This is the car Porsche, Toyota and Nissan must beat at Le Mans 2015. Apart from a home victory for Peugeot in 2009, Audi has held a relentless stranglehold on the top step of the podium at La Sarthe since the turn of the millennium. (Okay, there was a win for Bentley in 2003, but the EXP Speed 8 was a car with no small amount of Audi content.)
The engravers have by no means already started etching the letter ‘A’ on this year’s trophy, though. With renewed efforts from Porsche and Toyota plus a bold new project from Nissan, Le Mans 2015 is shaping up to be one of the toughest-fought yet, and the new Audi R18 will have a harder job than ever to add to Ingolstadt’s win tally.
You’re looking at a car that’s very much an evolution of last year’s challenger. Its central monocoque structure remains the same, but there have been some major aerodynamic alterations, particularly at the front, which has meant subjecting the car to a new crash test – something which reports suggest Nissan’s more radical design will require a second go at.
The headlights look completely different, to make way for new drag-reducing air inlets in the front wheel arches. Like last year, it will run with two slightly different body configurations throughout the season to better suit different circuits.
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There’s more energy on tap from its hybrid kinetic energy recovery system; double the amount, in fact, as this year Audi has entered the car under technical regulations which allow the car to use as much as four megajoules of energy each lap at Le Mans, rather than the 2014 car’s two. That means there’s nearly 270bhp available from the electric motor, which powers the front axle. It takes its energy from a flywheel energy storage system which is mounted alongside the driver, where the passenger seat would theoretically be positioned.
All that, and the car weighs only 870kg. Impressive stuff.
Opting for a greater proportion of electrical energy means this year’s Audi has to meet tighter fuel limits than before, and will need to use 2.5% less diesel fuel each lap than last year’s car. This time, the team can only use five engines in a car throughout the season.
On the engine front, various detail improvements to the 4.0-litre V6 diesel engine have seen power upped to 549bhp. But torque is the real figure of consequence here – and one which Audi isn’t disclosing.
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Audi finished one-two in last year’s race, but it was touch and go in a battle of attrition in which all of the works cars hit trouble. Toyota led for more than half of the race before its lead car broke down, while both front-running Audis hit turbo problems before recovering to retake the lead with little more than two hours remaining, and the eventual win. The top teams are playing the numbers game this year, fielding extra cars in the hope that at least one of them enjoys a trouble-free run. But nothing is ever straightforward at Le Mans…