Audi COTA test: behind the scenes's George Achorn attended Audi's testing of the R18 e-tron quattro at the Circuit of the Americas last week. Here is an indepth look at what the Ingolstadt's marque is undertaking with the FIA's new rules for the World Endurance...

The view directly below my feet is a floor of of dotted clear glass atop the red steel waterfall of a tower that posits like Mount Olympus over the sprawling Circuit of the Americas. I adjust my Pumas so as not to virtually step on the line of parked Audi A4s that appear as bugs on the ground. Just beyond the row of Audis is the big sweeper that makes up turns 16, 17 and 18, ushered along by big swathes of red and white stripes. I can see what is left of the track’s trademark stars blacked out with paint atop a slightly more sun-bleached black tarmac. Rumor has it that this was all Bernie Eccelstone’s doing, because maybe there’s only so much room for such things amongst the stars of his F1 travelling circus. It all seems a bit of a contrast to this day though, as I’m at an up-until-now secret test of the new 2014 spec Audi R18 e-tron quattro. The notoriously secretive Audi Sport has invited a short list of journalists in order to shed some light on their new program and their menacing new R18 e-tron quattro.

Tom Kristensen
Tom Kristensen

Photo by: George Achorn

The theme of contrast isn’t lost on me this day. Aside from the blisteringly bright Texas sunlight bouncing off everything and leaving me in perma-squint, the carbon black Audi’s R18 test car rounding the track seems as adept at sucking up those bright rays as it does sucking up mileage. In sportscar racing, one of the biggest stars is the cars and this one presents a unique opportunity. The light contrast won’t make photography easy though, even though those of us shooting have been told to have at it.

The Google satellite map on the navigation screen of my Audi A4 rented from nearby SilverCar Austin will tell you that there are precisely 1,182 miles between Sebring International Raceway and Circuit of the Americas. In road trip terms that’s just over 17 hours, though it might as well be an eternity… and thus more contrast. The two circuits couldn’t be further from each other in terms of layout and design or targeted audience for that matter. Sebring’s long straights of chewed up tarmac and grizzled campgrounds populated by swamp denizens and partying college kids bears a striking contrast to the the purpose-built F1 track affectionately known as COTA to Texas locals, but more familiar as a place for opulent corporate suites filled with the type of guys who like to paint over Texan stars…on Texas soil… just for sport.

We’re actually staging out of one of those suites, but today it’s a lot more purpose built. There are some dining tables being used for a few interviews and, of course, dining. Over in a corner there’s a curtain and a long row of hanging uniforms for participating team members and drivers. The latter group includes Tom Kristensen who’s just arrived and nursing a cold. If he’s feeling better, he may drive tomorrow. Today is reserved for the young guns. Oliver Jarvis, Marco Bonanomi and Filipe Albuquerque are in the building somewhere, or maybe in the car that’s just rocketed up the hill to turn 1.Texas Test: Behind the Scenes of the 2014 Audi R18 e-tron quattro Test at Circuit of the Americas.

Audi R18 e-tron quattro, Filipe Albuquerque (P), Marco Bonanomi (I), Oliver Jarvis (GB)
Audi R18 e-tron quattro, Filipe Albuquerque (P), Marco Bonanomi (I), Oliver Jarvis (GB)

Photo by: George Achorn

Audi Sport has made a tradition of testing at Sebring. In fact, the team was there just two weeks ago alongside corporate sibling and chief rival, Porsche. Both brands tested their car at the brutal Floridian track. Unlike COTA, Sebring is a great simulation for the grueling conditions of Le Mans. So why come to Texas? We put the question to Audi Sport boss Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich.

“We are here because we need to collect data on different race tracks and different layouts. This track has a very special layout and therefore it is very important that you have data from this race track taken into account for your development.”

Data may not sound very sexy, but it’s key to any manufacturer’s approach this year. In addition to historically significant competition from Porsche and Toyota, the rulebook has totally changed. Totally.

Rather than going flat-out all the time, drivers will have very specific limits on the amount of energy that can be used during a single lap. Don’t use it and you lose it as it does not accrue. Use too much and you have just two laps to make amends or you will be penalized. For Ullrich’s team of engineers and mechanics, in addition to his talented mix of drivers, this requires a complete re-think.

Nowadays, testing endurance at Sebring is important, but logging data for different tracks and turns and then optimizing the support systems that define Audi’s efficiency is maybe even more critical.

Audi R18 e-tron quattro, Filipe Albuquerque (P), Marco Bonanomi (I), Oliver Jarvis (GB)
Audi R18 e-tron quattro, Filipe Albuquerque (P), Marco Bonanomi (I), Oliver Jarvis (GB)

Photo by: George Achorn

According to Dr. Ullrich, re-setting the minds of his team around this new racing schema is of the highest priority. The team has been running every lap of every test as if under those energy constraints. They even began to simulate the consumption conditions late last season in order to gain some experience under fire.

Dr. Ullrich explains,

“It is not easy, but we try to develop the system that the driver gets clear information so he can adapt to the target he should achieve. For me, there is no solution to tell him what he should do via radio because that is too dangerous, and what do you do if the radio does not work. The car must have, with all the programs and interlink of all of the systems, its own intelligence that makes the driver clear so that he may have to change his driving style if he wants to stay within the limits. This is something we have worked on very intensely. It is a big part of the development work on this new era of racecars, because it is completely efficiency driven and not as much power driven.”

For the drivers, Ullrich wants it to be simple… instinctual. The reality is that it’s anything but. Dr. Ullrich continues.

“The energy that you have per lap is a given one and it is per lap. You can’t save anything for the next lap. So, the target is that you have to maintain 100%. If you use only 99%, you are giving 1% away. Maybe that’s a problem at the end.

If you are at 102%, then they give you two laps to recover from that. If you haven’t done it by then, then you get a penalty. It is important to work out strategies that allow you to do this and to give the driver intelligent indications of what he should do and when, without needing to think a lot about saving energy. He should concentrate on being fast. That’s racing.”

That may be racing, but it’s a stark contrast from what the team, the drivers and even the fans know to be racing. Le Mans has always enjoyed a bit of a science fair tone to its 24-hour enduro, but this year that theme seems to be on an even greater level of display and it aims to re-set the schema of racing and performance for everyone.

So how does this effect the driver? For that we asked 2013 World Champion and the winningest driver ever in the history of Le Mans. Tom Kristensen’s presence at the test is hard to miss. The Dane is candid.

“You always have to adapt to the different circumstances. Now, whenever you try to be efficient or economic, it is not a help. It won’t take you any further because every lap you cash in and you start all over again. That is not logical compared to how we have done it before.

If you have been very smart, fast but been able to save a little bit each lap then you might be able to go another lap when the car you are charging has to go to the pit. When he comes out and you stop after him and you come out in front… it was things like that that I loved.

This will be different now for sure. Every lap you are not going any further. Every lap you know exactly how many laps you can do, because that is the energy level that you have. So, that aspect is taken out of it. But, there a lot of other things that make it very interesting. You have to adapt, and I think that’s what makes you successful. You have to be adaptable, alert and react to different circumstances.”

Audi R18 e-tron quattro test
Audi R18 e-tron quattro test

Photo by: George Achorn

Does he find that more mentally taxing?

“At the moment it looks like it, but you’re talking about what I’m about to do. It will be a lot easier to speak about this after the season because it is a challenge for me like it would be a challenge for you to try to explain to your readers. The modernized view of racing… it has to be relevant to the road cars that are sold around the world and that relevance has got a big push in that direction for this year. It’s very much in line with that, with what everyone wants, from car manufacturers, from politicians, from the FIA and from the ACO in Le Mans.

The future looks fantastic for sportscar racing because the manufacturers are attracted to it. We know the three that will compete this year. We know that Nissan and that Ferrari are thinking in that direction. Combine short term and long term, and this kind of racing looks very, very interesting.

Complicated? Yes.”

It’s clear there’s still work to do. As if on cue, the lone R18 test car loses power on an out lap and rolls to a stop by turn 3. It is towed back in to the pits by a course-owned pickup. About an hour goes by and the car finally emerges for four quick laps before the end of the session. The team parks it outside the garage so we can get up close, ogle and take a few photos. It seems this is the first photo opportunity for everyone because mechanics, drivers and journalists alike all scramble for their DSLR or mobile phones. Fresh out of the car, Filipe Albuquerque looks a bit confused then asks if it’s okay to nab a few shots on his iPhone before catching some hell from a PR person about how he’s as much of a journalist on Instagram as he is a racing driver. He smiles and laughs, but he’s not fazed and he grabs a few shots including a gratuitous selfie.

In the soft golden evening sun of Austin Texas, more unseen details of this menacing new R18 come into view just as the contrast between racing as we knew it and the future of motorsport move closer together. It seems this latest Audi R18 e-tron quattro is quickly coming into focus in more ways than one.

- Thank you to George Achorn and for generously allowing us to repost this article in its entirety.

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series WEC , Le Mans
Drivers Tom Kristensen , Marco Bonanomi , Oliver Jarvis , Filipe Albuquerque
Teams Nissan Motorsport
Article type Blog
Tags audi, fia, fourtitude, lemans, r18, tom kristensen, wec, wolfgang ullrich