Audi ready for La Sarthe battle

You’ll need a long memory to recall the last time Audi got it wrong at Le Mans. It was way back in 1999, the year the German manufacturer entered the sports car arena, and what happened next is a salutary lesson for those predicting that Peugeot is a clear favourite to retain its Le Mans crown this year. Audi returned with a new car and began a decade of domination on the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Audi may have picked up third and fourth positions with its open-top R8R in ’99, but the car wasn’t on the pace in what was a high point in manufacturer participation at Le Mans. Its reliability and the Audi’s quick-change rear-end, which came to the rescue of the fourth-placed car on three occasions, resulted in what was a decent debut.

Audi didn’t rest on its laurels. Asked if he started designing the new car that became the all-conquering R8 on the Monday after Le Mans, Audi Sport technical director Wolfgang Appel once joked: “No, the Tuesday!”

Work on a successor to last year’s R15 probably began almost as quickly, or at least the inquest did into why the new-for-2009 turbodiesel challenger was beset by problems during its maiden Le Mans.

Audi’s attempt to complete a ninth Le Mans victory of the Noughties was hit by two major problems. The high-downforce R15 overloaded its front tyres and fine sand clogged the car’s intercoolers when it started to rain in the night.

Those problems, combined with rule changes that have mandated revisions to the Audi front end and reduced the power for the turbodiesels, have resulted in the R15-plus. This car is best described as a major aerodynamic revision of the original R15.

The problems with the R15 at Le Mans last year can in part be attributed to a test programme blighted by poor weather and interrupted by two major accidents. Audi hasn’t had those issues with the R15-plus, which is fortunate because it didn’t run for the first time until the end of February.

Audi traditionally runs its new Le Mans contender just before Christmas of the previous year. That wasn’t possible this time courtesy of the late publication of the 2010 Le Mans regulations. So late were the new rules that Audi had to scratch its participation in the Sebring 12 Hours because the R15-plus would be insufficiently tested ahead of the race. Plans to run an interim car, with a 2010 engine and ’09 aerodynamics, were vetoed by Peugeot.

Even so, Audi reckons that its understanding of the R15-plus is better now than it was with the R15 at the start of Le Mans week. Allan McNish, who is again joined by Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello, attributes that to a “very focused test and race programme”.

That race programme was composed of the Paul Ricard and Spa Le Mans Series events. Audi is happy with the knowledge it gained from those races, but they offer little in the way of a form guide to the 24 Hours on June 12/13. Peugeot was represented only by the semi-works ORECA team at Ricard and then chose, unlike Audi, not to race its 908s in Le Mans specification at Spa.

“The result doesn’t make a tremendous amount of difference,” said McNish after Peugeot’s Spa victory. “But the event served its purpose. We came here to get more experience, and our pace indicated we will be in the fight.”

Peugeot driver line-up
No.1 Anthony Davidson (GB)/Alexander Wurz (A)/Marc Gene (E)
No.2 Stephane Sarrazin (F)/Franck Montagny (F)/Nicolas Minassian (F)
No.3 Sebastien Bourdais (F)/Simon Pagenaud (F)/Pedro Lamy (P)

Audi driver line-up
No. 7 Allan McNish (GB)/Tom Kristensen (DK)/Rinaldo Capello (I)
No. 8 Marcel Fassler (CH)/Andre Lotterer (D)/Benoit Treluyer (F)
No. 9 Romain Dumas (F)/Timo Bernhard (D)/Mike Rockenfeller (D)