It is the greatest success at the 24 Hours of Le Mans after Porsche. In 1999, the story of Audi in the Sarthe began with a trial and error between a sport-proto with a rather unsightly closed body (the R8C) and a small barquette (the R8R) designed around the same 3.6-litre twin-turbo engine which equipped the top of the range of the German manufacturer, in particular the V8 Quattro. The open car, with still basic aerodynamics but remarkably reliable, quickly established itself as the right choice: Frank Biela, Didier Theys and Emanuele Pirro took the podium (3rd) ahead of the second R8R of Michele Alboreto, Rinaldo Capello and Frenchman Laurent Aïello. The two R8Cs gave up very quickly.
The following year, at the turn of the 21st century, the mechanical duckling was transformed into a graceful, refined, beautifully decorated and, above all, terrifyingly efficient LMP-class prototype. It's a thunderclap on Le Mans! For its second participation only, Audi has already signed one of its memorable hat-tricks – it is true that the opposition is not that of the previous year, except for the valiant team of Henri Pescarolo and his Courage…
Tom Kristensen, Franck Biela and Emanuele Pirro lead behind them, on the podium, Laurent Aïello, Stéphane Ortelli and Allan McNish, followed by Rinaldo Capello, Christian Abt and Michele Alboreto. The main backbone of the drivers is already there and the sporting and technical team is firmly established. Under the authority of the undisputed boss, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, Audi Sport is associated with the Joest team, which was one of the finest private racing teams, having run Porsches in the 1980s and 1990s (four victories at Le Mans and one in Daytona). Its technical director, Ralf Jüttner, turns out to be a high-level strategist and the earthy Audi engine specialist, Ulrich Baretzky, is a mechanical goldsmith. Its engines are jewels.
Loyalty to men and constancy in technical choices will produce, until 2014, one of the finest records in the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Thirteen victories to which could be added that of Bentley in 2003, a simple marketing parenthesis since the magnificent Speed 8 prototype was designed and entered under the leadership of the entire Audi Sport-Joest staff (*), including some drivers from the brand with the rings .
Adding this "British" success to the German raid, one can almost consider that Audi (unofficially) won the 24 Hours of Le Mans nine times in a row between 2000 and 2008, beating Porsche's record (seven times between 1981 and 1987 ). The private teams were sometimes able to take over the absence of the works team, taking advantage of legendary reliability and remarkable simplicity to, in just a few minutes, change at the pits a complete rear axle ready mounted (gearbox included) when the mechanics showed signs of weakness.
It took Peugeot Sport's full involvement to end this winning streak in 2009, a year after the French 908 held on to the finish on the same lap as the winning Audi. The ogre faltered again in 2011. Despite two particularly spectacular accidents at the start of the race and in the middle of the night, very symbolic of the intensity of the fight and the risks taken by the drivers, Audi won with the unique R18 TDI remaining for only thirteen seconds ahead of the Peugeot! Although served by a technical regulation that did not benefit its cars, the brilliant Pescarolo Sport team was also a famous competitor to place some banderillas in the Audi shell. In vain.
The German brand therefore very rarely flinched, imposing a diesel engine (5.5 l. V12) for the first time at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2006 – as well as in the World Championship and American IMSA endurance races. Then it was the turn of the hybrid technology e-Tron Quattro (6-cylinder diesel 4 liters electric, in 2012); this R18 model had become a closed sports prototype with remarkably advanced aerodynamics. Nothing to envy to F1!
This consistency in the results also allowed the drivers to build an extraordinary record: record nine successes for the Dane Tom Kristensen, of all campaigns. The first to surpass Jacky Ickx's six wins. Famous triplets: Tom Kristensen-Emanuele Pirro-Franck Biela, Tom Kristensen-Allan McNish-Rinaldo Capello or Benoit Tréluyer-André Lotterer-Marcel Fässler, triple winners. Alas, this glorious period did not escape drama with, very early on, the death in private testing of Michele Alboreto, on April 25, 2001 on the Lausitzring circuit. The ex-Ferrari Formula 1 driver did not have time to pick up the laurels he deserved in the Sarthe.
(*) Audi and Bentley both belong to the entire Volkswagen automotive group.
Consult our file: Centenary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans