Small Change, Big Success
The Audi R8 LMS Ultra racecar that won the most recent edition of the 24 Hours Nürburgring endurance race has much in common with the R8 V10 sports car from which it derives.
It would be an understatement to say that 2014 has been a good year for Audi. For the 13th time in 15 years, an Audi won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. During this year’s race, in June, Audi Sport Team Joest’s R18 E-tron Quattros sped to a one-two finish. A week later, Phoenix Racing’s R8 LMS Ultra took first place at the 24 Hours Nürburgring, completing an Audi sweep of the two endurance races.
Audi has been sweeping up customers, too, having sold nearly 1.6 million cars worldwide in 2013. While Audi is the No. 1 luxury-car brand in China, Germany, and Europe overall, its sales lag behind those of Mercedes-Benz and BMW in the United States. It sold about 180,000 cars here in 2013, while the other two German brands each sold roughly 300,000. Nevertheless, Audi has long had a following among Robb Report’s editors, and the brand’s R8 series of sports cars has been a perennial favorite with our Car of the Year judges—and other U.S. drivers. The company builds about 2,500 examples of the R8 annually for the worldwide market, and half of them are delivered to the United States. Meanwhile, Audi’s S8 continues to raise the bar in the luxury sport-sedan segment (see “Driving the S8 in Its Natural Habitat”).
Audi officials invited Robb Report to join them at this year’s 24 Hours Nürburgring, where the field of about 175 cars included 15 Audi racecars: eight examples of the R8 LMS Ultra and seven of the TT-RS. The modern grand prix circuit incorporates the Nordschleife, the track’s north loop, which the racing legend Jackie Stewart dubbed the Green Hell because it is so demanding of drivers. The Nordschleife, which is nearly 13 miles long and includes more than 1,000 feet of elevation changes, is the yardstick by which every production car with sporting pretensions is measured. The elapsed time in which a car completes this torturous course determines its ranking on a globally recognized performance scale that is timed to hundredths of a second.
My host for the race weekend was Mark Dahncke, senior manager of product and motorsports communications for Audi of America. At dinner on Friday before the commencement of the race the following afternoon, we were joined by Dahncke’s colleague in Germany Stephan Reil, head of development at Audi Quattro, the division of Audi that builds the brand’s R8 and high-performance RS series cars, as well as the R8 LMS Ultra and TT-RS racing models. Reil is essentially the technical director responsible for development of all RS models and the R8. “The R8 is a lighthouse at Audi—an icon,” he said of the sports car. “With it, you build the story of your company.” Reil, who is soft-spoken yet passionate about his job, would get about three hours of sleep over the weekend.
Also joining the dinner was Romolo Liebchen, head of Audi Sport Customer Racing, which develops and provides technical support for R8 LMS Ultra racecars such as the one that would presently take first place ahead of cars from Aston Martin, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and others. During dinner, Liebchen seemed unusually calm for a man who would soon have millions of eyes on his cars.
He explained that Audi customers with racing aspirations can buy an R8 LMS Ultra to compete in the Group GT3 (also known as Grand Cup Touring) competition for roughly $450,000. About 1,000 cars representing 14 marques compete in the GT3 class. Audi has built 132 examples of the R8 LMS Ultra, enabling it to claim the largest market share in GT3 of any manufacturer.
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