Project Le Mans

The secret project that resulted in the Audi R8.

The Audi R8 represents the brand’s performance flagship, yet nearly 20 years ago, today’s quintessential supercar was just a code name on a project known to only a few at Audi.


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 reads like the script of an international thriller. Elite teams assembled in secret, their families likewise sworn to secrecy. Hidden locations well away from prying eyes, code names and the feel that something ground-breaking was about to take place.

It was.

The car that is now the first choice of superheroes and has earned an indelible place on the list of most desirable supercars, the Audi R8, was born of just such circumstances. The move was a significant gamble even for a company like Audi with such a rich motorsport culture and reputation for producing premium performance vehicles.But despite the brand’s enviable international standing, Audi was not yet known for building supercars.

That there was ever any doubt now seems almost laughable, but the investment and the risk involved in entering such a specialised field shows the confidence Audi had in the myriad areas required to make a supercar a reality.

Although the first Audi R8 was officially launched in 2007, the first seeds were plant several years before with the development of the 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. A concept vehicle destined to steal the 2003 Frankfurt International Motor Show with its mid-engine configuration, blistering performance and drop-dead good looks, the Le Mans quattro would become 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.

All of the team members were asked to sign a separate declaration of confidentiality just for this project and undertook to impose the same strict conditions of secrecy on their families. 

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 highly specialised team assembled to do the job were given only 11 months to complete the project in time for Frankfurt

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 eyes of the world would very much be on Audi with the appearance of a mid-engined supercar.

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 17 years after the first appearance of the protoype, the Australian launch of the new R8 is imminent, and the decision to produce a mid-engine super sports car is not just vindicated, but celebrated as a masterstroke. 

Its lightweight aluminium construction based around the Audi Space Frame (ASF), with a V8 FSI engine sitting behind the driver and passenger