McNish remembers racing a diesel Le Mans car: 'You won't believe it'

Sports Car News

The diesel-powered Audi R10 shocked many in the racing world – including its drivers. Allan McNish remembers testing it for the first time in this month's magazine

Allan McNish in Audi R10

The Audi R10 stunned on its arrival

The company thought it was mad, and the team thought it was bizarre. Even the drivers couldn’t get their heads around it.

But as soon as they got behind the wheel, they realised that the age of diesel domination was about to sweep sports car racing.

The Audi R10 was a prototype which shocked the endurance world, it was what was in the back that changed the sports car game.

In this month’s magazine, Audi driver Allan McNish recalls an era when the ruleset at Le Mans was “an open book”, allowing for some of the more zany ideas to come to the fore at sports car racing’s top table – none more so than the diesel-powered which German brand took to three consecutive La Sarthe wins, which he experienced first hand by using it to win on its debut in 2006.


Allan McNIsh testing Audi R10 Le Mans 2006

McNish says Audi considered piping in engine revs to the drivers’ helmets to make up for lack of R10 noise

The double-barrelled 1955 Nardi Bisiluro Damolar, the active rear wing of the Chaparral 2F and Cadillac’s 1961 snowplough ‘Le Monstre’ all shocked when they rolled up at La Sarthe, but what was under the skin of the Audi R10 changed the endurance racing world in 2006.

Having already won five out of six Le Mans from 2000 with its R8, Audi decided to pivot on its engine philosophy by coming up with something completely different for 2006.

From the archive

Originating from a late night discussion in a bar between Audi’s engine guru Ulrich Baretzky and a pair of ACO officials, the engineer decided that the German giant’s R10 successor would not be petrol powered but, for the first time, diesel.

That tentative chat first occurred in 2001, and when Baretzky presented the idea to the Audi board, support wasn’t exactly unanimous – as he remembered in 2016.

“They must have thought I was a little bit crazy,” he says. “Whenever I suggested it to anyone, they looked at me as though to say, ‘You are an honourable man and have been successful, but isn’t that a little bit too much, a little bit too strange?’”

However, the idea would eventually take hold due to its road relevance, a key reason for Audi’s involvement in sports car racing in the first place.

“We wanted to push the sportiness of the diesel,” said Ullrich, “and the best way to do that was through motor sport.”

Once the car was up and running for test sessions, McNish describes the arresting experience of driving the R10.

Winning Audi R10 Le Mans 2006

Winning No6 car at Le Mans 2006 (left – right): Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro, Marco Werner


“When Baretzky said the successor to the R8 was going to be powered by diesel I thought he had been smoking something or drinking too much schnapps. Was it just a PR fad?” McNish recalls.

“We always had a press conference at the Essen show and Frank Biela had just come back from testing the R10 at Vallelunga for the first time. He was the first to drive it and Tom [Kristensen], Dindo Capello and I were sitting there. So what was it like? He just smiled, then said. “You’ll never believe it, guys.” He couldn’t put it into words, because of the torque, the lack of noise. The sensations were so different to what we were used to. I drove that car for the first time at Sebring and there are a few things I remember from that first test.

From the archive

“We had to increase the dash size for the display of which gear the car was in because I didn’t have a clue, especially on downshifts – you couldn’t hear the revs.

“Also when the air was rushing over your helmet at 200kph all you could hear was the wind noise. We were even thinking about piping engine noise into the ear plugs so the driver had some sort of feedback. We eventually went with a honking great display on the dash and obviously got used to it. But it was just such a change from what we knew.”

In the end, McNish and co managed just fine. Despite the inevitable technological teething troubles, the Scot and team-mates Kristensen and Capello would win on debut at Sebring ’06 with a four-lap margin despite starting from the pitlane.

The car next ran at Le Mans that year, the McNish machine taking pole with the Emanuele Pirro, Biela and Marco Werner No6 R10 entry claiming the win.

It would do so the next two years also – though not widely adapted through the field, Audi had effected its own racing revolution all on its own.

Winning Audi R10 Le Mans 2008

Kristensen clinches the Le Mans victory he shared with McNish and Capello in 2008


In the age of the Hypercar, turbocharged V6s and accompanying electric motors made up the sea of hybrids in the 23-car strong top-class field at Le Mans 2024 – Baretzky believes that Audi’s boundary-breaking diesel almost tow decades earlier paved the way for the highly sophisticated powertrains of today.

“We opened the door to new technologies with the R10 TDI and, before that, the R8 FSI,” he said. “Maybe we changed the mindset by showing what could be done with future-orientated technology.”

“We saw a development of the sport advancing so quickly in all areas, and actually it was a super-cool time to be involved,” concludes McNish.

Read about the incredible technological war fought out across sports car racing, Le Mans and F1 in Allan McNish’s column – part of this month’s 100th anniversary magazine edition here