Champions Reflect on Audi’s Le Mans Program
Looking back as Audi prepares to exit endurance racing
In the wake of Audi's announcement it will cease its Le Mans Prototype racing activities at the end of this season, I reached out over the past couple of days to three key people responsible for much of the success of Audi's LMP1 program: Dave Maraj, owner of the Champion Racing Audi R8, and Audi factory drivers Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen, three- and nine-time winners, respectively, of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Maraj and his Champion Racing team were at the epicenter of Audi's racing in North America, primarily with the Audi R8. "Audi leaves behind a beautiful legacy," he says. He would know. Of Audi's 106 total LMP1 wins, Champion claimed 38 of them. Champion also claimed five of Audi's nine American Le Mans Series titles, six straight Petit Le Mans victories, one win at the 12 Hours of Sebring, and one at Le Mans.
Maraj is founder and owner of Champion Porsche in Pompano Beach, Florida. It holds the distinction, and has for more than a decade, of selling more Porsches every year than any other dealership in North America. Champion campaigned competition Porsches for a number of seasons, primarily in the GT class, and eventually made the switch to Audi and its R8 and R10.
"Audi and their methods made my good race team into a more sophisticated and great team," he reflects. "Everything was important. It was all about details, details, details, which is why every part was perfect. We would stay nine days in Sebring and do a straight 48-hour test. These days, some teams show up at Daytona without doing a 24-hour test and think they can win. With Audi no stone was left unturned. It was mind-boggling in an extremely good way."
The team owner feels the Audi cars he ran represented the pinnacle of racing tech. "The technology Audi brought to endurance racing was better than even F1," he says. "We changed transmissions (the gearbox and entire rear end at Le Mans in 2000) in four minutes, 35 seconds. They changed the sport from endurance racing to an endurance sprint. And the cars became faster and more reliable. This is an era that would match the 962 and the Group C eras."
McNish, who won two of his three Le Mans 24 titles with Audi, also speaks in glowing terms of advancements Audi brought to the sport. "The technical developments that came through the program, the R8 and then the R8 road car, the four-minute gearbox change at Le Mans in 2000, the FSI injection in 2001, the R10 diesel program which blew my mind with the power and torque when I first drove the car, wow! Then the R18 E-tron Quattro and hybrid power and how they balanced the efficiency without losing performance, LED and laser lights, and the list goes on."
The Scot points out that several members of Audi Sport, "the core" as he calls them, including Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, Reinhold Joest, Joachim Hausner, Ulrich Baretzki, and Ralf Juettner, have been with the program since the first race at Sebring in 2000 and will finish up the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship season at Bahrain in November.
"When I think back through those times a lot of special races come to mind," says McNish. "A lot of trophies on mantle pieces and a lot of driver's careers made, all through hard battles on and off the track whether it be with the likes of BMW, Panoz, Peugeot, Acura, Porsche, Toyota. The determination, a never-give-up attitude, the times cars came back in pieces and mechanics set about and got it back out and often got a good result, it was pure racing from the heart."
McNish points out that Audi's time in Prototype racing and at Le Mans was longer than most driver's careers. And he marvels at its ability to win. "The success rate on all parts of the globe, especially the French part, with 13 wins in 17 years , a 77-percent strike rate of wins—77 percent is incredible."
If McNish was the heart of Audi's LMP1 program, Kristensen was the soul.
Like his co-driver, Kristensen reflects first upon the program's early days. "I will never forget the first contact with Dr. Ullrich after Le Mans in 1999—and the brief meeting ending with a strong handshake to a common future at his humble office in Ingolstadt back then," he says. "It seems like yesterday. It meant the world to my career. The best times of my entire racing life. Absolutely. I look back at fantastic memories with great people and racing cars traveling the world for almost two decades."
Kristensen, known as "Mr. Le Mans," won seven of his Le Mans titles with Audi, five with Audi Sport Team Joest, one with Team Goh, and one with Champion Racing. His other two wins were with a Joest Porsche and Team Bentley, the latter effectively being an offshoot of the Audi program. Kristensen won the 12 Hours of Sebring six times, and five of those victories in Florida were with Audi, as was his American Le Mans Series championship in 2002, and the 2013 WEC title.
The Danish racing legend understands Audi's desire to look toward the future. He was in Abu Dhabi when I spoke to him, at the opening of the first standalone Audi Sport Center. "The world is moving almost as fast as a racing car," he says. "So does Audi Sport. New races are there to be won. Formula E is added to the motorsport heritage of the future."
In these last few days the sporting world has looked back fondly to this German marque's contributions and accomplishments. Kristensen is no exception. His experiences and memories are likely greater and more frequent than any other driver who sat in the cockpit, pressed the accelerator, and often stood on the top step of the podium.
His last words to me were, "But one thing is certain, Audi LMP1 cars will be greatly missed—racing hard during the night, at the Le Mans 24 Hours … "
His voice faded away at the thought of an Audi prototype at full-song through the French countryside. Memories. History. Glory.