The crown joules?

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Audi scored another Le Mans victory in 2014, but faltered elsewhere. This season it’s armed with more power, more electrical energy and a steely determination to succeed at all points of the compass
Writer Rob Widdows

In a cloudless Florida sky, the buzzards soar and swoop on the hot air rising over a hot and humid Sebring. Traditional aerodynamics in action. Down below, on the bumpy track, the front end of the new R18 e-tron quattro hugs another apex and powers away, smooth and stable. New aerodynamics in action.

Audi Sport no longer races here, but this punishing, dusty aerodrome circuit is the perfect proving ground ahead of a new season. If the newly revised R18 doesn’t break during 6000 kilometres of testing at Sebring, it is unlikely to fail anywhere else it goes this year.

The car’s new aerodynamics are clear to see and will be crucial this season as the team strives to re-assert its dominance. The move from two to four megajoules, an increase in electrical power at the front axle, and improved combustion might not be enough. To stay with or beat Porsche and Toyota (running respectively in the eight- and six-megajoule classes), Audi hopes its new aero package and legendary reliability will pay dividends. Last year Audi won Le Mans for the 13th time in 15 years, but Toyota stole the World Endurance Championship from under its nose. The 2015 WEC season will be tougher than ever.

“Last year we did not achieve all we wanted,” says director of motor sport Dr Wolfgang Ullrich. “It was important to win at Le Mans, but in the championship we were not as competitive as we hoped. But it’s good that we remained motivated, and we don’t want another season like that. We did not have the best pace, but we did all the rest perfectly and reliability has been one of our strengths.

“We lost the championship at Silverstone, came away with zero points from the first round, and this must not be repeated [it wasn’t. They won – ed]. We haven’t always had the quickest car, but when the rulebook was written we didn’t see a possibility for a four-megajoule KERS system in the car because of the weight. So, compared with the six- [and eight-]megajoule cars of the others, we had a clear disadvantage in available power. The car was efficient, good aerodynamically, but in the end it wasn’t good enough and we struggled to keep temperature in the tyres, so we lost grip. This was not a good circle to be in. Now we have found some ways to save weight, Michelin has done excellent work on the tyres, we have more efficient aero and the drivers already seem happy with the car.”

As ever at the start of a new campaign, it’s a question of whether Audi has done enough. Can it stave off the increasing threat from Toyota? To be beaten is not in the Audi lexicon. It is not discussed. Every waking minute is used for one thing. Winning.

“We must not fail but we cannot take a bigger step,” says Dr Ullrich. “Because of the given weights of the diesel engine and the petrol engine, we cannot carry a six-megajoule system. We are still convinced that the flywheel system is the most efficient at two and four megajoules, but at six the battery system begins to make sense. The diesel is heavier than the petrol [engine], so we might always be one class lower than the others. It could happen that we have to rethink – can we continue with diesel and still be competitive? If we see that we can’t be competitive any more, then that’s a difficult decision for the Audi Group as we have diesel engines in our road cars and we pass on the new technologies. That’s why we go racing. I cannot tell you what we will do in future.”

I have to ask Dr Ullrich if Audi is considering a move away from the WEC. Might the firm be tempted into the new hybrid Formula 1? I do not expect the answer to be yes. Or no.

“Right now it is not a scenario we have in mind,” he says. “We are already developing the WEC car for 2016, so we see the route ahead for the next years. But… we look at all the possibilities, what fits well with Audi, with the technologies we develop, and – if the day comes when F1 is the right thing to do – then I think it could make sense. Until now there has been no reason to do it.”

Getting back to the 2015 season, Audi anticipates an extremely hard-fought battle with Porsche and Toyota, while the radical front-engined Nissan remains an unknown quantity – some would say a mystery. Thomas Laudenbach, head of electricals, electronics and energy systems at Audi Sport, speaks optimistically about developments over the winter, in particular an increase in power from the R18’s hybrid system.

“We will have more power, more energy at the front axle as a result of moving up a class,” says Laudenbach. “We will be in the area above 200 kilowatts and energy storage will be about 800 kilojoules, and the weight density is much better than last year – but our competitors in the higher megajoule classes obviously have more. For an engineer the WEC is much less restrictive than F1 and there’s no doubt that – if you compare the two sets of rules – the WEC is far more focused on pure engine efficiency.

“The FIA gives an incentive to the higher energy classes to push the technology forward, so we had to step up and in future there might be further steps. It’s a challenge because of the weight of the diesel and, as things are today, it would be difficult to make a six- or eight-megajoule system work with a diesel. But new ways of saving weight are always coming, so maybe it’s possible in future.

“For now, we need to have an efficient and driveable car because in a long-distance race the drivers need to deliver good lap times constantly, not just for a few laps. I’m surprised to see Nissan doing something so risky, but if they succeed then hats off to them.”

For an overview of the new R18 we turn to Chris Reinke, Audi Sport’s LMP project leader. In concept the car is not a big step, although the only carbon components that carry over from last year are the monocoque and the gearbox casing. The devil, as ever, is in the detail.

“As you can see, there’s a new concept as to how we send the airflow around the front wheels, the way we use the diffuser more effectively as a front wing, and a smoother, neater tail section. What we do with the airflow at the front benefits the whole car, gives us more downforce. The rest is all about the energy storage, the hybrid system, and that in turn is all about the weight limits. The new car is an evolution; we believe we can make performance gains without building a completely new car, and we will have more electrical power this year. We have four different energy classes and all the manufacturers are trying to recover, and re-use, as much of that energy as possible. It’s going to be tough, and even if Porsche was testing here at Sebring we would just focus on what we were doing, preparing the car for the season and aiming, as ever, to win Le Mans. That is important to us.”

So the trusty R18 has been ‘optimised’ – to use a buzz word from this most complex of sports. At Sebring the car was out in the open for all to see, but many of the new tricks lie deep inside. We were not allowed to venture inside a huge white shed full of computers. The car sounds different, with a harsher exhaust note, and it looks different. Plus, there’s a new driver on board this year.

“It is a dream come true for me,” says Oliver Jarvis, who replaces Tom Kristensen as a full-time LMP1 driver. “And yes, he’s a hard act to follow. Tom is a legend at Audi, and at Le Mans, so there’s a bit of pressure – but when I was trying to get here, into this car, it was worse. Now I have lots of opportunities to show my potential, doing the whole championship, and I just can’t wait to start racing.

“Only six guys in the world drive for Audi in LMP1 [through the whole season], so it’s been a lot of hard work. My family has made some sacrifices along the way from karting, through the lower formula, and has taken some tough decisions – but now it’s all paid off. Success is expected, so it’s going to be demanding and it’s a great honour to be here. I’m sure Dr Ullrich had plenty of other names in his inbox when it came to choosing the new driver. I dreamed of getting to F1, of course, but there’s another world out there, apart from single-seaters, and you can have a very good career in sports cars. I earn a living from being a racing driver. I love my job, so for me that’s what I always wanted.”

So how was testing going amid the heat, dust and bumps of the old Sebring circuit?

“Well, it’s hot and humid, and very demanding on the car, a punishing place, so if the car stays together here you’d hope it will last for 24 hours at Le Mans. It’s very physical for the driver, quite tough, so we don’t do long stints of the kind we’d do at a smoother track. We spend a lot of time on physical fitness, mental fitness and team building, so what you see here is the result of all that, a great team, good relationships, and that’s important when three drivers are sharing the same office. We’re all very competitive people, but Audi creates this atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable as a team, where we work together to win. I think the evolution of the R18 is a big step forward – and it will need to be because I’m sure that neither Toyota nor Porsche will have been standing still. It will be my toughest year, for sure. Anyone can win the championship and whoever wins it will deserve it. As Tom [Kristensen] always says, ‘There’s no short cut to any place worth going’.”

As darkness enveloped the circuit, the black Audi kept pounding around, its dazzling headlights piercing a path between the barriers. Behind closed doors, out there in the white shed, engineers sat glued to their computers. In the claustrophobic confines of the cockpit the drivers skipped and danced over the bumps, searching for the limits. Nights and days like this will pay off as the new season unfolds.

It is no secret that the team from Ingolstadt is intensely focused on Le Mans in June. That’s the big prize, the one Audi has made its own in recent years. But will a shortage of megajoules allow Porsche or Toyota to steal the prize?

It’s going to be a vintage campaign.