Driving Audi's LMP1 Le Mans car

As Audi pulls the plug on its Le Mans programme, we take its R18 e-tron quattro for one last drive

Let’s start with the email, as I fell off my chair when I read it. “We’d like to offer you the opportunity to drive the Audi R18 LMP1 car” it said. Of course I didn’t actually fall off my chair, but I did actually spring to my feet as if electrocuted, clattering my right knee against the desk leg and then stand there, in the middle of the office, looking around spluttering and pointing at my laptop. When I calmed down I realised this must be some sort of pre-Christmas gag – a kids electric R18 ride on or some such nonsense. Because mere mortals getting to drive LMP1 cars Does. Not. Happen.

Words: Ollie Marriage Photography: Rowan Horncastle

I know this because about a year earlier I’d spent some time with Mark Webber, and during a jovial moment, asked him if he thought they’d ever let anyone outside the team drive his Porsche 919 hybrid. “Not a chance, mate. Not. A. Chance. It’ll never happen. There’s just too much risk involved and the thing’s so complicated. These LMP1 cars are monsters now, we accelerate faster than F1 cars, they’re spaceships”.

So that’s a no then. And yet here was an email. I called – “Not a toy?”, “no, not a toy”, came the reply. Then “you don’t mean it?” “We do”, followed by me asking “not this year’s car though?” 

“Yes, this year’s car”. Literally gob-smacked.

But this is not a particularly happy story. There’s a reason Audi let me and a handful of others drive the R18 e-tron quattro and saw fit to do it on a damp, dank December day in Southern Germany. The car is dead. 

After 18 years competition at the sharp end of the world endurance championship, Audi pulled the plug on its LMP1 effort at the end of October. The official reasoning is that the diesel-hybrid technology contained within the R18 no longer reflects the direction of Audi’s road cars. So instead they’re going to fund an Audi Sport Formula E effort. I know, I know, Formula E. Go figure.

So whether this opportunity was a waved middle finger to the management, or just a chance to gain publicity for their achievements (I suspect both), the outcome isn’t going to change. Audi’s 18-year run, including 13 Le Mans victories, is over.

The atmosphere at Audi Sport’s spanking new HQ in Neuberg, about 10 miles west of Ingolstadt, is peculiar. Most race teams are super-serious, almost to the extent that it feels like an act, something put on for an audience. They want to check every frame on the camera screen in case of possible espionage, they refuse to let you see some parts of the car, you’re made aware you’re getting in the way and that you driving the car is something that’s happening under duress. Race teams, focused solely on racing and making the car go faster, can be quite blinkered about the world outside, the bigger picture.

That’s how today starts. I was allowed to bring along Rowan Horncastle as a photographer. They acted surprised. They refused to allow pictures to be taken anywhere, not even on the track. Ho hum, here we go, we thought.

We had a briefing from the head of Audi Motorsport, Dr Wolfgang Ullrich. It started off predictably enough: be careful with our baby, do exactly what we say, stand here, watch out for that etc. Like I had any intention of going off-piste. Because here’s the truth about driving a red-blooded racing car: it’s bloody terrifying. All you want to do is not crash. That’s it. If you can do that without making a fool of yourself, tripping over an air hose or whatever, then so much the better. There are well over 20 team members here, two of the drivers, Loic Duval and Benoit Treluyer (who you’re never going to be remotely as fast as), and then there’s the car itself… and the R18 is a spaceship.

Let’s go back to the briefing though, because at some slightly indistinct point, the tone changes. Emotion creeps in. 18 years of endurance racing, and today is the last time the cars will ever run in front of a public audience. Tomorrow there’ll be a farewell for the employees, the R18 will drive up and down in front of the canteen, and then… what?

Audi has pledged not to lay off any of its 300 staff, but who amongst them, having tasted life at the cutting edge of endurance racing, is going to be satisfied with Formula E? To a man, they’re gutted. Dr Ullrich tries to keep a lid on it, but certain phrases start to strike me: “It would be great if you could spend some time with the people in our Mission Control room, as, you know, they have worked so hard.”

So I do, I speak to the engineers, the mechanics, the cooks, the data wranglers and they can’t keep a lid on it: bitterness, anger, simmering frustration, resigned acceptance, borderline depression, moist emotion. Racing is a transient activity for big car companies, so maybe they hadn’t lifted their heads long enough to see which way the wind was blowing, but after 18 years, to have the plug pulled at such short notice seems cruel.

Because that’s the truth of it. There had been no long notice period. Next year’s car was 80 per cent complete. Contracts had been signed with drivers, suppliers and sponsors. They’d even booked time at test tracks and flights to get personnel to them. They’re shocked, distraught, simple as that.

So the story wasn’t just the car, because without this situation I’m 99 per cent sure there would have been no drive. But as the situation became clear and the day ticked on, the mood became more relaxed, people opened up, we were allowed to take photographs. I’m first in the car after lunch. Loic Duval and I had driven a few laps so he could show me the racing line. The track is pretty Mickey Mouse – short squirts into tight hairpins – but has one decent flick-flack and one good straight. 

But the R18 is a spaceship. It looked even weirder at the start of the season, before it got the new front end aero-package that sloped the headlights back, but all the same it’s something you just nod dumbly at, appreciating you’re looking at something you’ll never be able to get your head round. Fortunately, nor can most of the engineers. I point at some flick, venturi or ducting, they just shake their heads, blame the aero guys, accept it and move on.

Still, the R18 is not a pretty thing. In the back there’s a 4.0-litre V6 mono turbo diesel driving the rear wheels. Forward of the cockpit is the KERS system – energy harvested under braking, stored in a 70kg battery pack alongside the driver and thumped back out through the front wheels via a single electric motor. No torque vectoring, as that’s banned, so conventional slippy diffs front and rear. 875kg is the minimum weight, the diesel is rated at around 520bhp, the electric motor at something like 480bhp, yielding a power to weight of something around 1,150bhp/tonne. The new Bugatti Chiron will be somewhere around 700bhp/tonne, so‘s the McLaren P1.

But here’s the thing about the R18: it’s efficient. There are no restrictions on air intake – the car could develop more power if they really wanted it to. But regulations restrict fuel usage so the car needs to be efficient. The R18 now uses 46.4 per cent less fuel then Audi’s first diesel Le Mans motor in 2006, it’s improved by a third in the last five years. I tried to do some calculations and the best I can work out is that the R18 does something like 8.4mpg while averaging over 150mph around Le Mans. That’s amazing. I can get the Audi R8 down to that sort of number on a B-road at about a third of the speed. Officer.

I’m shown the steering wheel. It has six paddles on the back and 19 buttons, four rotary switches, two thumbwheels and a screen on the front. Help. I have a seat fitting. My hips wedge before my arse touches down. Then I have to raise it again so some poor mechanic can wedge more foam under my backside. I can only do this by leaning my head out of the door. The cockpit is chuffing minuscule. The pros have to be able to eject themselves from it in six seconds – and get out the other side in nine. Race engineer Justin Taylor tells me some of them got that first time, “but others took hours and left with skinned shins”.

The driving position is basically foetal. You sit on your lower back, knees pressed back up towards your chest, body curved around a steering wheel positioned above your navel. The throttle moves about two inches between nothing and all. The brake pedal appears not to move at all. It’s about three degrees outside. “We’re going to put you out on warm tyres, but you won’t be able to keep heat in them,” Justin tells me, “so watch out from lap three onwards.”

Trussed up like a Christmas turkey in the belly of the beast, hot tyres are fetched and the car is rolled out into the cold winter day on casters. I instinctively apply some opposite lock as we exit the pit garage sideways.

A hand clutch. After I learned I had to deal with one of these, I sat down in my romper suit at the back of the pit garage, closed my eyes and played over the sequence in my head many, many times: pull clutch, start engine, 50 per cent throttle, let clutch out to biting point and hold there as it starts to roll. Only once you’re rolling fast do you let it out completely. What worries me is muscle memory intervening, brain insisting clutch is operated by left foot and me walloping the brakes at some point.

It’s a complex business, this not stuffing up in front of the world’s finest, best funded endurance racing team of the last 20 years. The relief at not stalling is only clouded by the fact the pit exit is narrow and the corners come thick and fast from that point on. And you can’t see any of them. The viewfinder that passes for a windscreen provides no more than tunnel vision, which means the apices of slow corners are completely hidden behind carbon pillars.

But let’s leave aside the complexities of driving the R18 at this point, and focus on the performance. Because it is staggering. In only a handful of laps around a Mickey Mouse track I’m never going to discover how the chassis behaves on the limit. Even writing that sounds absurd. But the acceleration and braking, that’s just a matter of fearlessness and stupidity – and I’m good at that bit. 

So here’s what happens when I clumsily nail the throttle out of the long second gear left that opens onto the main straight in a car that – at that point – would show an F1 car a clean pair of heels: my body freezes. That’s what actually happened. I felt the air stop in my throat, my brain pucker. Everything closed in on me – no sensation of noise, no sense of movement or g-force, just instant paralysis.

You know how in every film ever there’s that moment when the person they thought was dead suddenly gasps on the stretcher, arches their back and snaps back to life? Well, that was me, halfway down the straight. Strangest feeling.

Instantly panicking, I nailed the brakes. And the same thing happened again: body freeze. Only this time I didn’t have a lovely long straight in front of me, but a fast approaching tight left. But I come to eons before the corner with the car practically stationary. And so it continues, this almost narcoleptic progress.

After a couple of laps the toxic shock of this performance has abated a bit, and I start to look forward to the lunges of acceleration. The split-second you get back on the power this monstrous hit of electric zaps you forward so fast the car actually seems to leap the first 50, 100 metres down the track. Once that initial blast phase is over the car settles back, content now to accelerate at a level that’s merely very uncomfortable. I pull paddles, I’m dimly aware of some noise, but I’ve got more important things to think about. 

The brakes I’m not sure I’d ever get used to. They’re utterly savage. In fact of all the aspects of the R18’s performance I’m bombarded with in those laps, it’s the braking I find most addictive. The bite, power and response is magical. The acceleration, shocking though it is, feels artificially enhanced to anyone brought up on a diet of conventional internal combustion engines. Tesla-esque, I guess, but the driving strategy that managing that powertrain must demand calls for a higher level of understanding.

I later learn from Justin that, as they’re restricted to how much electrical energy they can harvest and emit during a lap, they’ve just started playing with predictive software that allows them to calculate where and when they’ll catch the car in front. If it’s in a tricky set of corners where overtaking is difficult, they might boost to catch the other car before, or coast to save energy for the overtake afterwards. Electric power gives them options. It gives me the willies. The way it butts in so aggressively and then tails off so abruptly. Both Loic and Benoit said it took some getting used to for them as well.

Look, I’ll have a stab at some mid-corner driving impressions. On wets the grip is face-wrenchingly surreal, so if you’re running wide of that apex you can’t see, just twist the steering a bit more – it’ll bite harder. It feels wonderfully stable and precise, a car I know that – given enough time, space and talent – I could get into a sublime rhythm with. It makes the actions of accelerating, braking and winding lock on and off so pure, simple and biddable. It’s accurate, light and easy, wonderfully intuitive, moves without apparent effort and, just as the radio crackles to tell me to come-in-number-8-because-your-time-is-up, I start to bond with the R18, feel it flow with a somehow willowy, flexible precision. It sounds mad, but it’s almost friendly, seems to offer a margin for error I hadn’t anticipated. Maybe that’s simply down to the stupendous braking power hinting you’d always be able to bury the brakes to get yourself out of trouble, or maybe the R18 is that approachable. It’s not like I was fast enough to find out.

I rumble back into the pits, the primary sensation one of relief that I’m handing it back in one piece. I grin stupidly when the team ask me what it was like – many of them I suspect because they’re imagining themselves doing this. They’ve poured life and soul into the R18 and never had the opportunity to do what I’ve just done. It makes me realise how ridiculously fortunate I am, and how sad they must be that this is over.

The R18 is a monumental thing, not Audi’s most successful sports racer, but they had high hopes for next season now the reliability woes had been eradicated. And just in case you were wondering – as I was – whether this is the real deal or some show pony. Well, the last outing of this number 8 car was at Bahrain less than a month ago. Where it won. A one-two in fact ahead of Porsche and Toyota, “and since then we have done nothing to it,” Dr Ullrich said, “except change the sticker on the back to say 107 wins instead of 106”. I guess you could say that’s Audi Sport finishing on a high. But I’m not sure they’d agree with you.

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