In the beginning
Originally it was codenamed F03, but you’d probably know it as the Audi R8.
A top secret project that spawned a show-stealing concept car, that became a supercar – that’s the extraordinary story of the Audi R8.
28 April, 2023
A concept vehicle destined to steal the 2003 Frankfurt International Motor Show with its mid-engine configuration, blistering performance and drop-dead good looks
It’s widely considered a modern automotive masterpiece. The brand’s first supercar, the Audi R8 has been a resounding success since its first appearance as a concept vehicle at the 2003 Frankfurt International Motor Show in 2003. There it was unveiled as the Audi Le Mans quattro, a svelte, aggressive two-seater with quattro all-wheel drive and a mid-mounted twin-turbo V10 engine.
In a matter of a few years it had gone into series production (2007) with little visual change from the concept study to become the brand’s high-performance flagship.
It has also gone on to become one of the most successful GT3 race cars of the modern era as well as providing the foundation for hugely successful GT4 and GT2 race cars from Audi Sport.
As a road car the R8 hit a sweet spot right from the beginning, a car quite unlike anything that Audi had done before, combining looks and stunning performance in a mid-engined sportscar that offered drivability not previously associated with supercar performance.
But the R8 was by no means a natural progression of what Audi was up to 20 years ago. It was born from a top secret project that saw specialist teams assembled in locations far from prying eyes – their families sworn to secrecy.
The project they were tasked with working on was codenamed F03. A project so secret that it was not built at Ingolstadt but at one of the company’s pattern-making plants, the F03 in fact stood for what would become the Le Mans quattro and go on to become the basis for one of the most significant vehicles in Audi’s illustrious history.
The Le Mans quattro paid homage to the R8 race car that had stamped its authority all over the 24 Hours of Le Mans, winning five times at the legendary Circuit de la Sarthe to become the most successful car in the history of the race. In addition, the R8 open-top race car also recorded a staggering 62 wins from 79 starts internationally making it almost a breed apart in the world of motorsport.
The Le Mans quattro then, became the embodiment of this racing success, bringing together all of the company’s expertise in engineering, design and motorsport to produce the desired result. The brief from the Board sounded simple yet required a tremendous effort to achieve: “Develop a mid-engined supersports model.”
And as if that were not difficult enough, the small, highly specialised team assembled to do the job were given only 11 months from start to complete the project in time for Frankfurt.
The highly specialised team assembled to do the job were given only 11 months to complete the project in time for Frankfurt
The result was a stunning two-door coupe with a 5.0-litre twin-turbo V10 engine, petrol direct injection and the then-new Audi magnetic ride suspension concept
Built from the ground up, the Le Mans quattro study followed the company ethos that a concept had to be fully functional, so the pressure on the team was significant, particularly given the brand’s reputation for taking concepts through to series production.
The vast majority of components for the car had to be produced by hand, using cost-intensive and often time-consuming methods. Next to nothing was sourced from the series-production parts bin, creating even more work for the team.
The result, though, when it came together and made its world debut on September 8, 2003, was nothing short of breathtaking. A stunning two-door coupe with a 5.0-litre twin-turbo V10 engine, petrol direct injection and the then-new Audi magnetic ride suspension concept. Its aluminium frame structure with carbon-fibre reinforced outer skin was revolutionary, as were the LED headlights and its digital cockpit display – all technologies that are hallmarks of the Audi brand today.
But this was 2003 and the effect on the international press at Frankfurt was understandably profound. The obvious question was quickly asked: would Audi follow the same path as it had following the sensational unveiling of the TT concept at Frankfurt in 1995?
Speculation was rife as to whether Audi was about to enter the rarified ranks of the supercar manufacturer. The performance credentials were beyond dispute and the Le Mans quattro concept had unmistakable elements of the Avus quattro within its design. The pedigree and DNA were impossible to ignore.
The resulting production version of the car was revealed to the world in 2006 – Audi’s first mid-engine performance car of the modern age. Its lightweight aluminium construction based around the Audi Space Frame (ASF), with a V8 FSI engine sitting behind the driver and passenger. Producing 309kW and 430Nm of torque between 4500 and 6000rpm, it accelerated from 0 to 100km/h in 4.6 seconds or 0 to 200km/h in 14.9 seconds with a top speed of 301km/h.
On release it boasted a six-speed manual transmission or optional R tronic sequential ‘box, with quattro permanent all-wheel drive as standard, riding on 18 or 19-inch wheels depending on the customer’s preference.
The now-familiar styling was ground-breaking with the striking ‘sideblades’ adding to the dynamic character of the vehicle. The R8 was also the first car in the world with all-LED headlights.
Now nearly 20 years after the first appearance of the prototype, that decision to produce a mid-engine super sports car is not just vindicated, but celebrated as a masterstroke.
Speculation though is rife as to what will ultimately come after the R8 now that the company’s focus is on electric mobility. Vehicles like the RS e-tron GT show just what is possible in the high-performance ranks, so the future is certainly in safe hands.
Who knows, there could well be a secret Audi taskforce working quietly away in an undisclosed location on a ground-breaking special project. It would’t be the first time.
Its lightweight aluminium construction based around the Audi Space Frame (ASF), with a V8 FSI engine sitting behind the driver and passenger
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