It wasn’t the first time Audi had challenged convention at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but the appearance of the Audi R8 e-tron quattro was really one for the history books.

23 September, 2020

It is one of the most famous races in motorsport and acknowledged as the toughest endurance race on earth. A sprint race from start to finish, the 24 Hours of Le Mans covers more ground in that single 24 hour period than an entire season of Formula 1, placing extraordinary stress on drivers, teams and of course the cars themselves.

Speeds well in excess of 300km/h in places, racing through the night and in any weather conditions, it is a race that tests every single component of a race car and takes every ounce of skill and concentration from the finest drivers in the world.

Audi’s success at Circuit de la Sarthe has become the stuff of motorsport legend, first challenging in 1999 and producing a podium finish on debut, it took just one more year for Audi to take the top spot on the podium – in fact in 2000 Audi took all three places on the podium.

This was the first of what would become 13 wins in 16 years, and while each victory was special in its own right, some stood out as true motorsport game changers. One such victory and the technology that drove it would have to be 2012 and the Audi R18 e-tron quattro. 

In 2006 Audi had stunned the motorsport world when it became the first manufacturer to win the race with a diesel-powered race car. The Audi R10 TDI as it was known silenced critics who scoffed at the very idea of diesel power, but it was the next step in the evolution that again changed the face of high-performance at the highest levels of m motorsport.

The result of even tougher rule changes and greater restrictions on engine capacity, the Audi R8 e-tron quattro that debuted in 2012 was powered by hybrid electric technology. This combination of TDI and electric power allowed for the reduced engine capacity without compromising range or power, giving Audi a car with the speed to take pole position and the endurance to set the punishing pace for 24 hours.

Although hybrid technology had been allowed at Le Mans since 2009, it was not until Audi engineers produced the R18 e-tron quattro that it went from a fledgling idea to a race winner.

With André Lotterer, Marcel Fässler and Benoît Tréluyer sharing the driving duties, their R18 e-tron quattro led from the start of the race and was rarely threatened throughout, and on the rare occasions there was any challenge it was largely by their sister car driven by Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Rinaldo Capello. This second R18 e-tron quattro ultimately finished in second place after an accident with a back marker late in the race, and a third Audi, this one an R8 ultra rounded out the top three to give Audi another clean sweep of the race and its 11th victory at Le Mans.

Indeed the R18 e-tron quattro and its hybrid drive went on to clinch both driver and manufacturers’ titles in the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) that year and again in 2013, as well as winning again at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2013 and 2014. That new technology proven in the cauldron of motorsport has found its way into many of the brand’s production models, including the Audi Sport high-performance models, continuing a proud tradition of using motorsport to continually improve the breed.

But that win in 2012 was more than just another victory, it was a glimpse into the future. Since leaving the WEC in 2016, Audi Sport has focused its attention on the all-electric FIA Formula E Championship with Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler, looking to take its prowess to new levels in this emerging top flight formula – already clinching both driver and manufacturers’ crowns to date.

Audi’s achievement at Le Mans – 13 victories in 16 years – represents a chapter of modern motorsport without peer, but is just one more in a long and distinguished history of competition that has defined the Audi brand since the very beginning.