December 12th, 2010

Putting a lid on it

Let’s hope that Allan McNish isn’t claustrophobic. His new Audi Le Mans Prototype race car, the R18, is the first closed cockpit Audi Prototype since 1999. In bare carbon with its powerful LED headlights, it looks like it should be on the set of Tron instead of pounding round endurance race tracks. Either way, it is pretty epic.

The four rings have decided to put a lid on the car as it turns out having 250mph winds bashed in your face for three hours straight can get a bit knackering for the drivers. Head of Audi Motorsport, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, assures us that a closed car also has beneficial aerodynamic advantages too. With their main competitor Peugeot opting for a closed cockpit a couple of years ago, and then having success at Le Mans with it, I am sure that that was a factor too.

With new engine regualtions set at Le Mans this year, the R18 will now be the smallest Russian Doll of engines that Audi has used at the Circuit de la Sarthe. The R10 had a twin-turbo diesel V12, the R15 had a twin-turbo diesel V10 and now the R18 has a piddly 3.7-litre V6 TDI unit.

The smaller engine helps with balance as it can be pushed further toward the middle of the car than in the R15, resulting in a more neutral weight balance that gives the car better agility around the corners.

A new six-speed transmission has been slotted in the R18 which has been specifically modified for use with the smaller engine.We have no figures of what kind of power the R18 is kicking out, but we are sure it will be mind-bending for the size of the engine.

What is qutie incredible is that the carbon fiber monocoque is all one piece which saves weight and increases stiffness. Being the first closed cockpit Prototype for 11 years Audi had to call in some help from some of its family members at the VW headquarters.

Audi Sport were able to draw on the experiences gained in 1999 with the R8C and in 2003 with the LMP1 of the corporate “sister brand” Bentley that was victorious at Le Mans. Having a piece of glass in front of the driver can be a problem in the race as it has a tendency to steam up in changing weather conditions. Luckily Audi’s A4 DTM car features a heated windshield and has had major development time spent on how to ventilatate the cockpit, the doors and the heating of the windshield so they could just apply that knowledge to the R18.

Audi is planning to field three Audi R18 cars at Le Mans in June but the racing debut of the Audi R18 is planned for the Spa-Francorchamps 6 Hours on May 8. We can’t wait to see the car swoosh past us with its silent diesel engine on a hot summers day in the South of France and will be bringing you all the action from the track in June.