Le Mans: Audi As Challenger, Not Champion

Tom Kristensen talks tech, strategy, and what it takes to win

Racing, in any form, is brilliant insanity, riding a knife’s edge lap after lap. Racing in the top prototype category for 24 hours at Le Mans is riding the edge of a knife that stretches from New York to Los Angeles—and then to Salt Lake City.

To call Audi dominant at Le Mans is to approach the zenith of understatement. In the last 16 installments of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, only three were won by any car other than an Audi. But as important as the record books are, racing is about what is now, not what once was—and right now, Audi is at Le Mans not as the reigning champion, but as the challenger. Perhaps, even, as underdog.

The 2015 race at Le Mans was a close fight, with Audi leading much of the event, but the win ultimately going to corporate-group mate Porsche and its 919 Hybrid. Porsche closed out the 2015 FIA World Endurance Championship season in dominant fashion, winning all of the remaining races on the schedule. So far this season, Audi has seen better performance (if worse luck), despite making major changes to allow this year’s R18 e-tron quattro to run a new lithium-ion battery hybrid system, in place of the flywheel-based kinetic energy hybrid system it used previously. Early season disappointment at Silverstone, where the winning Audi was disqualified for a too-thin skid plate, has been replaced by tentative optimism following a hard-won victory at Spa-Francorchamps in the second round of the WEC championship in May.

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The Porsche 919 piloted by Romain Dumas, Neel Jani, and Marc Lieb won the pole for this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Entering the third round, the prestigious and strategically important 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend, Audi appears to be working harder than ever to hone its edge. At the same time, there’s an air of uncertainty in the ultimate outcome—one that, in years past, wasn’t present—or at least wasn’t so obvious. Even in 2014, the first year of Porsche’s renewed challenge at the top tier of Le Mans Prototype racing, walking the Audi garages and speaking with race-team leaders like Brad Kettler and Leena Gade, there was a sense of implacability in the face of the trials of a 24-hour race. This year, key figures are quick to talk about Audi’s competitiveness, but equally quick to note the roles weather, fuel, and reliability will play in the ultimate outcome, regardless of absolute pace.

Tom Kristensen, known in racing circles as “Mr. Le Mans” for his record as the most successful driver in Le Mans history, has earned seven of his nine overall wins at Le Mans at the wheel of Audi race cars. Even he is cautious about the team’s chances this year. Speaking with Kristensen trackside just before qualifying for this year’s race, AUTOMOBILE asked if being a challenger, rather than a champion, has had an effect on the team’s or drivers’ preparation. Kristensen admitted that last year’s loss is a backdrop of this year’s effort, saying, “There’s no doubt that we’re coming here trying to win again. Last year didn’t materialize.”

“Mr. Le Mans” Tom Kristensen knows a thing or two about what it takes to win at Circuit de la Sarthe.

Kristensen also pointed out that while Audi and Toyota have both moved to lithium-ion hybrid systems for 2016, Porsche has had three years of development with the technology, and as a result, has the advantage of experience—as well as what appears to be the best pace. “Porsche is the favorite for pole. But that’s not the focus—the focus is not to be fastest,” said Kristensen. “For the race, everything will be closer, and I think you can look forward to a very exciting race.” Reading between the lines, it’s not hard to see that Audi is focusing on its experience with strategy, survival, and race craft to make up for what may be a slight deficit in outright lap times.

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The Audi R18 driven by Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer, and Benoit Treluyer during night running at Le Mans ahead of Sunday’s race.

As always, however, the 24 Hours of Le Mans will test each and every aspect of the drivers, engineers, and mechanics, as well as the cars. According to Kristensen, overcoming those tests, and keeping the whole team working together toward the checkered flag is about more than who has the fastest lap, the most trophies, or any other single attribute. “Every time you enter Le Mans, there is technology you have never seen before,” said Kristensen, cautioning that “You cannot cheat 24 hours. You have not done it before you do it—you do your testing and your preparation, but with a big engineering team, mechanic team, and driver team … communication is, as ever, a key factor.”

Those simple words of wisdom may give some insight into how, even as just a single member of teams often numbering into the hundreds, Kristensen has been a part of more Le Mans wins than any other driver in history. That lesson is certainly one Audi helped develop for Kristensen as it built its own winning record—but it’s one that’s also certainly well-known across the garages at Porsche, which added its 17th win last year after a 16-year gap.

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After Audi locked out the front row, the two Toyotas claimed sole possession of row 2 on the Le Mans starting grid.

Toyota, too, is not to be forgotten in the mix for LMP1 victory. Currently second in the WEC constructors’ points-race behind Porsche—and just ahead of Audi—the drivers of the TS050 Hybrid have shown very good pace at the Circuit de la Sarthe, splitting the two German teams’ lap times in sessions marked by changeable, often very wet weather.

Another factor that will influence this year’s race is the number of cars each manufacturer fields. For a variety of reasons, each of the top three P1 teams have just two cars competing for the win, rather than the usual three. As Stephan Reil, head of technical development for Audi quattro GmbH told AUTOMOBILE, that reduces each teams’ ability to withstand the attrition of 24 hours of flat-out racing.

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Audi’s most recent Le Mans win occurred in 2014, when it also claimed second-place overall.

Simply being the fastest at Le Mans has never been enough, and it’s no different this year—not for Audi, nor for Porsche or Toyota. To win, every part of the team must work to near perfection, and each of those parts must work together—and on top of it all, there must be at least a little luck. Last year, the recipe didn’t quite work for Audi. This year? Well, we’ll all find out together when the checkered flag drops on the 84th 24 Hours of Le Mans this Sunday.