The remarkable story of Audi in the top tier of endurance racing came to an end today. Over the course of 18 years the team took the 24 Hours of Le Mans 13 times, locking out the podium four times, and did so while innovating constantly.
The story richly deserves a feature length documentary and will certainly inspire many books, but until they come along, here’s a quick look back at the story of Audi at Le Mans.
Given its success, the Audi Le Mans program could only have started with one man: Ferdinand Piech. Piech earned a name for himself by leading the team that introduced the Quattro to world rally and in 1998, when Audi signed a fateful contract with Joest Racing, he was in charge of the brand.
A year later, in 1999, Audi had a Prototype racer on the grid for its first race at the 12 Hours of Sebring. The project would ultimately be a bust, with the R8Rs performing poorly at the race and later at their first French race in Mans.
A year later Audi and Joest Racing had dropped an R, redesigned the car, and headed back to Florida. Clearly the team had learned a trick or two as the R8 won its first race at Sebring in 2000.
Not only was the R8 good enough to win at the 12 Hours of Sebring, Audi had put together a good enough team to take first, second, and third at Le Mans that year, the first in a ridiculously long list of Le Mans wins.
Between 2000 and 2005, an Audi would win all but running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans (losing in 2003 to Bentley). In 2006, though, they came back with a new car, the R10, and set about doing something that had never been done before.
Although it differed greatly from the R8, the R10’s biggest change was its engine, which burned diesel. No diesel powered car had ever won Le Mans before the R10 and only one has done so since (the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP, in 2009).
Like the R8 before it, the R10 followed its first Le Mans victory with two more in 2007 and 2008. Then returned to its winning ways in 2010 and again in 2011.
In 2012, the FIA, motorsport’s most august organizing body, decided to get serious about endurance racing and started the World Endurance Championship. The first race took place at Sebring in 2012 and only one team could have won it: Audi.
Audi also launched the R18 e-tron quattro in 2012, and accomplished another first by being the first team to win Le Mans with a hybrid powered car.
As with the R8 and the R10 before it, the R18 e-tron quattro went on to win at Le Mans the following two years, winning for the final time, we now know, in 2014.
This year, Audi only managed third at Le Mans, and luck played a role in that. Audi Sport Team Joest did celebrate a victory in WEC, though, at the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamp.
Whether or not this is Audi’s last in prototype racing remains to be seen. The R18 will have two more chances to win races this year in Shanghai (November 6) and Bahrain (November 19).
[R8R photo by Brian Snelson – originally posted to Flickr as 1999 Audi R8R, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7268097]