After a winter of testing Audi Sport are poised to begin the competitive campaign for their new car, known internally as the 'R15 Plus'.

The new car was unveiled last month at the team's Neustadt test track before five days of testing at Sebring without any technical differences. Now the team are preparing for the first Le Mans Series race of the season – an eight hour event at the Paul Ricard La Castellet circuit.

“Because we [Audi] missed Sebring, the Paul Ricard race is very important,” said driver Allan McNish. “It's the opening round of the Le Mans Series and runs to the same ACO regulations as the 24 Hour race in terms of car specifications, the number of crew working on our pit-stops so it'll get us prepared in that respect.”

“I'm eager to get back to racing after almost seven months,” continued the Scot. “It'll be a tough race especially with just one Audi competing. Dindo, Tom and I can't afford to make any mistakes on the track while the Joest team will really need to be focused on our pit-stops and strategy over the eight hour period.”

This week also saw the R15 Plus revealed in its striking new livery which includes large areas maintaining a bare carbon fibre look. “We're happy that we were allowed to give the car such a progressive look,” said Markus Auerbach and Tobias Drews from the Audi Design Team. “We wanted to add a dash of surprise when the Audi leaves the pits at Le Mans. We practically opened up the bodywork and are exposing the light-weight construction and its uncompromising technical development – and with a little rock 'n' roll for good measure.”

To the casual glance the main change to the car is aerodynamic, the 'Manta Ray' nose of the original R15 replaced by what can only be described as a 'fanged' front end, an alteration brought about by regulation changes announced by Le Mans organisers the ACO last November. However, Audi say much more has changed behind the car's “face”.

These include changing the diameter of the air restrictor as the ACO continue to try to bring the performance of diesel and petrol cars closer together, as well as a modified cooling system and fuel tank, designed for maximum efficiency all the way down to new headlights.

With so many changes it should come as no surprise that the team are treating this weekends race as an extended test session as they aim to reclaim their 24 Hours of Le Mans crown in June. “Le Castellet will strictly be about gathering additional experience with the R15 plus,” emphasizes Head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. “Racing conditions simply can't be simulated in normal track tests; that's why we're contesting a race at such an early stage.”

There is only one 'R15 Plus' expected to be at Paul Ricard with Allam McNich, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen nominated as drivers, though Audi Sport say they will only confirm this at “short notice”.

“I like the Ricard track which has a fast, flowing sections, a tight and twisty part as well as the legendary long, long Mistral straight,” says McNish or the venue, more commonly a test venue. “It's a long drag up to Signes [corner] and when you get there, you take a sharp intake of breath as you approach at 320kph (200mph), attempting to go through the corner without a 'lift' [on the accelerator], it's quite a sensation.”

The race is scheduled for Sunday, Audi Sport and the 'R15 Plus' also planning to contest the 1000km race at Spa-Francorchamps before travelling back to France for the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 12/13.

Photo Credit: Audi Motorsport