With the new R18 Audi Sport Team Joest are looking to defend their Le Mans 24 Hours crown won last year, recording their tenth win in the historic race in thirteen years of visiting the Circuit de la Sarthe in June.
The new car brings new challenges to the endurance race for the team. Unlike its more immediate predecessors the R18 is a closed cockpit design, and, to comply with the new regulations for this year runs a far smaller engine than the R15 which won at Le Mans last year. However, Audi contend that a more efficient aerodynamic design has meant that the straight line speed – vital on the 13km Le Mans circuit – has not fallen.
“Le Mans poses a completely new challenge every year and is a completely different race every time,” said head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. “This particularly applies in 2011 due to the new regulations. The downsizing of the engines leads to new technical requirements which are right in line with the central theme of our motorsport commitment: to test forward-thinking technology, which we can subsequently make available to our customers, in racing at the Le Mans 24 Hours.”
“Furthermore,” he adds. “Le Mans is one of the most important races that exist in the world. That you can nearly cover the distance of an entire Formula One season on a single weekend with the same car without any technical modifications makes the whole project so special.”
The start of the race (Saturday June 11 3pm French time) will come 183 after the R18 first broke cover at Audi's Ingolstadt HQ, sparking off a rigorous testing and race program for the new car – in stark contrast to limited race running Audi completed last year.
Early tests were completed in both Europe and North America – notably at Sebring – before the car made its race debut at Spa-Francorchamps in May. Following the six hour event in Belgium tests at Monza and Paul Ricard followed, the car covering 6,000km – 600km more than the record distance that Mike Rockenfeller, Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard covered to win the 24 Hours last season.
“We're arriving at Le Mans superbly prepared,” said Benoit Treluyer, one of the three drivers in the no.2 car. “Our tests have been properly finished and are going into the 24-hour race with a good feeling. We've become thoroughly familiar with the R18 TDI. Externally, the closed body is the biggest difference for the fans. Of course we drivers have to adjust to that as well. But the biggest difference from the R15 TDI is that the car is much easier to drive. That's a major advantage for this endurance race.”
Having not only set a new distance record, but swept the podium positions last year there is a certain level of pressure on the three Audi team at Le Mans this year.
“For the first time we're contesting Le Mans with the “number 1” car,” said Bernhard. “Last year we travelled to Le Mans more or less as underdogs or as an 'insiders' tip.' This year, victory will be the benchmark we'll be measured by. The focus is on us and we're the hunted. And that's exactly what we want to be! It's been ten years that I contested the first 24-hour race in my career, and that was at the NÃ¼rburgring. Yet despite all the routine and experience the game starts from scratch again each time. This year I'm expecting a very close race between Audi and Peugeot.”
“We're in for 24 hours in which the smallest mistake can be crucial.”