There is no question that Audi and now Peugeot have attracted broader interest beyond the motor sport community to Le Mans and sports car racing as a whole in recent years. Their respective R10 and 908 ‘Silent Sam’ turbodiesels are not only spectacularly quick, they’re also eco-friendly, and you have to admire Audi for leading the way in TDI technology, and for the company’s deep commitment to ‘improving the breed’ in the finest tradition of motor racing.
While at Sebring working on this month’s story about the new Audi R15 (see p54), I had the pleasure of talking at some length with Audi sport boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich and head of engine technology Ulrich Baretzky. Ullrich made the point that technology transfer between Audi’s racing and road cars is essential to its rationale for competing at Le Mans.
“We started going into sports-prototypes because we appreciate that the manufacturer has the chance to choose and run technologies that it is going to make available to customers,” said Ullrich. “This was a big opportunity and it was one of the main reasons why we started to go to Le Mans. I think it’s a key point and it should always stay like this.
“Ecology is something that concerns us all and motor sport is a key part of that. We want to reduce fuel consumption and noise levels. If you want to be faster than the others with a certain amount of fuel you have to be more efficient.”
Ullrich complimented the Automobile Club de l’Ouest on the rule-juggling act it plays with its legendary equivalency formula. “It’s not easy for the ACO,” he said. “They always try to accept innovative ideas, to give them a chance and try to balance it to give everybody more or less the same chance. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
Baretzky stressed both Audi’s commitment to green technology and the danger in pushing forward with any new idea. “If it’s credible and sustainable, you have to stand for it,” he said. “You cannot just make a game for one day and the next day say something else. Once you have decided to go down this road, like we did at Audi, you have to stay with that through all the risks. The more you have success in these things the bigger the danger becomes that you’ll make an error and nobody within the company will criticise it because they say, ‘He knows it. We follow him.’”
Baretzky also praised the ACO for its support: “The sanctioning body say they are open to new technology, to leading future-oriented technology. We have big confidence and trust in each other. With TDI we had ideas and we put them forward. People are looking at what’s going on at Le Mans much more than they were a few years ago, and we believe it is our responsibility to really orientate motor sport to develop the right technologies for the future.”
According to Baretzky, the rate of technology transfer between Audi’s racing and road cars is even greater than imagined. “It has had more relevance to our production cars than you can see,” he said. “Since we started the diesel project in 2004 we’ve learned a lot about injection pressure and applied that to our latest generation of road cars, and now our colleagues from production are more courageous to follow us down this line, also in terms of reducing weight. So these are all benefits. The total sum of the benefits is much more than people see.
“In the end, that is the purpose. We have to offer our customers all possibilities to use their cars either for performance or economically. For a race driver it’s all about the strategy, whether you run more of either a consumption or performance strategy.”
Baretzky is a deep believer in the ecological value of his work: “It’s not only about winning. I think the view has changed more the last two years about the importance of motor sport and the role it can and has to play. This was first driven by the CO2 discussion. The politicians have no answers, but motor sport is number one in showing people how to do it. It’s not the job of the politicians to give answers to these questions. It’s our job.
“I don’t know that we have all the answers, but we can show very quickly what they can be. We need to educate people to understand that this direction of smaller engines, turbocharging and more efficiency is not boring. It’s a thrill on its own. That is our role, and that’s one of the reasons I’m still fascinated about motor sport.
“I think we can very much influence the speed of how the outside world is working and reacting to what we are doing. Look at Formula 1. What’s happened there in the last six months is something nobody could have imagined and what will happen in the next six months could be an earthquake. F1 next year will not be the same as it was the last 20 years. Just imagine – you have a platform of 2.5 billion people who are listening every weekend to the message. Not all of them will understand it, but a lot will understand and think about it.
“Barack Obama is a president the Americans seem very happy with and I believe he is looking in the right direction environmentally as far as fuel consumption and engine technology go. Bush made a big mistake on ethanol and I believe Obama will reverse that. He is the right man at the right time for these things.”
The R15 has been built to race in the United States, with fuel fillers on either side of the car. Both Drs Ullrich and Baretzky hope their cars will return to America either later this year at Petit Le Mans and Laguna Seca, or for a full season in 2010. “We have a programme for 2009,” said Ullrich. “This is fixed and there is no ALMS in it. Next season is far away. But there is still a good reason for us to race in America to support our road cars in the American market.”
Baretzky added: “I was positively surprised by the public opinion in America and I’m very, very sad that we won’t race there this year. I have to say I feel it is a big mistake.”
Race fans across the United States and Canada agree wholeheartedly.