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The Breed for Speed – Autosport

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Audi’s R10 TDI diesel prototype competed at Le Mans three times and won them all. So what’s it like to drive? BEN COLLINS is let loose in a modern sportscar classic.

The Audi Le Mans campaign of the last decade has become synonymous with the kind of success that inspires bare-faced jealousy from rival teams and manufacturers. The German marque’s dominance of the 24-hour French endurance classic during an era of the most intense competition since the heydays of sportscar racing in the 1980s is a remarkable feat, regardless of budget. Recently, I was fortunate enough to be part of a select few people given a snapshot of the secrets of Audi’s success. Finally, I was going to sample the awesome R10 TDI LMP1 prototype – the car that has been unbeaten at Le Mans for the past three years.

The first thing you notice about Audi is that everything is highly organised – from its travel logistics and press communications, right the way through to the timing of dinner. It’s all very re-assuring. The informal gathering the night before my test at Misano in Italy provided a fascinating insight into the Audi mindset, with Ralf Juttner (technical director of Joest Racing, the squad that runs Audi’s sportscar programme), Allan McNish (2008 Le Mans winner) and Jurgen Pippig, (head of communications for motorsport) on hand to exchange views on the magic of Le Mans. Conversation inevitably turns to the “blue cars” – the Peugeot 908 HDi racers, Audi’s main rival at La Sarthe. Juttner explains the Audi philosophy: “At Audi we make the design and then we work on the reliability. Once we have the reliability we improve the design and then develop the performance.” Pippig interjects: “Yes, but at Peugeot – they are just FLAT OUT! They don’t care about anything else!” He beams with admiration for the French outfit: “They are just so… sporting!”

The open acknowledgement of the Peugeot Sport team is refreshing, but it masks a fear of the raw pace of the closed-cockpit, diesel-powered 908. The ‘French’ clearly had a performance advantage at Le Mans over the ‘Germans’ in 2008, but failed to deliver a knockout blow at Silverstone to claim neither the drivers’ nor manufacturers’ title in the Le Mans Series finale after hitting the self-destruct button. The flamboyance of Peugeot has been a welcome relief in sportscar racing. During pre-qualifying for Le Mans last June many teams would have held back some performance if they knew their car had the potential to be fastest. Not Peugeot; its lead car was four seconds faster in a crushing demonstration of its firepower.

Following a disappointing performance in the Sebring 12 Hours (the warm-up to Le Mans) at the start of 2008, Audi pulled itself together and milked the R10 for every ounce of speed and bolstered its previously unquestioned reliability. Consistency then took the R10 to another Le Mans win and a last-gasp LMS title – not a bad effort for a car in its third and
final season of competition.

Before I drive this longdistance legend, there are one two myths surrounding the R10 that must be expunged. I’ve heard rumours in the paddock that alien technology allows Audi’s drivers to fall asleep at the wheel and post fastest laps using only their eyelashes. I have also been told that the R10 is so difficult to drive that it can kill you if you don’t drive within 95 per cent of McNish’s lap times. I was determined to separate fact from fiction and find out why this car is such a winner.

My first query surrounded the ‘pit box launch system’. Contrary to popular belief, the R10 cannot drive itself out of the pits automatically, nor does it have ‘anti stall’. It does, however, have the ability to hold constant revs at the touch of a button that assists the exit from the pits. I should’ve paid more attention in the briefing because I will come to drive out of the pits normally, holding down the radio button instead! As we draw ever closer to my turn, McNish kindly explains the car’s systems and controls. My favourite gismo is the digital brake-balance adjuster fitted to the steering wheel, allowing the driver to flick the bias to the front or rear wheels and have the new position identified on the digital readout. The huge advantage of this system is that the driver can optimise the car on the brakes for any given corner at the touch of a button, as opposed to manually winding an inaccessible brake-bias lever or accidentally switching off the car’s ignition.

McNish uses it all the time, especially in qualifying to trim the car on the brakes from corner to corner. Any changes to the car’s settings, be it to the traction control, mixture or brake bias are logged on the dash for one simple reason: it reduces the likelihood of a mistake. The R10 also comes complete with a user’s manual, which of course I leave in the glove box.
As it reaches my opportunity to drive, I feel like I am climbing aboard an untouchable legend. As soon as the engine fires, all I want to do is ring its neck. With the tyre warmers off and the car on the deck I don’t need a second invitation to get going; every second wasted is less heat in the pre-heated tyres. The car hums out of the pits and glides onto the track, riding beautifully on its suspension. It’s my first visit to Misano and I like the layout with its challenging braking zones into tightening-radius corners. With just a couple of laps to experience the car I do my best to keep it lit and stay clear of the gravel traps. I approach what looks like a flat-out right-hander, so I peg the throttle on my out lap at just under 170mph.
The car darts towards the apex to reveal an impressive level of front downforce – it didn’t
require much effort to get it turned in.

The R10 is formidable under braking. The stability allows you to brake very deep into fast or slow corners, but there’s a catch. If you fail to slow the car down enough, even a smidgen too much speed will induce some punchy mid-corner understeer. All turbocharged cars tend to have a degree of power understeer due to the torque of the engine and the delayed power delivery. To drive the R10, you wouldn’t even know the car was turbocharged, let alone diesel. The power delivery from the 5.5-litre V12 is so refined it allows you to feed the power in progressively without waiting for the surge of oversteer typical of clumsy turbo lag. It certainly has the grunt though, as you’d expect from an engine that produces 811lb ft of torque.

Traction control is a matter of driver discretion and can be adjusted from setting 1 (off) to 8 (monsoon weather). The likes of McNish and his team-mate, eight-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen, hover around the 5 mark, while I am sent out on setting 6, which is commonly used during the 24 hours. I discover later that Allan and Tom drive with more rear brake bias than other Audi drivers, which makes their car more oversteery.

I was grateful to be allowed to use the full-bore mixture setting that gives me the maximum power from the engine. My early days of racing a Le Mans prototype were aboard the Ascari LMP1 fitted with the mighty Judd V10 engine. Armfuls of opposite lock, no power steering and the deafening howl of nearly 700bhp gave me a perma-grin to rival any botox
injection. By contrast, the R10 purrs through the corners with full-time power steering, the traction control ironing out every squirm from the back end of the car. This sorted system is another little gem for the seasoned Audi driver crews, especially three hours into a stint that begins at 2am. The traction control takes a little getting used to because the temptation is still to punch across the steering with opposite lock, when you don’t actually need to.

At the end of the pit straight you approach the Variante Del Parco, an ‘S’ bend with a benchmark latebraking moment and a sharp turn into the 90-degree right. The R10 is stable and precise under braking and noses into the right hander with no complaints. Flick the car left and apply the power too early and you feel a little understeer, which balances and the car
oozes out of the corner. The change of direction is notably a little reluctant. There’s then a long right-hand kink and I opt to short shift the gear change in a bid to take the corner flat out. The car won’t have it and I ease off the throttle to compensate for the understeer.

The driving style in slow corners is dictated by the cars innate handling: you brake super late – slow in, fast out. The high-speed characteristics are strong in the Audi and it generates an impressive level of downforce for a car designed to swoop along the long straights of Le Mans. Of course the car would be set-up for Misano in high-downforce configuration. The car reveals itself in the medium-speed turns. Turning in with a sharp lift of the throttle, or a dab of the brakes puts the car into an easy trajectory towards the apex.

It is not as sharp on turn in as it should be, nor as edgy in the mid corner – the level of grip suggests the car can handle more. My gut feeling is that the car has been dialled out for ‘arrive and drive’ folk like me. I suspect that the Audi drivers cope with a far more aggressive set-up on ‘turn in’ to such corners, in order to hassle the car towards the apex and maximise its mid-corner stability. No doubt the team cranked on the front wing and stiffened the front of the car as soon as the punters were at a safe distance.

My time in the one of sportscar racing’s most successful machines is over all too quickly. Back in the pits I have a debrief with dynamic duo McNish and his English engineer Howden Haynes. I tell them it was fantastic, and that I had noticed the mid-corner understeer in low- and medium-speed corners.

“Is that a weakness of the car?” I ask. “The car does not have weaknesses!” booms Juttner from the back of the garage. Howden explains that it’s something they work around and it has its advantages. As he overlays my data with McNish’s, Howden points out Allan’s ‘nano lift’ in the sweeping right-hander after turn one (where I had lifted), and raises an eyebrow: “What’s this?” he asks. McNish is quick to respond: “Well, if you’d sort the car out I wouldn’t have to lift!”

Howden concedes that “there are things we do for the understeer and the medium-speed corners in particular”. I’m glad to hear that my observation tallies with that of such an accomplished group of people. With more time in the car I would have moved towards a more aggressive driving style. Perhaps the best way to drive the R10 is to be just a little agitated, but in complete control. It’s no surprise, then, that McNish is so fast. He is loving life, loving driving for Audi but, in his own words, “can’t switch off”. His eyes flicker and his energy abounds like a bantamweight boxer’s. Like everyone at Audi, he puts in 100 per cent effort.

The R10 is an extraordinary feat of engineering designed specifically to win arguably the world’s greatest motor race, the Le Mans 24 Hours. However, Audi has realised that to win for the ninth time in 10 years is going to take a special effort, even by its standards. Perhaps that’s why an all-new and revolutionary R15 TDI has been commissioned to take the fight to Peugeot at Sebring and Le Mans. If the new racer is an improvement on the R10, and you sense it will be, then god help its rivals.

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