25 Feb

The machine which changed the face of its sport but was robbed of its final encore. Today Stelvio Automotive remembers the car which made history but was denied its fairy-tale ending, the LMP1 Audi R10 TDI.

By Sean Smith

Le Mans. The greatest race track in the world. The place where man and machine are tested to their limits as the world watches to see who can survive the 24 hour endurance classic. The place where technology and inventions are born and broadcast to the masses resulting in global changes and development in motoring.

The year was 2006. Audi Sport Team Joest were back in the big race as a fully backed works team after they had pulled out at the end of 2002 to leave the dominant R8 (above) in the hands of other, smaller teams to conquer. The R8 had won 5 out of the last 6 Le Mans 24hrs (technically all 6 as the 2003 Bentley Speed 8 (above - back of shot) was a modification of that very car) but was coming up against a brick wall in the governing body trying to slow it down in the interest of competition.

Audi stepped in, keen to not see their brand defeated by privateer entries of Pescarolo Sport, Courage Compétition, Dome, Lola, Zytek and Lister. The Germans brought out their new car, the R10 TDI.

On the face of it the R10 didn’t look very different to its predecessor. It was relatively square and flat on the bodywork (as was the case with all LMP cars of the time); it sported a thinner, pointier nose, higher suspension wishbones with a gap underneath them for improved aerodynamics along with some new red and silver paint.

But the big change was under the engine cover. Audi became the first big manufacturer to race a car at Le Mans with a diesel engine. Over a decade before the eventual Diesel Scandal, Audi and the VW group were seen as the leaders of diesel technology, however, they were struggling to sell the idea to the American market as they saw the fuel as dirty and a cause of smog and pollution.

The R10 was the company’s showcase to change their mind. By winning Le Mans Audi were going to prove diesel’s higher MPG and improved torque over their petrol rivals, the added magic trick was the sound the car made while doing it.

Ask anyone who ever saw an Audi R10 in person and they will tell you of the eerie silence as this exceedingly fast car would go past you but all you heard were the tyres going over rumble strips and the air physically being moved over the body as it produced its downforce. It was incredible, there was no engine noise and no smog, it was close to tranquillity.

But the R10 was in fact a monster. It had a 5.5 litre V12 which produced 800bhp and nearly 1,000lb-ft of torque at its peak (this was around 5 times higher than the then new V8 F1 cars). As such the car was easily capable of reaching its top speed of 204mph but more importantly it would accelerate to that figure faster than any of its rivals.

With its advantages in hand the Audi R10 won Le Mans in 2006 by 4 laps and would go on to write its own history by winning again in 2007 and 2008 against the Peugeot 908. The car also won the American Le Mans Series in those 3 years thus ticking all the marketing boxes it needed to sell its products to the American audience. The R10 was a success.

After watching its rival develop the 908 to a new level over the last couple of years, Audi decided to replace the R10 in 2009 with the R15 (below), debatably the ugliest Le Mans car ever made. Audi also decided to make use of their old R10s, which were now severely handicapped by power and wing restrictions, by selling them to the Kolles team.

Yes, the same Kolles team which today runs the CLM-Enso (Stelvio Automotive’s homepage image).

The R15 was adventurous in its aerodynamics which were hugely different to the Peugeot and the R10. The problem was Audi made 2 vital mistakes, the car was too slow in a straight line and it was under-tested. As a result Audi were defeated badly at the Le Mans 24hrs in 2009 as they lost 8 laps due to technical issues. The R10s ran a relatively quiet race but they no longer had the power or downforce to challenge the works entries and finished in 7th and 9th.

The final year of the R10 TDI was to be 2010.

Audi’s works team had launched the R15-plus (above), debatably the best looking Le Mans car ever made. It was a heavily edited and amended version of the R15 it preceded and took a lot of lessons from the R10 in that reliability over speed was the way to win.

2010 would see a new distance record for the event and was a hard fought battle with very high attrition as half the field would eventually retire. However in qualifying Peugeot locked out the top 4 positions with 3 works cars and 1 privateer, the Audis were at least 2 seconds behind and the R10 was 11 seconds slower qualifying 12th and 13th.

But as it turned out this race was to be Peugeot’s worst nightmare. Only 2 hours in and the first car, the pole sitting #3, retired with suspension failure this followed in the very early morning when the #2 car exploded its turbo charger with fire bursting out of the exhaust (above). The #1 and then the #4 suffered almost identical failures, the last coming within the last 100 minutes of the race.

But why does this matter to the R10 TDI? Well, as a fan of the Kolles Team even back then and the R10 which I had watched since I first saw Le Mans in 2007 I had been keeping a very close eye on its progress. The #14 was in and out of the pits, never really in a hope of a good result and retired sometime in the morning, but the #15 (below) was doing very well. Fighting with Oreca, Rebellion and Aston Martin, it eventually got away from them and was looking good for 6th place.

However, the cruel hand of fate was to hit that car and would start the curse for the Kolles team at Le Mans.

20 hours in Christijan Albers was seen desperately trying to get the R10 moving, the clutch had burnt out. The sad fact was had that car run smoothly for the rest of the race it would have finished 4th in its final event at Le Mans capping off an incredible career. But it was dashed out within touching distance of the end.

As it was Audi still got their 1, 2, 3 with the R15-plus and would go onto win with its successor, the R18, in 2011, 12, 13 and 14 making the R10 the first of a dynasty of victorious Audi diesels.

The Audi R10 was denied its last hurrah at Le Mans, but it was a pioneer of its technology and one of the most successful cars ever to grace the track. It won 36 out of its 48 races entered, 75% over 5 years, an incredible statistic for anyone or even anything in the world of sport. The Diesel Scandal may now cause people to look back at the car  unfavourably as it was a catalyst to the American market’s uptake of many road cars installed with the cheat software.

But it’s its on-track success which makes the R10 TDI one of the greatest creations in the history of motorsport and on this site, at least, that's how it will always be remembered.