Motor Sport was offered an exclusive opportunity to try Audi’s 2014 Le Mans-winning R18. Your chauffeur? Harry Tincknell, who scored an eye-catching class victory on his Sarthe debut
Writer: Sam Smith
Mid-August, Italy. Shutdown. The towns and cities have emptied, their citizens headed for the Adriatic. Bronzed tourists line up, sardine-like, and bake on the scorched beaches of Riccione.
A few miles away at the recently renamed Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli, the 2014 Le Mans-winning Audi R18 e-tron quattro is being readied for a new incumbent. Reigning Le Mans LMP2 champion Harry Tincknell zips up his overalls and looks out over the pitwall at the circuit, which stretches out like an asphalt dance floor.
Curtly slicing through this idyll is the unmistakably soft, purposeful enunciation of Dr Wolfgang Ullrich. “I ask you to give this special car all the respect it deserves. It is unique and we have defined where this car will end its life [serious pause]… In our museum. Nowhere else.”
Ullrich has paternal reverence for this particular chassis (no413). It is to be the final running of the victorious car André Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler drove at Le Mans in June. Motor Sport, as ever with eyes on the future as well as on the past, has given Tincknell the opportunity to try probably the most advanced model ever to win at La Sarthe. He will drive the car, nicknamed ‘Betty Boost’ by mechanics, into retirement.
This 2014-spec Audi R18 e-tron quattro will be remembered as a remarkable racing car. Competing in the most efficient category available to the new regulations, the 2MJ class, the car uses 30 per cent less diesel than its 2013 predecessor.
A new Motor Generator Unit (MGU) is mated to a differential located in the tub, alongside the front axle. Two driveshafts connect to this axle and, under braking, the energy created by the wheels converts into electricity, which is then stored by the cockpit-located flywheel accumulator. The recovered energy is then used on acceleration via the MGU, which becomes a motor to power the front wheels. The actual V6 TDI engine is completely new, upped from 3.7 to 4 litres for 2014, yet it is slightly lighter than the previous unit.
This hi-tech package will provide a rare opportunity for a young driver of Tincknell’s quality. Quite apart from his benchmark performance at Le Mans, Tincknell had earned two of Team Jota’s three 2014 ELMS pole positions at the time of writing. Both were set by impressive margins and included showing the likes of ex-Red Bull F1 driver Christian Klien a pristine pair of heels. His stock is high.
While it was a memorable Le Mans debut for Tincknell, the race as a whole was a paradox. It featured perhaps the most technically intricate cars in the race’s history, yet the event itself had a decidedly retro feel in the way it played out.
All but one of the seven manufacturer entries – from Audi, Toyota and Porsche – ran into significant technical problems during the race. Ironically, the only one not to do so was the third-placed no8 Toyota of Anthony Davidson/Sébastien Buemi/Nicolas Lapierre, which was massively delayed in the second hour after being caught up in a rain-soaked carambolage with Marco Bonanomi’s Audi and Sam Bird’s AF Corse Ferrari 458.
The ebb and flow of the race was frantic right from the moment Fernando Alonso lowered the tricolore at 4pm. The no7 Toyota of Kazuki Nakajima/Stéphane Sarrazin/Alexander Wurz led comfortably until it stopped at Arnage with an electrical problem, just after 5am. This left the no2 Audi out in front and with the race seemingly under its control. But just before 7am a turbocharger required changing, though the race would come back to them (see page 78).
A few months on from the drama of Le Mans, the no2 Audi glistens in the Adriatic sun. Opinions are divided as to the aesthetic merits of the current LMP designs.
It is, however, nothing if not striking, with a NASA-like stance.
Tincknell stands composed in the pits. As you would assume, he has done his homework. A visit to Audi Sport Team Joest technical director Howden Haynes and Kyle Wilson-Clarke, who is lead engineer on the no1 Audi, has taken him through the intricacies of the hybrid system and myriad buttons, knobs, bells and whistles adorning the steering wheel.
Audi R18 e-tron quattro cockpit ergonomics are exact. Tincknell, just a shade shorter than André Lotterer at 6ft, fits comfortably into the German’s hallowed seat.
The wait for action at Misano has been long; Fässler beds in the still Le Mans-pockmarked no2 Audi. Tincknell absorbs the interaction between engineer Leena Gade and her usual charge. Fässler vacates the cockpit and our man dives in.
There’s a final check with Gade, who conducts the start procedure with assertive clarity.
LG: “Harry, you are getting another set of tyres that have been in the oven. We are ready to go unless you have any more questions?”
HT: “Once I come off the pit limiter, will the screen come on with normal lap time information?”
LG: “The top reading is your lap time and the one below is the delta time that I plotted out for you and which Marcel set this morning. Your tyre pressures are there, too, plus your brake balance and the fuel save info, but this is not active at present. Ready to go?
LG: “Good. Turn DMS (Driver Master Switch) on.”
The clatter of air guns resonates along the deserted pitlane. A set of used Michelins is applied. Gade utters the three words Tincknell has been aching to hear.
LG: “Clear to go.”
The conversation in the few laps he has at the wheel is minimal, with Gade only reminding Tincknell that he can go down notches on the TC (traction control). He doesn’t need a second invitation and the confidence in what the back end is doing comes naturally.
When Harry has finished the one real ‘flying’ lap he is given, Dr Ullrich strides across the pit apron to take a concentrated interest. Just as he does so, the Audi runs slightly wide at the final turn, crosses the shallow kerb, kicks up a little dust and grazes the grass beyond.
The gaffer raises a comedy eyebrow and then smiles briefly.
The next lap Tincknell follows Gade’s instruction to switch off the DMS and select Mode 12, which effectively shuts off the hybrid system for safety, then heads in. The Audi ghosts down the pitlane and is met with a host of brake-caliper fans that are instantly applied.
LG: “How was that?”
HT: “Awesome. I could feel the acceleration as soon as I left the pits. The TC was very noticeable so I went down the levels quickly. What caught me out initially was how quickly you can upshift. I think there might be some pick-up on the tyres because there was quite a lot of vibration in the high-speed corners. The only place I had any oversteer was T14. The downforce comes in massively and you barely have to turn the steering. Incredible feeling.”
Gade evaluates the job Tincknell has done and her impressions of his first taste at this rarefied level.
“He did well,” she says. “It was pleasing that he came in and gave some instant, solid feedback. He wanted to know the optimum time for the lap as he knew he’d lost a little at the final corner. You can never take the competitive edge off a racing driver.”
Tincknell revels in the knowledge of Gade, Fässler and Dr Ullrich. Standing back from the car he confers again with Gade and spends a few moments alone before pouring out his experience.
“To be honest, at low speed it seemed similar to the Jota Zytek-Nissan,” he says. “But at medium and high speeds it is on another level entirely. Even in a straight line you can feel, and I mean really physically feel, the car pushing into the ground. It is an astonishing sensation.
“You change up so quickly. It pulls and pulls and pulls. Down the Mulsanne it must feel like you can just go on accelerating forever. The torque is all in one go and it just keeps going, keeps on giving.”
Tincknell finds the steering equally impressive, with barely any input needed at high speed, but when going more slowly he finds himself almost on the lock-stops. He also describes the acoustics very neatly. “The noise on the downshift is incredible and a little spooky [he makes a noise not unlike a Wurlitzer jukebox starting up]. It’s so weird and takes a lot of acclimatisation. The sensory appreciation you get is more than you would think. There’s a lot of audio going on, but it’s just different from what you are used to in a conventional car.”
An earwigging Fässler concurs and praises Ticknell’s handling of downforce levels that only a privileged few get to experience.
“He seemed to be immediately ‘on it’, but at the same time we all know it is tough when you are faced with so much that is new and with such a small amount of time,” says the Swiss, who then goes on to describe how his own apprenticeship in GT racing helped him to make the most of the all-important traffic situations at Le Mans.
“When I was at Corvette [in 2009] I had my first spotter, who was there to tell us who was on our tail and also how I could make the most efficient method of selecting lines to let cars through. Now, with Audi, we are always looking ahead, so that process is reversed. It helps everyone to be as alert as possible in the race but the most important thing is to have respect from both sides. That way there are fewer incidents.”
One of the bugbears that drivers had from previous iterations of LMP1 cars was visibility, or rather the lack of it. Those gripes have been less pronounced this season.
“It is actually not as restricted as it looks,” Tincknell says. “From the cockpit the left-hand-side is easy to see through, but the right has slightly less scope because you are closer to it physically. But there are no issues seeing the track on turn-in and the kerbs are easy to spot. I haven’t driven the predecessor to this car; maybe the designers took on board some of what was said then, I don’t know.”
Alert to the conversation, as ever, Ullrich chips in. “The car is 20mm higher this year so there are aerodynamic and ergonomic gains we have made and the drivers confirm that the all-round visibility is improved.”
Those aero gains have been noticeable to the regular drivers, but for Tincknell it was enhanced by being on a totally separate level to the DTM car he tested last autumn. “I just can’t get over how efficient the aerodynamics are”, he says. “I now have a good understanding of how in control the LMP1 drivers are when they go flying around the outside to overtake you.”
Tincknell goes on to give a fascinating description about the differences between watching multi-class endurance racing from the outside and actually doing it from the cockpit.
“When I’m watching on the monitor in the pits and I see one of my team-mates make a move,” he says, “I sometimes flinch and think ‘easy there… easy!’ But when you do it yourself, from the cockpit, it is all thought out and executed carefully. There is nothing like ‘being there’ and that is the same with the LMP1 guys when it all looks a bit marginal. They are completing something they know they and the car can do. It is great to have this insight into where that next level is.
“I was pretty accurate about everything I thought today would be,” Tincknell says with relish. “It was way beyond what I am used to in terms of power and grip, but it all felt good and natural. My comparison data with Marcel on similar tyres was encouraging, particularly in braking areas where I am naturally strong anyway.”
The stopwatch bears this out. On tyres of a similar vintage, Tincknell was 1.6sec from Fässler after just three laps at the wheel.
Suddenly there is a rumpus in the pitlane. Fässler and Markus Winkelhock (in an R8) have got a little too close for comfort during some filming laps and having briefly touched.
Leena Gade, ferociously protective of the no2 car that brought her team its Le Mans hat trick gives a committed Roy Keane-like stare toward a sheepish Winkelhock. “Not f****** cool at all,” is the uncompromising conclusion.
Later there are hearty laughs about the incident over dinner, but at the time there was genuine anger that even the slightest chip in the bodywork would require unnecessary cosmetic procedures just before well-deserved retirement.
It was a suitably feisty farewell to a car that had won Le Mans the hard way. From Tincknell’s perspective, the test showed how good a feeder formula LMP2 really is. He will be hoping that his date with ‘Betty Boost’ will be the first of many similar encounters.
Keeping the faith
The finer details of the drama behind Audi’s latest Le Mans triumph
Rock bottom is not a phrase often associated with Audi, but it would have been forgiven for thinking it had reached that point as dawn broke on Easter Monday.
The day before, the team had seen both its new Audi R18 e-tron quattros significantly damaged in accidents during the FIA WEC opener at Silverstone. Additionally, a few weeks beforehand, Audi had been forced to announce that its second, exhaust-driven energy retrieval system [ERS] was to be dropped after testing had shown serious reliability concerns.
“That was a straightforward decision, really,” says Dr Wolfgang Ullrich. “We could not compromise reliability. We knew it would be crucial, this year of all years.”
Audi being Audi, there was of course no rock bottom. It was more a call to arms to prepare the groundwork for a fightback that would ultimately take them to a remarkable 13th Le Mans win from the last 15 events.
By its own admission, however, Audi was on the back foot when it arrived at Le Mans for the 82nd running of the classic race. Toyota and Porsche were tough opposition and seemed to hold all the cards when it came to outright pace.
When the no2 Audi swept into an early morning lead, but then faltered with a turbocharger problem that took 23 minutes to rectify, Leena Gade must have subconsciously kissed any chance of a third Le Mans win goodbye. “No, it never crossed our minds,” she says without hesitation.
“I always believed we would come out on top. You have that belief as a team. If you start thinking about fourth or fifth place, you might as well pack up and go home.”
André Lotterer was one big reason why that faith was rewarded. The German, who has set overall fastest laps at Le Mans for three of the past four years, completed a remarkable marathon stint after the turbocharger was changed.
It is worth detailing this tranche of the no2 Audi’s race, especially just before and after the 14th hour, when it initially took over the lead after the no7 Toyota stopped with a singed wiring loom.
In time it is likely that Lotterer’s drive will be viewed as being from the very top drawer. During his first two stints, his intensity at the wheel led to a remarkable average lap time of 3min 25.13sec. It was relentless, unadulterated pace, cushioned with his trademark gossamer touch.
In third position at this stage behind the leading no1 Audi and the no20 Porsche, Lotterer’s lap times peaked with a mighty 3min 22.567sec, which remained the fastest lap of the race by almost 0.5sec and within a second of the pole time.
When Tom Kristensen stopped with the same issue that befell the no2 Audi earlier on, and with the Porsche not able to get within four seconds of Lotterer’s pace, the way was clear for no2 to control the race. After taking the lead at 12.35pm it cruised to the flag, completing a hat trick for the driving trio.
Toyota privately acknowledged that the telling difference at Le Mans this year was nothing to do with speed or efficiency, but the simple fact that when Audi hit technical problems, it had the ability to get back to the pits.
As ever with sports car racing, intense battles were also fought off the track, none more so than the legality issues arising from Toyota’s moving main-plane that adorned its contentious rear wing mounting.
The device was essentially a drag reduction system and at a technical working group meeting in July, which Motor Sport has since learned was especially feisty, the mounting was deemed unacceptable, despite being allowed to compete up to and including the race itself.
Ullrich was reticent to comment specifically on the meeting or the decision to outlaw the system, simply saying: “We won’t be seeing it at Austin, that’s for sure.”
Would he have protested the Toyota team had it won, as looked likely for more than half the race? “No, no, that was not our job. The regulators signed it off. Everyone can see what they had. The key word with all of this is ‘interpretation’.”
Despite all of the shunts, including Loïc Duval’s monstrous aerial incident at the Porsche Curves on Wednesday, Audi did it again.
“It was a sweet one,” Ullrich says, with a smile. “This year was dramatic and intense, as it always seems to be at Le Mans. To be racing against two significant factories like Toyota and Porsche is good for all of us at Audi Sport. It gives us more competition and this is what we enjoy.”
Meet the youngster following a trail blazed by fellow Dumfries native Allan McNish
As one talented Scottish racer bowed out with a third Le Mans win and FIA World Endurance Championship title last year, another was plotting his breakthrough into the competitive world of sports car racing.
Ross Wylie, born and bred in the same Scottish border town as Allan McNish, shares a similar steely determination to succeed. Wylie is a former British Open Kart champion, who skipped the booby trap-laden single-seater ladder to carve out a career in endurance racing.
Making waves in the British GT Championship this year in the GT4 class, Wylie has taken several wins with team-mate Jake Giddings in a Beechdean Aston Martin. Now, weighing up his next move, his targets are clear in his own mind.
“Le Mans is definitely where I want to be,” he says with quiet, stoic confidence. “I just want to soak up and learn as much as possible so when I get there I am as prepared as I can be.”
Wylie’s journey up the ranks of endurance racing took a small but significant step at Misano, when he got the chance to sample GT3 machinery for the first time, in the shape of the Nürburgring 24 Hours-winning Phoenix Racing Audi R8.
“It was a big deal for me to try a full-on GT3 car, never mind one that had won a race like the Nürburgring 24 Hours,” he says. “What gets you is the sheer acceleration and, of course, that V10 soundtrack. You can feel the aero immediately and the grip just inspires confidence. All in all, I can see why the GT3 package is so attractive. It is essentially plug in and play.”
Markus Winkelhock has enjoyed a marvellous season, scooping the biggest 24-hour GT races in Europe with wins at Nürburgring and Spa as part of the Phoenix and WRT customer Audi teams. The son of former ATS, RAM and Brabham F1 driver Manfred, he is part of the Audi works roster and was on hand to mentor Wylie. “He only had a few laps but I thought he did well,” Winkelhock says. “It is nice to see young guys getting an opportunity in a special car like this, even if it is just a taste. Good luck to him.”
The Audi R8 LMS ultra Wylie tried at Misano will, like the no2 R18 e-tron quattro, be retired to the museum. The R8 has an enviable record since being introduced as a racing entity in 2009. There have been 235 race wins (to date) and 23 championship titles for the model.
“I could have driven that thing all day long,” Wylie says, staring wistfully at the R8.