The 2008 season was one for the record books for Audi. From its American Le Mans Series and DTM titles to its breathtaking win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and snatch of the Le Mans Series championship, the German automaker had it all. In its bid to repeat the success from this year, Audi unveiled its 2009 motorsports program Friday at the Essen Motor Show in Germany, with its newest Le Mans challenger stealing the headlines.
Audi will return to Le Mans next year with its newest weapon of choice, the Audi R15 TDI. The newly developed diesel-powered LMP1 car will carry the manufacturer's quest of tying Ferrari with nine overall victories at the famed Circuit de La Sarthe. Equipped with a smaller, lighter and more efficient diesel power plant than its predecessor, the latest generation prototype is expected to significantly different than the R10 TDI, but will remain an open-top car.
"It was clear to us that we must develop a new car if we wanted to continue to be successful in Le Mans," explained Head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. "The Audi R15 TDI is the result. The step from R10 to R15 is significantly larger than it was from the R8 to the R10."
Audi's foray to Le Mans was born in 1999 when Audi Sport Team Joest and Audi Sport UK both tested the waters with radically different prototypes - an open-top R8R and an R8C coupe. Team Joest's R8R succeeded with scoring a podium finish in its debut at Le Mans and development sped into an all-new model for 2000, the R8.
The magic began immediately when the R8 scored a convincing win in its debut race at Sebring, en route to victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans later than June. It was the first of five Le Mans crowns for the R8, including three in a row from 2000 to 2002 under the Audi Sport Team Joest banner. 2004 and 2005 saw works-supported Team Goh and Champion Racing take outright honors with the FSI Turbo V8-powered prototype.
As 2006 dawned, so did a new era in sports car racing. Audi rewrote the history books by developing the first factory modern-era diesel-powered prototype, the R10 TDI. Like the R8, it won in its debut at Sebring, followed by an historic victory at Le Mans. Allan McNish, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen's thrilling win this year capped off another three-peat for Team Joest, but this time with the V12 turbo diesel-powered machine.
As the competition grew stronger, Audi realized it was time to build a new challenger. French giant Peugeot stepped in with its own diesel-powered prototype in 2007, the 908 HDi-FAP, and have proven to be a formidable threat ever since. Team Peugeot Total claimed the European-based Le Mans Series championship in its debut season, but without competition from Audi.
Instead, the French Lions had to wait a year to face off with Audi Sport Team Joest for a season-long battle in the LMS, a duel which saw Peugeot dominate the first four races but falter in the final race, handing the title to Audi's Mike Rockenfeller and Alexandre Premat.
On the American front, Audi ran relatively unopposed in the P1 category of the American Le Mans Series, but has been under constant attack by the lighter and more nimble LMP2 machines from Porsche and Acura for the past two seasons. Next year, Acura steps up to the P1 ranks and will be met with Audi's new R15 TDI at the season opener, the Twelve Hours of Sebring, in March.
Aside from Sebring and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, which Team Joest will once again spearhead a three-car effort, Audi has yet to confirm its season-long programs. Due to the massive amount of development required for this new car, coupled with the current worldwide economic downturn, its unlikely Team Joest will campaign a full season in the LMS.
Audi Sport North America's ALMS program is likely to continue and could include the use of its tried and trusted R10 TDI, much like 2006. That year, the R8 was brought back for a partial season to fill the gap when the then-brand-new diesel-powered machine was in Europe testing for Le Mans. Either way, Audi plans to roll out the R15 TDI for private tests later this year before a public unveiling immediately prior to its debut race at Sebring on March 21. Could the win-on-debut tradition continue for Audi's fourth-generation Le Mans prototype?
On the DTM side, Audi plans to return to the popular German touring car championship with four new A4 cars, on top of up to five 2008-spec machines. After Timo Scheider's championships, the brand will be aiming to become the first manufacturer in the modern era of DTM to win three titles in a row.
The A4 took home six wins in 2008, facing fierce competition from German rival Mercedes Benz. The latest generation A4, codenamed "R14 plus" is optimized to take on the challenge once again. Abt Sportsline, Phoenix and Rosberg all return as factory-supported teams, while Audi's driver squad will be made up from all existing racers who were either behind the wheel of the DTM or sports car last season.
Three months ago, Audi announced plans to race the R8, the production-based sports car named after its Le Mans-winning prototype. Friday at the Essen Motor Show, Dr. Ullrich took the wraps off the R8 LMS, which will hit European circuits next year.
Designed for customers, the GT3-spec machine will compete in a variety of European championships next year, including the Nurburgring 24 Hours. The Audi R8 LMS is powered by a 500 hp V10 engine and will be available to customers next fall for 262,000 euros.
While the factory has no plans of entering the car in any races itself, it will develop an endurance version of the car tailored for the grueling Nurburgring race. Audi drivers Christian Abt, Frank Biela and Frank Stippler have all been involved in the car's development.
"2008 was the largest and most successful motorsport programme in AUDI AG history," Dr. Ullrich said. "We want to continue this in 2009. In view of the international economic and financial crisis, it is clear that motorsport must also make a contribution to reduce costs further. It is all the more pleasing that we have found a way to continue our two large projects, the new Le Mans sports car and the DTM, and added another string to our bow with the GT3 customer sport programme. This demonstrates just how valuable motorsport is for Audi."