Audi waited to debut its 2012 LMP1 challengers
until after the brutal Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring; instead it chose to bring out the Audi R18 ultra and R18 e-tron quattro coupes at the six-hour Spa-Francorchamps round, second in the FIA World Endurance Championship and lead-in to next month's 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The waiting was worth it as Romain Dumas, Loic Duval and Marc Gene (who used to drive for rival Peugeot and was a stand-in for the injured Timo Bernhard at this race) brought home the victory in the Audi R18 ultra TDI coupe, leading its newest stableman the Audi R18 e-tron quattro, the first diesel hybrid sports racing car in history to the checkered flags.
Audi finished 1-2-3-4, thoroughly demoralizing the balance of the LMP1 field.
In a distance race of this type, it's not only performance that counts but, more important it's reliability and balance.
The results for both the R18 ultra and the R18 e-tron quattro show that Audi's technical advancements can offset the LMP1 sports prototype regulations to which they must adhere.
The Spa 6-hour enduro began in the wet with Tom Kristensen leading off the line in the No. 2 Audi R18 e-tron, but it only took a few laps for Andre Lotterer's No. 1 R18 ultra to sweep to the front. This race became a battle between the conventional and not-so-conventional Audi prototypes, even as the conditions improved. The decision to change to slick Michelin tires on Marc Gene's No. 3 R18 ultra came as the balance of the Audi troops stayed on intermediate rubber.
That tire choice was a turning point in the face of this all-Audi race, one that had its fair share of incidents that caused the Audi contingent some time-consuming tire punctures. Dieter Gass, head of racing commitments noted, "Technically the cars ran without any problems throughout the six hours. That was an important step in our preparation for Le Mans."
"Audi's decision to opt for two concepts proved to be right," noted Ralf Juttner, technical director for Audi Sport Team Joest. "The R18 e-tron quattro is a strong car but the R18 ultra, too, has certain advantages. This was the first race with the hybrid car that ultimately finished in second and fourth place."
The only real hiccup came when Kristensen had to stop for a new headlight assembly, relegating the car shared with Dindo Capello and Allan McNish to fourth place overall. "It was clear that we're experiencing a learning curve with the R18 e-tron quattro and at the moment we're just at the beginning of it," noted McNish. "We've still got to improve balance and thus the consistency of the tires," after experiencing degrading on the final run to the checkers.
Of the winning R18 ultra Gene said, "That was incredible. More was not possible today," the Spaniard explained. "It was an honest win in difficult conditions. As a driver team (Romain Dumas and Loic Duval) we were well matched; the engineers, the team and the car were perfect," after earning his third personal win at the Spa-Francorchamps.
The first two Audi cars finished on the lead, 160th lap with the two others one lap back. Oh, the also rans included the Rebellion Lola/Toyota of Prost/Jani/Heidfeld in fifth, followed by the team car of Belicchi/Primat. Strakka Racing's HPD Honda ARX-03a of Leventis/Watts/Kane was six laps down in seventh, with LMP2 Nissan's taking positions 8-10, nine laps back.
The four-car Audi Sport Team Joest will take part in the pre-race test at Le Mans before the 80th annual 24-hour race as they look for their eleventh overall victory on The Sarthe circuit.