Burning the midnight oil

Dr Wolfgang Ulrich, head of Audi Motorsport, took time out from his Le Mans preparations to talk to Gary Watkins about the forthcoming Peugeot challenge and the relevance of diesel engines

The Le Mans 24 Hours offers a unique chance to a manufacturer. It allows different technological concepts to go up against each other and compete on an equal basis. Nowhere else in our sport can you do that. Audi has always used the toughest race in the world to showcase technology: we introduced FSI in 2001 and showed that you could race and win with direct fuel-injection; and last year we became the first manufacturer to use turbo-diesel power to triumph at Le Mans with our R10 TDI. 

There is no question that the introduction of TDI and our 2007 Le Mans victory was one of Audi Sport’s biggest achievements. There were a lot of technical challenges to overcome. That’s not to diminish what we achieved with FSI. Don’t forget we were still new to Le Mans when we came with that technology. We built the R8 for our second year of sportscar racing and then introduced FSI the following season. No one could have imagined that this combination would have remained competitive for so long. 

We embarked on the R10 TDI programme because we wanted to add a sparkle to the image of diesel power. It was accepted that diesels had good driveability and were no longer noisy, but there was always a question-mark over their sporting credentials. We wanted to change that.

We also made a clear step in terms of fuel economy. We are going faster and going further per litre of fuel than we did in the past, so we have clearly made a big step forward in efficiency. And less fuel used means less CO2 emissions. 

I believe our victory at Le Mans last year, and in the American Le Mans Series, means that diesels must now be regarded as sporty. If that means sales increase as a result of that change in image, the benefits in terms of fuel economy will be multiplied thousand or perhaps even millions of times around the world.

Now we have a new challenge with the arrival of Peugeot. I am happy that another manufacturer has followed our path and will be racing a turbo-diesel at Le Mans. It wants to prove that you can go racing with direct-injection diesel engines because, like Audi, a high percentage of its road car sales are diesels. That competition can only be good for Audi and Le Mans. 

People ask me about Peugeot’s chances, but it is difficult to comment until we see the car at Le Mans. I expect a challenge at a very high level and we know that the car is quick from what we have seen in testing and the first two rounds of the Le Mans Series. Just how quick the 908s will be won’t become clear until the Test Day or perhaps even the race. 

That’s certainly true of Peugeot’s reliability. Even they won’t know how reliable the 908 is until the race is over. We all know that, even if you have a very strong car that has come through an endurance test without problems, things can happen at Le Mans. Everything can change when you get to the race. That’s why I don’t like making predictions.

We all know that victory at Le Mans is not 100 per cent about technology. You also need a good driver line-up, good strategy and an excellent pit crew. If all these things come together, and you have had a bit of luck that is necessary, then you have a chance to win. 

We have more experience of sportscar racing in general and Le Mans in particular than Peugeot. We have done more races and more testing miles, but the manufacturer who comes later with a new technology can make certain short cuts. We have done all the development with some of the components that we know will be used by our new rival. Take the injection system: Peugeot is working with the same supplier, Bosch, so I cannot imagine that its system will be so different to ours. The particulate filters are another area. They are using the products of Dow Automotive, just like us. I cannot imagine this is by chance. 

Some people have suggested that the odds are stacked in favour of diesel power at Le Mans. I say to them that I am still convinced that if our target was to make an all-new petrol-engined LMP1 prototype, then we could reach the same level of performance that we have with the R10. We should not forget that right now we do not have a factory team competing in LMP1 with a petrol engine. 

We felt a cold wind in our face after Le Mans last year. If you decide to run new technology and are immediately successful with that technology, the discussion will always be, “Why are you successful?” Is it because you are doing a good job or is it because the rules are in your favour? This is something I am used to. We had it with four-wheel drive in touring car racing and then with FSI, so it was not a suprise that we had it with the diesel power.

The next step for diesel at Le Mans will be the introduction of bio-diesel, something that we are already discussing with the fuel supplier, Shell, and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. Everyone is working in that direction. If this fuel is available in the correct quality and quantity then it should be possible to make a change from one season to the next. The only real question-mark concerns availability. 

Audi is in favour of all different types of fuel racing together at Le Mans. There are now petrol-electric hybrids on the road, so it is good that the possibility exists for someone to bring that technology into racing at the highest level. It is now up to a manufacturer to decide to apply it to motorsport and bring it to Le Mans. 

It is good when environmentally sound fuels can be used, but we have to be sure it is realistic and feasible to do so. Bio-ethanol is one possibility, but when you go to a big percentage of ethanol you reduce the energy content per litre, producing an equivalency problem  with other fuels. You might need, say, a tank capacity of 125 litres to equate the energy level between the different fuels.

Right now Le Mans is the only race in Europe where the R10 TDI will race this year. Maybe we could do one more race in Europe in the Le Mans Series, but it is something I cannot commit to right now. This is something we will discuss internally. It is question of finance and also capacity.

This year is our ninth participation at Le Mans and I can say that there is no finite limit to our sportscar programme. We brought Audi to Le Mans to build the image of the brand in the same way that many famous manufacturers did so in the past. You do not do it by winning one year and leaving the next; the way you do that is by being competitive over many years.