Fast Returns? –

Audi’s 2016 Challenge

Radio Le Mans’ John Hindhaugh catches a glimpse of the new Audi challenger looking to put a dent in Porsche’s dominance ahead of WEC 2016. 

As a motorsport venue, Munich Airport is probably not on anyone’s ‘Top-10’ list. However, for a brief moment last weekend, it was the absolute centre of the endurance racing world. Before you all start looking for footage of a six-hour race on the runways, let me be more specific.

Adjacent to the cargo facility in a somewhat anonymous industrial estate, is the immaculate and sparkling Audi Training Centre which, on Saturday 28th November, was hosting the ‘Audi Sport Finale’ – a celebration of the team’s achievements in 2015.

In truth, it’s not been a banner year for the Four-Rings. They won 12 out of 18 races in the hugely important DTM, the German Touring Car series, but failed to capture any of the championships. The launch of the TT cup to support the DTM was hailed as a success and, in fairness, in inaugural champion Jan Kisiel – a 21 year old Pole – they have a driver who is very clearly a name we should watch out for in the future (as much for his character as his undoubted driving talent).

The all-new-for-2015 Audi R8 LMS GT3 did taste success, however, and notably won the Nurburgring 24 Hours. This was genuinely a reason to celebrate, and has sparked so much interest  that Audi Customer Sport is having trouble keeping up with demand from customers worldwide.

Most Audi fans’ interest – outside of Germany and the DTM, at least – was set, not on looking back at 2015, but looking ahead to 2016. In recent years, it’s been usual for Audi to use their end of year party to reveal their challenger car for the following year in the only FIA World Championship in which they compete, the World Endurance Championship (FIA WEC), and this year was to be no different.

This was to be the 5th iteration of the R18 and so, prior to its launch, speculation was rife about the design of the car – in particular about the configuration and fuel of the internal combustion engine, as well as the choice of hybrid system and energy storage medium. Indeed, with a huge question mark hanging over the finances of the Volkswagen Audi Group in the wake of the emissions issues still to be addressed, there were some who suggested the LMP1 programme might not even exist in 2016.

Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich is the wise head at the top of Audi Sport which, by the way, is now an Audi sub-brand, with responsibility for developing the ‘S’, ‘R’ and ‘RS’ models that find their way into the showrooms. Surely, a perfect illustration of technology transfer from race to road cars? However, I digress.

Dr. Ulrich began his review of the Audi sporting year by breaking the ice and getting a laugh from the audience, the majority of whom were Audi or VAG employees and hierarchy.

“At least twice a year, every year, since I started this job in the 1980s, I’ve been asked: ‘When will Audi race in Formula 1?’“

Then, after a pause, and with the timing perfection of a seasoned stand-up comedian, he said: “Frankly, I’m getting sick of that question now!”

What he said next, though, was both significant and – as there were barely a handful of journalists invited – aimed squarely at the newly-in-post ‘higher ups’ at ‘the Group’.

“We made the right choice with LMP1… A significant technical challenge…  It is pure-bred racing.”

Dr. Ulrich went to say that the performance in 2015 was not acceptable, and that a return to winning ways in 2016 was the highest priority. When I spoke to him after the presentation, he assured me that work on the new LMP1 car had started early and was progressing well. Indeed, Chris Reinke – the project leader for the R18 e-Tron Quattro – revealed to me in an interview for RadioLemans.com that the 2016 challenger had already completed an ‘extreme’ test at Circuit Paul Ricard.

Not a show car, the car that was unveiled was one that had being pounding around the high-speed test track facility in the South of France – a real, honest-to-God racer. Resplendent in a striking, testing livery (which sadly won’t survive into the season) that Chris Reinke termed ‘war paint’, the car looked aggressive and purposeful.

Immediately after its unveiling, it was put back under a dust sheet. Clearly, Audi feel they have found something – or, perhaps, have gone in a different direction to its competitors – and want to hold onto that advantage for as long as possible.

What we can see – or at least deduce from a brief glimpse of the car (see my attached shots) – is that, whilst not a new philosophy, the 2016 debuts a new chassis (monocoque), with a revised seating position for the driver. The front end features a much higher nose, with extensive aero around underneath and behind the splitter. Most obviously, the front wings are far more upright than in previous years. The bluff design is reminiscent of the 1998 Courage C50 and, more recently, the 2011 Peugeot 908.

Audi were very careful to keep the rear of the car hidden throughout.  The rear wing endplates were interesting, and the engine cover was very low indeed. But the diffuser and the rear bodywork remain a mystery for now.
All racing is about compromise: balancing one input with another; fine tuning one area then immediately having to adjust another to exploit the change, or compensate for it.

The regulations for balancing different engines, fuels, hybrid systems and energy storage, are both long and complicated and certainly not suitable for explanation here. That the ACO and the FiA have come up with a set of rules that have allowed three major manufacturers to justify three very different solutions, AND that those varied concepts –  turned into the most technologically-advanced race cars on the planet – have produced such exciting racing, is all the proof I need that they work.

Audi have examined the regulations long and hard. Their conclusion is that they need more hybrid energy to battle a development of this season’s all-conquering Porsche 919, and an as-yet-unseen, brand-new Toyota: the TS 050. The flywheel energy storage system used by Audi cannot easily be extended to cope with the demands of 6 Mega Joules, certainly not within the 870 Kg minimum weight limit of the class. So, Audi head into 2016 with a battery storage system. They were slightly coy about their recovery system. However, I expect at least one KERS unit (on the front axle) and, most probably, a similar solution on the rear of the car as their second harvesting device. Audi experimented some time ago with a ‘gas back’ turbine/generator, similar to what Porsche used this year, but rejected it on grounds of complexity and weight. Given that the new R18 will once again utilise 4-litre 6-cylinder diesel power – inherently heavier than the smaller turbo petrol units for Porsche – the ‘gas back’ system is probably not an option.

On my way to Munich, I popped in to the Cologne HQ of Toyota Motorsport to have a chat about developments with their new car. Although the car will not debut until January, Project Leader Rob Leupen and Team Manger Pascal Vasselon were very forthcoming. The TS 050 was planned to have a development of this year’s glorious-sounding, normally-aspirated V8.

However, Porsche’s performance at Spa was enough to convince the 2014 World Champions to introduce their 2017 engine a year early. Enter a turbocharged engine (my guess is twin turbos) of a capacity closer to 2 litres than three. Although the all-new monocoque will retain the highly-efficient and proven Toyota KERS systems front and rear, they – like Audi – will jump to batteries as the storage medium. Toyota is “targeting” 8 Mega Joules, which is easily within the operating parameters of their KERS. The secondary advantage for Toyota is that their harvesting system also provides them with the most sophisticated and user friendly braking system on the grid: good for drivers, even better for tyres.

Of course, Porsche are by no means resting on their 2015 laurels. Porsche are acutely aware that the huge performance gains they experienced last year, by increasing the hybrid energy level, will be part of their competitors’ armoury in 2016. Alex Hitzinger is their LMP1 project manager and, although the 919 Hybrid is essentially the same chassis, engine and hybrid package, he told me that “no part of the car will be left untouched” in their quest for extra performance.

“The car will look significantly different” he told me in an interview for Midweek Motorsport on Radio Le Mans.

The cars will once again all be more fuel-efficient in 2016; the changes adding around 4 seconds to the lap record times at Le Mans last year. However, the pace (pun very much intended) of development is so great that even with those changes, efficiencies and innovation in other areas mean Toyota and Porsche are already confidently predicting their cars will run under the ACO target time of 3 minutes and 20 seconds, for the 8.5 mile lap of Le Mans. Remarkable!

There’s now less than 140 days to the cars rolling out at Silverstone for Round 1 of the FiA WEC 2016, and I can hardly wait. Roll on next year!

To hear the full interviews from Audi, Porsche and Toyota, tune in to Midweek Motorsport, Wednesday 2nd December at 8pm (GMT) & 3pm (EST), at www.radiolemans.com, where you can also download the free podcast, or listen to the show on demand.