legend Allan
McNish. “It was a plug-and-play system.”
The R8’s pace-pushing ways also sealed
the fate for endurance racing’s old guard.
The stereotypical sports car driver – a bit
round in the middle after a long career that
once included Formula 1 or IndyCar, who
could pedal a prototype at pace without
taxing the equipment or taking unnecessary
risks – also changed because of Audi. The
relentlessness of youth soon become a
vital part of the 24 Hours equation.
“The other very good thing about [the
R8] from a driver’s perspective is it allowed
you, for the first time, really to use it like a
qualifying car,” McNish adds. “And that
suited a different generation of driver.”
“With Vorsprung durch
Technik as the driving force,
Le Mans was transformed
into an all-out sprint”