Tom Kristensen

End Of An Era With Audi Departing Departing Sportscar Racing

Nobody would have predicted when Audi first went to Le Mans in June 1999 with their two experimental R8R and R8C cars, that they would leave a legacy that would arguably be the most dominant in the sports history. This era has begrudgingly now come to an end with today’s announcement that Audi are to end their sports car effort  at the end of the season. But just how did the Audi brand become synonymous with Le Mans victory?

Expectations were low despite a huge four car entry comprising both the Audi R8R open cockpit car and the R8C coupe. Third and fourth overall in their first running showed their potential, yet very few people would have predicted what came in store next.

A new millennium came and with it was an era of complete Audi dominance in the sport. Returning with their revised R8 model,  a car that would go down in sports car racing as one of those revolutionary cars that change the sport, such as the Ford GT40 and the Porsche 956/962.

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The Porsche 962 taking its customary place at the front of the field, circa Le Mans 1987. Photo copyright Porsche.

Despite manufactures such as BMW, Mercedes and Nissan all pulling out of the end of 1999, nobody questioned the dominance of their victory. They cruised to a 1-2-3 podium lock out, with a winning margin of 24 four laps over their closest competitors.

The 2001 edition would be a lot tougher victory, with extreme weather conditions and the loss of driver Michele Alboreto only months before the race made it an emotional one for the team. From here it was on wards and upwards, with another victory for the #1 driver line up of Frank Biela, Emmanuele Pirro and Tom Kristensen cementing their place in history as the first driver line up to win the race three years in a row.

The factory team pulled out after 2002, paving the way for sister marque Bentley to win comfortably in 2003. After this small hiccup the R8 returned to the winners circle in 2004 and 2005 in the hands of the privateer Japanese Team Goh and America’s Champion Racing.

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Tom Kristensen celebrating his seventh win and the final victory for the iconic Audi R8, 2005, the end of an era. Photo copyright AudiWorld.

The R8 will not go down in history as simply a fast car, it was designed to make mechanical issues a lot quicker to fix. It was the first sports car to have this design philosophy and therefore it always had a huge advantage over the rest, because of how little time they would spend in the pit lane.

2006 would herald a new chapter in the Audi story, with the factory returning to Le Mans with an brand new diesel powered R10 TDI. It was the first of its type and would become the first ever diesel powered car to win Le Mans. This was a feat they managed to repeat in both 2007 and 2008, despite opposition from a strong Peugeot manufacture presence.

2009 woulds prove that Audi were human when their new R15 TDI proved uncompetitive at Le Mans thanks to issues with it’s radiators. 2010 and 2011 would provide epic battles with Peugeot as Audi introduced first the R15 Plus and then the R18 TDI, their first closed cockpit car since the initial R8C in 1999.

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Audi achieving yet another mile stone, becoming the first overall winner with hybrid power. Photo copyright F1fanatic.co.uk

2012-2014 would bring a further string of victories as they introduced hybrid power into their prototypes. The return of sports car legend Porsche in 2014 provided a mouth watering prospect for everyone involved, but unfortunately it would not be able to live up to high expectations.

Both Audi and Porsche would never both be truly competitive over the three years, with Porsche winning the mini-battle 2-1 in terms of Le Mans wins. Audi this season have proved to be fast but fragile, not a usual characteristic of theirs. Rumours have persisted for most of the season questioning whether they would return in 2017, and today we had the answer.

Whilst I’ve looked back at the success of Audi between 1999 and this year, just looking at their 13 Le Mans 24 Hours victories doesn’t accurately judge their dominance. They had an unbroken podium streak every year they competed at Le Mans, but it wasn’t just in La Sarthe where they ruled the roost. Both the Audi factory programme in the American Le Mans Series and with privateers in the European series, they were to prove dominant for over a decade.

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Audi’s final Le Mans challenger went out with a whimper. A fortuitous third place doesn’t represent their era in sports car racing, but for now this is the last we will see a factory Audi at the worlds greatest motor race. Photo copyright Motorsport.com 

They have won every significant prototype race on the planet multiple times, and with success as far as the notorious Sebring 12 Hours in Florida right up to their victory in the ALMS Race of Two Worlds at Adelaide in 2000. To try and put into words the level of dominance Audi have had on sports car racing since 1999 is impossible to put into words.

Looking at simply their results doesn’t do them justice. To speak to everyone past and present in the paddock during their period in the sport, would help to tell you one thing. They would all likely say, quite simply, Audi completely changed sports car racing as we know it. Their level of dominance is one that will live in history and will likely prove unmatched for a very long time.

Thank you Audi for an incredible 17 years in the sport, sports car racing owes a lot to their commitment to the category. Quite simply, Le Mans 2017 will be plain weird without them there.

Any thoughts on Audi’s dominance of sportscar racing? Feel free to share your comments below, I would hugely appreciate it. Thank you for reading.

 

Japanese racing scene gaining popularity

In the 1990s Japan was a viable career alternative for young drivers who found their options limited in Europe. The resident Japanese F3000/ Formula Nippon and Super GT series attracted well known names such as Eddie Irvine, Tom Kristensen, Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz Harald-Frentzen.

During the late 1990s and 2000s the Japanese racing scene suffered a lull in worldwide attention, although in recent years both Japan and America are seeing a resurgance in interest as young drivers from Europe increasingly look further afield to attain a professional racing career. The racing scene seems increasingly focused on money in the last few years, with several Formula One teams struggling for finance, leading to a situation where increasingly a driver’s ability to bring a budget with him determines who is promoted from the junior formula’s.

In response to this Japan is seeing an upturn in popularity as the best young Japanese drivers are now being joined by accomplished and high profile drivers from Europe in their Super GT and Super Formula single seater series. In recent years the quality of the Japanese racing scene has been proven in Europe as long time Super GT and Super Formula drivers Andre Lotterer and Loic Duval led the Audi attack on the World Endurance Championship and the Le Mans 24 Hours.


Andre Lotterer racing in the Super Formula single seater series last year. Photo sourced from http://www.racingblog.de

Other notable drivers to have turned their careers East to Japan include James Rossiter, Vitantonio Luizzi, Narain Karthikeyan and Andrea Caldarelli. The number of European drivers joining the Japanese scene only looks set to swell in 2015, with rumors that young drivers such as Macau GP winner Felix Rosenqvist, 2009 Formula Renault 3.5 series champion Bertrand Baguette, GP3 race winner Jann Mardenborough and 2013 GP2 champion Fabio Leimer all rumored to be looking for drives in Japan this year. Heikki Kovalainen is the latest driver to defect to Japan as he announced a deal this week to join Team SARD Lexus for the Super GT series this year.

Complementing the increasing European talent is the very best of Japanese driving talent, with the likes of Kamui Kobayashi, Kazuki Nakajima and Takuma Sato returning to race in the Super Formula and Super GT series. Alongside them are the likes of GP2 racer Takuya Izawa and former Indycar racer Hideki Mutoh show that the talent on the Super Formula grid is up there with any grid outside of F1 at the moment.


The Super Formula grid races away from the line at Twin Ring Motegi in 2013. Photo sourced from http://www.supergtbrasil.blogspot.co.uk

Japan is so attractive right now for young drivers as it promises the opportunity to become a professional racing driver rather than struggle to attract finance to continue on the young driver ladder in Europe. Alongside the chance to earn a professional driver there are also copious chances to link up with a manufacture, with Toyota running a LMP1 programme in the WEC, with Nissan joining them in LMP1 this year also. Honda is also returning to F1 and has links with Indycar also, with all of these manufactures assisting or running teams in the Super GT series. Japan is therefore the perfect shop window for young drivers to put themselves in should they wish to put aside their dreams of F1 and become a factory driver for a distinguished manufacture. The future seems increasingly bright for the Japanese racing scene, as it becomes increasingly prominent in international motor sport, returning it to it’s glory days of the past.

What are your thoughts on this article? Please feel free to leave any comments below good or bad.