Flashback: the first time an Audi hybrid won Le Mans

Audi wins Le Mans in 2012.

The new Audi R18 e-tron quattro successfully competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans recently. The latest regulaitons stipulate that a race car must be even more economical, while achieving significantly better lap times. With the latest R18, Audi made the next major step in the development of its hybrid technology. In 2012, Audi was the first manufacturer to win Le Mans with hybrid drive – and to this day, this technology of the brand with the four rings is unbeaten in the endurance classic.

An elec­tric drive gen­er­at­ing more than 270 hp and the fault­less and se­cure con­tin­u­ous op­er­a­tion of a high-volt­age sys­tem pro­duc­ing more than 600 volts in rac­ing ac­tion. Today, these are considered a mat­ter of course in the R18 e-tron quat­tro con­test­ing the FIA World En­durance Cham­pi­onship. But in 2012, it all represented a huge chal­lenge at the be­gin­ning of the pro­ject.

“The R18 e-tron quat­tro was with­out doubt the most com­plex rac­ing car up to that time in the 32-year his­tory of Audi Sport,” says the Head of Audi Mo­tor­sport Dr. Wolf­gang Ull­rich. “The Audi mo­tor­sport de­part­ment had never de­vel­oped a sports car with two dri­ven axles, never a model with an elec­tric drive mo­tor and a com­bus­tion en­gine. On top of this came the ex­tremely so­phis­ti­cated elec­tronic net­work­ing of the sys­tems. And ul­ti­mately, as a re­sult of this ad­di­tional drive, ex­treme de­mands were made of light­weight de­sign to achieve the limit of 900 kilo­grams.”

A look in glossy white with sil­ver, black and red as con­trast­ing col­ors, as well as graph­i­cal ref­er­ences to the de­sign of printed cir­cuit boards on the ex­te­rior body­work sur­faces of the LMP race car, sym­bol­ized the new dri­ve­train tech­nol­ogy in 2012.

An ex­cit­ing bat­tle be­tween the two hy­brid sports cars with the four rings dom­i­nated the race un­til the clos­ing stages. At the flag, Mar­cel Fässler, An­dré Lot­terer and Benoît Tréluyer beat their team-mates Dindo Capello, Tom Kris­tensen and Al­lan Mc­Nish by a lap. “The tech­ni­cal chal­lenge was just as thrilling as the race it­self,” says Dr. Ull­rich. “Such com­plex sys­tems never run trou­ble-free from the word go. So it was very pleas­ant to see Audi Sport and Audi Sport Team Joest bring­ing the two race cars home in the best po­si­tions.” Two Audi R18 ul­tra equipped with con­ven­tional TDI drive rounded off the re­sult with third and fifth po­si­tions.

“It is in fact only three years ago that Audi ac­com­plished this,” says Dr. Ull­rich, “how­ever, even to­day many com­po­nents have noth­ing what­so­ever to do with the tech­nol­ogy used at that time.” The Mo­tor Gen­er­a­tor Unit (MGU), which re­cu­per­ates en­ergy on the front axle be­fore feed­ing it back again, has a fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent de­sign to that seen three years ago. It pro­duces 33 per cent more than the first unit. The hy­brid sys­tem’s ac­cu­mu­la­tor ac­cepts 40 per cent more en­ergy to­day than three years ago. In spite of this greater per­for­mance, to­day’s race cars weigh 30 kilo­grams less than the first gen­er­a­tion. “We also aim to de­fend this ‘Vor­sprung durch Tech­nik’ again this year against tough op­po­nents,” he says.