Audi Sport’s Le Mans program silenced
critics of turbodiesel technology with
speed, efficiency and a lack of sooty
contrails when the R10 prototype won on
its debut in 2006. A decade later, and as a
direct result of the “Dieselgate” emissions
scandal, the company’s pride – the
almighty LMP1 racing project – was felled
by the moral deficiencies of its parent
company, the Volkswagen Audi Group.
Viewed in isolation, Dieselgate’s
falsified emission standards will globally
cost VAG tens of billions in fines and
buyback programs. From a more rarefied
perspective, more than a decade of using
the 24 Hours of Le Mans to shift
perceptions and foster goodwill towards
turbodiesel road cars was erased in an
instant. But poor timing on multiple
levels also helped fell the R18 effort.
The VAG board’s decision to cancel
Audi Sport’s FIA World Endurance
Championship program came less than
24 hours after the company agreed to
the first of many sanctions. Starting in
November, VW will begin to reacquire
almost 500,000 cars from North
American owners at a cost of $10 billion.
Continuing to fly the turbodiesel racing
flag at a rumored price tag of a half-billion bucks per year would have been
poorly received at a time when remorse
and contrition is expected from VAG’s
oil-burning product lines.
But rapid progess within LMP1 also
“DIESELGATE” AND DIESEL WEIGHT
in 2015, Audi’s brick-like V6 engines
were anything but a liability in the R18s.
Through Le Mans’ Equivalence of
Technology formula, extra power and
diesel fuel was apportioned to
compensate for the big lump of steel and
alloy in the R18’s engine bay, and that
construct worked until the featherweight
919 exposed Eo T’s limitations in ’ 15.
Porsche’s miniscule, gravity-defying V4
turbo helped its designers’ quest to reduce
weight in every area of the car in order to
install the most powerful – and fuel
consumption-friendly – ERS system.
Saddled with a diesel engine that is
inherently hefty, Audi’s inability to reach a
minimum weight that would allow the
strongest ERS option became an accepted
concession in many ways. With turbodiesel
as its core messaging point, marketing,
rather than genuine competitiveness, is all
that the deft and agile 919s and TS050s
left for Audi to embrace.
Facing back-to-back Le Mans losses at
the hands of VAG sister brand Porsche,
winning again would have required a
massive reinvestment to join the top ERS
class by developing a tiny, gas-powered
turbo drivetrain. That need, in hindsight,
came at exactly the wrong time.
Amid a downturn in diesel profits, and
with billions flowing out in Dieselgate
settlements, parking Audi’s legendary
24 Hours of Le Mans program was the only
aspect of the scandal that made sense.
Paying for the emissions scandal fallout was key to Audi’s pullout. But was staying in really an option anyway?
WHY AUDI QUIT LE MANS
Flying the turbodiesel flag,
Even before “Dieselgate,” Audi parent
VAG was seeing a decline in diesel sales.
hastened the end for Audi’s R18
turbodiesel. In concert with a slow
decline in VAG’s diesel sales, the success
of lightweight, gasoline-fed turbos in
Porsche’s 919 Hybrid and Toyota’s
TS050 HYBRID accelerated the timeline
for Audi Sport to follow suit.
The widening divide between gas- and
diesel-turbo solutions was less a
byproduct of inherent deficiencies with
Audi’s chosen technology, and more a
case of the ACO’s rabid fascination with
reducing fuel consumption (and
allocation) each year in LMP1. The fuel
cutting initiatives and the increasing
reliance on big energy recovery systems
proved to be the tipping point that
favored Audi’s rivals.
Prior to the heavy annual fuel
rationing exercise that was implemented