One of Audi's special strengths has been its ability to take innovative technology and make it into a incredibly reliable machine. This special strength of Audi had been a point of dominance in sports car racing throughout the first decade of the new millennium. However, its revolutionary R15 proved to be more of a weakness in 2009 than it was a strength.
Audi totally abandoned its R10 and came up with an entirely new design. The R10 had been focused around the diesel engine. Aerodynamics of the chassis took somewhat of a back seat to the engine. With the presence of Peugeot's radical 908 HDi FAP, Audi's focus would change. The out-right speed of the Peugeot was creating performance gaps Audi just could not match with the R10. Therefore, the R15 came into being.
The R15 focused on routing air through the chassis instead of trying to bend it around and over the car. This approach was to help reduce turbulence, and therefore, drag. Though with very little testing under its belt, the R15 was taken to the 12 Hours of Sebring and promptly won the event. However, from that time on, the R15 struggled.
It wasn't that the design was bad, it wasn't. The simple fact was that it was almost too revolutionary. In addition to driver mistakes, the R15 struggled at Le Mans in 2009, a place Audi had dominated ever since 2000. The revolutionary innovations would prove incapable of continuing Audi's dominance at Le Mans.
The R15 was introduced rather late and was not able to go through the testing necessary to ensure the car would be strong. Therefore, heading into the 2010 season Audi cooled its jets slightly. The basic design of the R15 remained, but much of the radical aerodynamic functions would go through simplification. What would result would be the R15 'Plus'.
In addition to simplifying the radical chassis, the team went back to testing and racing in order to properly prepare for the season, and especially, the 2010 running of the 24 Hour of Le Mans. In 2009, Audi Sport would not take part in either the American Le Mans Series (like it had ever since 1999), or, the Le Mans Series. This hampered the team's preparation and development of the R15. This changed heading into 2010.
Heading into the 2010 season, Audi Sport announced it would take part in a few of the Le Mans Series races. Surprisingly, Audi Sport would not make the trip across the Atlantic to take part in the 12 Hours of Sebring on March 20th. Instead, the team's first race would the 8 Hours of Castellet in the early part of April.
The team appeared with its radical livered R15 'Plus' at Paul Ricard for the 8 hour race. The race was the longest event on the Le Mans Series calendar since the Mil Milhas Brazil race back in 2007. This would, therefore, provide the team extended ‘testing' time on the track with other competition.
Qualifying was tense and drama filled. It would also be a good sign for Audi for the start of the season. Team Oreca Matmut had come to an agreement with Team Peugeot Total and would be given a 2010 diesel-powered 908. This meant Audi would be squaring-off against Peugeot without the factory effort being present. This would give the team a good opportunity to see where they stood performance-wise. After qualifying, Audi Sport would be encouraged.
Nicolas Lapierre would end up lapping the 3.61 mile long circuit with a time of one minute and forty-one seconds. Rinaldo Capello would take the R15 and would set the second-fastest overall time in qualifying, but the gap was significant. In the past few years, Audi had gotten used to being out-qualified by Peugeot by seconds. This was not the case at Paul Ricard. Capello's time was only a little over four tenths of a second slower than that of Lapierre's. Aston Martin Racing 009, driven by Stefan Mucke, would end up qualifying 3rd and would be the best qualifier of the petrol-powered cars.
Audi Sport entered only one car for the 8 hour race. The one car was the number 7 R15 driven by Allan McNish and Rinaldo 'Dindo' Capello. Tom Kritensen was on hand but would not be entered to take part in the race.
Allan McNish would start the race behind the wheel of the R15. As the green light shown to start the race, McNish was in a dog-fight with the Team Oreca Peugeot. Allan had the nose of the R15 right up the diffuser of the Peugeot. Unfortunately, the Peugeot bobbled just before heading down the long back stretch. The bobble slowed up McNish, which allowed the 009 Lola-Aston Martin to come through and into the lead. The bobble would allow McNish to get by into second and begin the chase of the Aston Martin. It would only take three laps before Allan was able to use the draft down the long back straight to his advantage. He would get by and would set sail into the distance. From that point on Audi Sport left the rest of the competitors to work out who would finish on the podium with them.
The dominant Audi reliability was present at Le Castellet. Once the team had the lead they would not relinquish it. Dindo Capello and Allan McNish would end up completing 266 laps by the end of the race and would lead 263 of them. They would cruise to the victory by five laps over the 009 Lola-Aston Martin. Another petrol-powered Lola; that of Rebellion Racing's number 13 Lola B10/60, would finish the race 3rd also down five laps at the end. Struggles hampered Team Oreca Matmut and their Peugeot 908. They would finish the race 4th and down eight laps. The victory put Capello and McNish at the top of the Le Mans Series Championship in LMP1. Furthermore, it appeared Audi had found its own dominant groove. Peugeot would end up having something to say about that.
The team's second race of the season was the second round of the Le Mans Series Championship, which was held at the Spa-Francorchamps Circuit in the early part of May. A little over a month before Le Mans, the 1000km of Spa would be considered the final 'dress rehearsal' before the 24 hour endurance race.
Since it was the final race before the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi would bring its three cars to the race. Audi's line-up included: in the number 7 Audi, Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen; in Audi number 8, Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer; in car number 9, Timo Bernhard, Mike Rockenfeller and Romain Dumas.
The 4.33 mile course through the Ardennes forest provides teams with a great setting to make final preparations before heading to Le Mans. The fast straights from Eau Rouge to Les Combe, and from Courbe Paul Frere to the new bus-stop chicane, allow the cars to extend their legs and enables teams to see what kind of performance their cars are capable of turning. In addition, the course features some very brave, high-speed sweeping corners that test a car's stability and agility. All-in-all, Spa-Francorchamps provides teams a good glimpse of what to expect when they get to the Circuit de la Sarthe. And that also includes weather.
Audi faced-off against Team Peugeot for the first time at the 1000km race. Team Peugeot had gone to the 12 Hours of Sebring and won that event. They too took the opportunity to take part in the Spa 1000km to make final preparations for Le Mans.
Unlike the last two years, Audi had managed to close the performance gap, and it was evident in qualifying. Despite the presence of three Team Peugeot 908s, the first four spots would not be swept by the Peugeots of the factory or Team Oreca. Team Peugeot number 3, driven by Sebastien Bourdais, would set the fastest time in qualifying with a lap of one minute and fifty-seven seconds. Less than a second slower, Audi Sport's North America entry, number 9, set the second-fastest time. Team Peugeot car, number 2, would start 3rd. Andre Lotterer would set a lap time fast enough for the number 8 Audi to start the race 5th. Tom Kristensen set the 6th fastest time in the number 7 Audi Sport R15.
Another aspect Spa throws at the competitors, which is always good training before Le Mans, is its usually unpredictable weather. Sure enough, as the cars left the grid on the pace lap rain began falling between the areas of Eau Rouge, Les Combe and Pouhon. Immediately, the grip was gone from the cars as they headed out with slick tires on. Most unfortunate for Audi, the low grip levels would end up biting even before the start of the race. As Andre Lotterer made his way through Les Combe, the back-end stepped out. Poor Andre was merely a passenger by that time. The number 8 R15 Plus struck the tire-wall heavily on its right-rear. It swung the car around until it came to a rest facing the tire-wall. Though he was able to get the car back to the pits, the damage, and the necessary work to repair it, meant the number 8 Audi would start the race all the way at the back of the 50 car field and would be on a simulation run as a result.
The race started cleanly enough for the other two Audis, especially considering how treacherous the conditions were climbing the hill at Eau Rouge. Timo Bernhard bobbled his car going through the compression at the bottom of the hill. This closed Allan McNish right on the back of his car going down the Kemmel straight. McNish would get the position and would look to move forward.
By the end of the first lap, the Audi of McNish was sitting 3rd, while the number 9 Audi would be in 5th. A heavy crash by an LMP2 car at the top of Eau Rouge brought out the safety car. When the race returned to speed the rain was falling slightly heavier in spots. This would hinder Audi number 9 as over the next ten laps they would slip down to 7th overall.
Also, after the safety car period ended, the number 8 Audi returned to the race albeit a number of laps down. Meanwhile, Allan McNish continued on his tentative way. After a number of laps the sun started to show itself again and the track began to dry out. By the 30th lap of the race Allan had been able to take over the lead of the race and would stay in the top-two places for the next 30 laps. Just after McNish began to fight for the lead another drama began to play out around the track.
A power outage around the track would end up leading to the race being stopped because the race officials had no timing and scoring. The red flag would end up hurting Audi.
As the power resumed at Spa, as well as the racing, Audi number 7 had lost its lead. Over the course of the last half of the race, car number 7 would fight for the first runner-up position. Meanwhile, Audi number 9 appeared stuck right where it was before the red flag period.
All of the extra-curricular drama seemed to settle down toward the last third of the race. Team Peugeot was in the lead and would not look back. Team Peugeot's number 2 was able to survive a rather big shunt right before the red flag period and would stay close to its sister car in 2nd. McNish, Capello and Kristensen would keep the pressure on Peugeot in 3rd.
At the end of an eventful race the number 3 Peugeot would go on to take the victory completing 139 laps. Its sister car, number 2, would hold on to finish 2nd over Audi's number 7. Audi's number 9 R15 would end the race two laps down in 5th overall. And the poor number 8, which had the shunt during the pace lap before the race start, would end up being able to come all the way up from the tail-end of the grid to finish the race 12th overall.
Over a month after Spa, Audi Sport arrived in Le Mans looking to return to its position of dominance at the French classic.
As was the case at Spa, and Audi's usual practice at Le Mans, the team entered three cars in the 24 Hour race. What was different for Audi in 2010, compared to the years prior, was the fact the performance gap between themselves and Peugeot wasn't as wide as it had been. While qualifying wouldn't make it all that clear, the race would.
On the first day of qualifying, the Peugeots dominated the pace. The number 3 Peugeot would even crack off a lap at three minutes and nineteen seconds around the 8.46 mile road course. All four Peugeots of Team Peugeot and Oreca Matmut would garner the first four spots. Unlike the year before, the gap between the Peugeots and the first of the Audis was less than three seconds. For on the second day of qualifying, the number 9 Audi was able to record a best lap of three minutes and twenty-one seconds. This was less than two and a half seconds slower than the lap set by the number 3 Peugeot on the first day of qualifying.
At the end of qualifying the field consisted of Peugeots in the first four positions on the grid followed by the three Audi Sport R15s. The number 9 Audi R15 would be the fastest of the team and would start the race 5th. Number 9 was the car driven by Mike Rockenfeller, Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas. Next, in the 6th overall position, was the number 7 R15 of Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen. 7th overall went to the number 8 Audi of Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer.
As the race got underway, the French team and French car pulled away at the front, but no where near at the rate of the previous years. McNish started the race for the number 7 car and would end up getting inside the number 9 to assume the Audi chase. The pace was good. However, an early safety card period hurt Audi's pursuit of Peugeot.
Nigel Mansell's shunt on the 4th lap led to the safety car being deployed. At Le Mans, three different safety cars were deployed at different places around the track. At the time the gap was sufficient for the Audi's to be picked up by a separate safety car than that which had picked up the Peugeots. This separated the teams all the more and handed Audi a minute penalty, right at the early stages of the race. This, combined with the pace of the Peugeots, allowed the French team to dominate the first half of the 24 hour race.
It wasn't all smooth sailing for Peugeot, however. The number 3 Peugeot exited the race after only 38 laps. This left three Peugeot 908s to try and repeat as Le Mans champion.
50 laps into the race, the number 7's chances at an overall victory took a dramatic turn for the worse. Tom Kristensen was preparing to lap a GT2 car which had a punctured tire. Toward the last moment, the driver of the GT2 car swerved to the outside in the Porsche curves to allow Tom to have the inside racing line. Tom had already committed to go to the outside. The move was too late and all Kristensen could do so to protect himself from a big impact was to go further out wide and through the gravel. He would end up needing a tow out of that position and would further lose time in the pits repairing the car. This effectively handed the race over to the number 9 and 8 Audis to take the fight to the Peugeots.
Audi would push, but Peugeot would practically the hand the race to Audi. Peugeots' drivers pushed hard, perhaps harder than they needed to. Drivers were hitting the curbs hard. They were making missteps in a race where such actions would haunt later. Sure enough, Peugeot would be paid back.
One-by-one, the diesel 908's would suffer from engine failures. Because of the amateurish driving that had taken place, each of the 908s had lost time in the pits. This gave the lead to the number 9 Audi. In an effort to try and snatch the victory back, Peugeot's drivers drove the 908 very close to qualifying lap times every single lap in the last few hours of the race. This was too much for the cars, especially after they had already gone through so much over the course of the previous twenty hours already.
Smoke and fire would pour out of the right side of the Peugeots as their precious diesel engines would let go. Within a period of about two hours, the three remaining Peugeots self-destructed. This left Audi one-two-three. Almost thirty laps separated the 3rd place Audi number 7 and the next overall competitor. Therefore, for the last hour of the race, all Audi had to do was make sure it stayed out of trouble and it could have crawled to victory.
After being embarrassed by Peugeot the year before, Audi returned to the place of prominence with an emphatic display of dominance. Sure, the team may not have had the pace, but its dominance in reliability and smart racing more than made up for the performance deficit.
Audi number 9, driven by Rockenfeller, Bernhard and Dumas would take the overall victory. Car number 8, driven by Lotterer, Fassler and Treluyer finished one lap down in 2nd. And, the veteran team in car 7 of McNish, Capello and 'Mr. Le Mans' Tom Kristensen finished 3rd, three laps down. The finish was also historic in another way. The number 9 Audi had been able to better the distance record set all the way back in 1971. In 1971 the record of 397 laps was set on a course that didn't have the chicanes and was shorter. Despite the presence of the chicanes, the diesel-powered R15 was able to get on down the road fast enough to reset the record-book.
Audi Sport would sit back and enjoy its dominant Le Mans victory for a couple of months as no Audi car would be entered in any Le Mans Series race until the season headed across the English Channel for its one and only time in September.
The 1000km of Silverstone was scheduled for the 12th of September. The race at the famous race course was the last round of the Le Mans Series Championship, but it was the first round of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup.
The Intercontinental Le Mans Cup was an endeavor to unite sports car racing on a global scale. In 2010, only three races made up the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup. The first round was at Silverstone. The second round would be across the pond in Georgia for the Petit Le Mans. The third and final round was the 1000km of Zhuhai in China.
In addition to being part of a new series, Silverstone presented the Le Mans challengers a new track layout as well. 2010 marked the first time the Le Mans Series would compete on the longer 'Areana' configuration. Including a portion of track that wound through the infield portion of the Silverstone Circuit, the Arena layout was a half mile longer than the Bridge layout that had been normally used over the past few years.
Riding the wave of the Le Mans victory, Audi's two entries led the way in qualifying. The feisty Scot, Allan McNish wrestled with his R15 Plus and was able to set the fastest time with a lap around the 3.66 mile course in one minute and forty-three seconds. Almost a full second slower, the number 8 Audi, driven by Timo Bernhard, was able to qualify 2nd for the race. Nicolas Minassian, in Team Peugeot's only entry, was a full second slower and started the race 3rd.
The driver line-up for the 1000km race was different than the normal line-up for Audi. Instead of McNish and Capello being teamed together, Allan and Tom Kristensen were paired-up. Dindo Capello was paired up in the number 8 car with Timo Bernhard.
The race got started with the Scot holding onto the lead and powering away with the number 1 Team Peugeot 908 tucked right in his diffuser. Meanwhile, the number 8 Audi slipped down into 3rd and was holding on to that position throughout the first few laps.
Throughout the first 10 laps of the race McNish held station at the lead but was under heavy pursuit. Allan headed into slower GT2 traffic and would end up just getting held up enough that the Peugeot could get by and take the lead. The sister Audi R15 was stuck in 4th place behind the Oreca Matmut Peugeot.
Then, on the 15th lap, the unexpected happened. The well-known reliability of Audi took a hit to its reputation. Suddenly, McNish's R15 slowed to a halt on the track. Allan promptly got out and walked away. The race was over for the number 7 Audi. This left the team's hopes with the number 8 pairing of Bernhard and Capello. Despite all they tried, the duo could not challenge for the win.
The Peugeot pairing of Nicolas Minassian and Anthony Davidson would go on to complete 170 laps and take the victory over Team Oreca Matmut's Peugeot 908. Audi's number 8 finished the race on the same lap but in 3rd.
Despite not taking part in two of the races in the Le Mans Series Championship, the number 7 Audi still managed to finish 4th in the LMP1 standings. The number 8 and number 9 Audis would end up finishing the Le Mans Series Championship in 9th and 13th place. Peugeot's victory in what was the first round of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup would make things difficult for Audi; however, if it aspired to earn that championship.
The second round of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup was the Petit Le Mans, which took place at the Road Atlanta circuit in Braselton, Georgia. The Petit Le Mans, held at the Road Atlanta track has been a premier event for the American Le Mans Series for years. But, with the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, it truly entered and world-wide stage.
The presence of Audi and Peugeot at the 2010 running of the Petit Le Mans meant the pace around the 2.54 mile road course would again be fast and furious. The record lap around Road Atlanta was achieved by a diesel-powered Peugeot back in 2008. Qualifying times for the 2010 running of the race were within a second of that record lap time.
Anthony Davidson, who helped Peugeot win at Silverstone, set the fastest lap in qualifying with a lap of one minute and seven seconds in the number 07 Peugeot 908. Pedro Lamy, in Peugeot number 08 qualified with a time less than three tenths slower and would start 2nd. Benoit Treluyer was the fastest of the Audis in car number 9 when he recorded a lap a half a second slower than Davidson's pole time. Dindo Capello put the second Audi, car number 7, 4th on the grid after recording a time one second slower than Anthony's time.
The Petit Le Mans, in the very early part of October, consists of a 1000 mile race that normally takes the better part of nine hours to complete. The twisty and fast course presents drivers little room for error, which is easy to do over the course of an 8+ hour race.
Capello qualified the car and McNish would start the race in the number 7 Audi. In car number 9, Fassler would start the race.
The Peugeots would lead the way during the early going of the race, followed closely by the number 7 and 9 Audis. Throughout the first 40 laps Peugeot had the lead. But then, on lap 44, McNish was able to get by and into the lead. However, by the time Allan was able to take over the lead, the race for Audi Sport, on a whole started to go strangely wrong.
Normally, Audi wears down its competition by simply making no mistakes. Every little detail comes under the microscope and Audi works on those details so there is no weak link in the team's armor. At Petit Le Mans, there weren't merely chinks in the armor, the armor just began to fall off altogether. The downward spiral of strange happenings began after 96 laps had been completed.
Fassler was surprised under braking by the slower pace of a lower-class prototype. This caused the Audi pilot to twitch to the right and off into the grass. He would avoid real problems, but it would signal the beginning of the strange events to follow.
Unfortunately for the Audi number 9, troubles would revisit them some 30 laps later. Misjudging how much room he needed to give a slower car, Lotterer ran too wide and struck the edge of one of the curbs through the esses. As a result, the front nose of the car was sheared off. After briefly coming to a rest in the grass, he was able to re-fire the car and get it back to the pits. Unfortunately, the car and the team would lose a great deal of time and position in the race.
The real strange happening took place while the number 7 Audi was in the lead. Capello had taken over for McNish and had only been in the car about an hour when, all-of-a-sudden, he was slow around the course. This allowed the number 08 Peugeot, which had been running 2nd, to get by the two Audis running together and come up into the lead. What had slowed Dindo caused the Audi sister-car to also get trapped. This opened the door for the Peugeot. After only an hour, Capello returned to the pits. McNish scurried back into the cockpit after a lengthy stop and rejoined the race a lap down. The problem was not something with the R15, but with Capello's balaclava. It was coming down over his eyes and he was unable to see the track clearly. Though Audi number 7 would continue to challenge for the lead throughout the rest of the race, mostly due to errors by Peugeot drivers, the strange happenings signaled it was not going to be Audi's race to win. It was going to be Peugeot's to lose. They would not.
By ten, on Saturday evening, the number 08 Peugeot had gone on to take the victory by over a minute in front of its Peugeot sister-car number 07. The number 7 Audi R15 of Capello, Kristensen and McNish would end up finishing 3rd two laps down. The second Audi R15, that of car number 9, would finish the race but seventeen laps down and 6th overall.
After the embarrassment in the United States, Audi looked to end its season, and the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, on a strong note. The final round took place further west, much further west.
By the first week of November, Audi was in Zhuhai, China for the 1000km of Zhuhai. This was the third and final round of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup and it was also the second race of the Asian Le Mans Series.
At each of the Intercontinental races, Audi had brought two cars. As it was at Silverstone, the driver pairings included Allan McNish with Tom Kristensen, and, Dindo Capello with Romain Dumas. Team Peugeot Total would also bring two diesel-powered 908s to the race as well.
In qualifying, the Peugeots continued to show the way. Number 2 Peugeot would sit on the pole after setting a lap time of one minute and twenty-one seconds around the 2.68 mile road course. The number 1 Peugeot would start 2nd after it would record a time one second slower than its sister-car.
Audi number 7, the car of McNish and Kristensen, would start 3rd on the grid after qualifying with a time over a second slower than the number 2 Peugeot. The track had been drying out and looked good for a dry qualifying lap. However, just as Kristensen went out it started raining again. This caused the time to be a poor reflection of what Audi believed it would be able to do on the slow circuit. The number 8 Audi of Capello and Dumas would start beside its teammate in 4th after posting a time over two seconds slower than the pole-sitting Peugeot.
Twenty-three cars would start the race. The track, despite a couple of long straights, was very slow in pace. This offered Audi hope. It believed it would be able to stay with the Peugeots as torque, instead of top-end speed, would be of paramount importance.
The race would see a number of teams gamble with set-up as the circuit was relatively unknown, and, because of the rain, the true pace of the circuit was also somewhat of a guessing game. Right from the start, the Peugeots led the way. However, the number 8 Audi tried a different strategy early on and was fast enough to come up into 2nd.
The second-half of the race would end up causing a bitter taste in the mouth of Audi. McNish and Kristensen drove absolutely superb and had a lead of a number of seconds over the Peugeots. A late safety car reduced the lead the Audis had. The number 1 Peugeot seemingly held up Kristensen in the number 7 Audi, which allowed the Peugeot to catch up and pass into the lead.
At the end of 232 laps, Team Peugeot's car number 2 would win the race over Audi number 7 and number 8. Despite looking poised to end the season with a victory, Audi walked away with another bitter disappointment. Peugeot's victory ensured that it would end up winning the constructor championship as part of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup. Audi would end up coming in 2nd in the LMP1 category.
Besides its highlights, which included a victory at the 8 Hours of Le Castellet and, of course, the sterling one-two-three at Le Mans, the 2010 season was, more or less, a let-down for the Ingolstadt team. Uncharacteristic errors and reliability issues led to a number of chances slipping through the team's fingers. Although the team returned to its dominant ways at Le Mans, Audi Sport, by no means, has returned to its overall dominant form that people had grown accustomed throughout the early and middle parts of the decade in the new millennium.
Heading into 2011, Audi Sport announced it would design an all-new coupe. The regulations, especially concerning pit-stops, favor the top-end speed the coupe offers over an open-cockpit chassis. Perhaps its new coupe challenger will also be able to compete with the Peugeot in top-end speed, which will undoubtedly help Audi get back to refining its details instead of trying to push the car too hard and making uncharacteristic mistakes. Audi Sport