The Audi R8 LMP – The Prolific Le Mans Conqueror
A Legend of Le Mans
When it comes to astonishing feats of automotive endurance, there remains just one race, above all, that the world’s leading marques aspire to win: the 24 Hours of Le Mans, or 24 Heures du Mans. Since 1923, manufacturer and privateer teams alike have brought some of their most sophisticated and spectacular machinery to the Circuit de la Sarthe near the French town of Le Mans.
Not all of those manufacturer entrants have burnished their reputation as a consequence of such involvement – indeed, many have been met with outright embarrassment and even scandal down the decades. The 21st-century Le Mans 24 Hours is not quite the death-defying race that the 20th-century one frequently was, but the event’s billing as one of the most prestigious and trying motorsport endurance tests remains as accurate as ever.
Furthermore, if you are looking for a truly iconic recent Le Mans entrant, a car that has defined the race thus far in its second century, it simply has to be the Audi R8 – not the celebrated road car, but the LMP class racer that first cultivated the legend of the R8 nameplate.
If the central premise of endurance motorsport is to simply outlast your competitors while doing so at pace, the R8 can certainly be said to have done that in more than a few ways in its storied career. After all, it’s hardly as if the 24 Hours was not a popular destination for ambitious manufacturers in the late 1990s. Such marques as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Nissan and Toyota were all heavily active in international sports car racing during this period.
It was therefore a crowded field that Audi Sport boss Wolfgang Ullrich contemplated entering. But with the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) also being introduced for 1999 – providing fertile ground on which manufacturers could showcase themselves to the US market – ‘enter’ was precisely what the marque of the four rings did, initially with the R8R and R8C. In collaboration with past Le Mans 24 Hours winner Joest Racing, the R8R was entered into the 1999 Le Mans 24 Hours race, and served notice of a new period of Audi domination with a third-placed finish.
That podium place admittedly owed much to the leading BMW and Toyota cars crashing out, as well as the travails of the Mercedes-Benz CLR, which suffered from aerodynamic instabilities that led to it seemingly preferring the sky to the track a great deal of the time. But while Mercedes retired from GT racing in shame and race victors BMW and second-placed Toyota turned their attentions to Formula One, Audi regrouped for the 2000 season, building a new R8 with Joest and Dallara.
Considerable Promise, Handsomely Realised
With Audi only facing competition from Panoz and Cadillac for 2000 Le Mans 24 Hours glory in light of the exits of such big-name manufacturer rivals, it surely couldn’t fail to make its breakthrough with its refashioned R8… could it? In the end, the result was emphatic, with the Audi LMP900s racking up a 1-2-3 finish at La Sarthe.
Powered by the German manufacturer’s own 3.6L Turbo V8 engine, the new R8s were led to the finish by the driving team of Frank Biela, Tom Kristensen and Emanuele Pirro, ultimately kick-starting one of the most staggeringly successful dynasties the legendary race would ever see. The lead car completed 368 laps to beat the team of Laurent Aiello, Allan McNish and Stephane Ortelli in the second-placed car, while in third were Christian Abt, Michele Alboreto and Rinaldo Capello.
Ex-Formula One driver Alboreto was an especially popular member of Audi’s driving personnel. It was therefore to the great sadness of everyone in motorsport that he died in an accident the following April resulting from a high-speed tyre failure aboard an R8 during a testing session at the Lausitzring in Germany. While mourning the loss of the much-liked Italian, Audi Sport pressed on with its plans to return to La Sarthe, and eventually notched up another 1-2 success led by the same three drivers who broke the marque’s Le Mans 24 Hours duck the previous year.
The 2001 race had seen changes made to the fabled circuit, the large hill on the third section of the Mulsanne Straight having been lowered to decrease the likelihood of aerodynamic instability in light of Mercedes’ troubles two years earlier. Further modifications were made for the 2002 race, with the straight between the Dunlop Bridge and the Esses being turned into several fast, sweeping turns. Nonetheless, one thing didn’t change in 2002 – the identity of the winner. It was once more an Audi R8 that claimed the spoils, yet again manned by Biela, Kristensen and Pirro.
The Shift Into Semi-Retirement
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and while the R8 LMP was by no means at death’s door after its 2002 success – it would continue to claim international victories in the hands of drivers such as McNish until 2006 – there was nonetheless a downshift in Audi’s factory involvement in sports car racing. The 2003 Le Mans 24 Hours race did not involve an official Audi ‘works’ entry, although several privateers did use R8s and the winning Bentley Speed 8 benefitted from an Audi engine and support from Joest Racing.
The highest-placed R8 in that race only occupied the bottom step of the podium, but with the several-year Bentley project coming to an end, the honour of victory in 2004 was theoretically open to anyone. Yet again, it was the Audi R8s that rose to the challenge, claiming first, second and third positions, headed by the Audi Sport Japan Team Goh entry of Kristensen, Capello and Seiji Ara. The Audi-Kristensen fairytale would have one last glorious chapter at La Sarthe the following year, as the Dane collected a record seventh victory in the event in an ADT Champion Racing R8 – his sixth success in a row.
By this point, it was becoming clear that the R8 would be unable to remain at the front of the pack for much longer. It had been subject to increasing attention from the Le Mans organisers, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), which had attempted to keep the car’s competitiveness in check by reducing the restrictor size on its engine – due to its non-compliance with new hybrid regulations – and stipulating that the car would carry ballast weight. In any case, Audi itself was now busy with the development of the R8’s successor, the R10 TDI.
Experience Astounding R8 Innovation For Yourself
We wish we could say here at U Drive Cars that we had the R8 LMP car here for you to enjoy – alas, we don’t! However, we do certainly have the road-going vehicle that the five-time Le Mans winner inspired, and which was developed from the lessons learned by Aud’s competition campaigns with the R8 race car. The vehicle of which we speak is, of course, the R8 road car, which has been hailed by no less a man than six-time Le Mans victor Jacky Ickx as “the best handling road car today”.
Will you agree with the motorsport legend? Well, there’s only one way to find out – by getting in touch with us here at U Drive Cars right now to learn more about a driving experience that we are sure you will never forget.