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An important anniversary for Audi at Le Mans

April 28, 2015
Biela, Pirro and Werner celebrate their 2006 win at Le Mans - photo courtesy Audi Motorsport

Biela, Pirro and Werner celebrate their 2006 win at Le Mans – photo courtesy Audi Motorsport

When Audi goes back to Le Mans this year as reigning winners, they’ll be celebrating a special anniversary. It was 10 races ago, in 2006 that Audi brought the first diesel-powered prototype to The Sarthe with the intent of winning the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The Audi R10 TDI, with a V-12 turbo diesel engine that delivered 650 horsepower and produced more than 811 ft-lb of torque had massive capabilities – but could it conquer this twice-around-the-clock endurance contest without failure? That was the question for Audi and one that the racing world watched with intensity.

In its then-regular tune-up for Le Mans, the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, Audi made some discoveries that helped it prepare for the most difficult competition of the year. “At Sebring, we saw how complex and engine change can be,” said Ralf Juttner, team director of Audi Sport Team Joest. “That’s why we decided not to change the engine before the race (as is customary in the 24-hour enduro) but to use the same power plant in all practice and qualifying sessions, as well as in the 24-hour race.” Because of this decision, the team needed to be very conservative in taking practice and qualifying laps, which made setting up a brand new car/engine combination with minimal data.

Audi Sport Team Joest produced two TDI race cars cars for their initial challenge using diesel power. While one of the entries had a few setbacks during the race, the winning Audi caused a sensation when it clinched the victory as the first diesel-powered winner in the grand history of the Le Mans contest. It reeled off more than 4,000 miles (including practice, qualifying and the race) and averaged about 134 mph over the distance. The car/engine combination was both fast and extremely clean.

The 2006 win by drivers Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Marco Werner proved all the prior beliefs about racing diesel engines to be wrong. And, Juttner explained, “When the car returned to the pits from parc ferme and we were celebrating our victory, Ulrich Baretzky (head of race engine development) walked to the winning car with paper napkins in his hands. He wiped the inside of the tailpipes – and the napkins were as pristine-white as before. I’ll never forget this picture.”

Audi’s turbo diesel technology has ruled Le Mans since that time, only giving way a single time to arch rivals Peugeot’s similarly-powered car in 2009. Will that streak continue at The Sarthe this June?

Words By Anne Proffit

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