“I was fascinated by Le Mans, even as a kid. But back then, I could never have imagined scoring three wins with my team a few decades later!” Wolfgang Ullrich, the iconic boss of Audi Sport, said in 2002. When it first came to Le Mans in 1999, Audi brought two different concepts. The Audi R8C, a closed-cockpit prototype, and the Audi R8R, an open-cockpit model. The German manufacturer lined up with the firm intention of winning the race. And, after covering several hundred kilometres during testing and the race, Audi finally achieved the “holy grail” of motor racing - a victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Audi has its own chapter in Le Mans history and several of its winning cars are now on display in the Race section at the 24 Hours Museum, where the German marque’s story begins with the unforgettable #1 Audi R8, a racing car in the ‘Le Mans Prototype’ category created by the late Alain Bertaut, a former driver, journalist, tester, steward, board member and vice-president of the ACO. The car that triumphed in 2002 is a later version of the 1999 R8. Its 3.6-litre twin-turbo V8 engine with direct injection and 600 horsepower was truly innovative. Its development was overseen by engineer Ulrich Baretzky in Neckarsulm (Germany). The chassis was built in Ingolstadt and the carbon fibre single-seater body was designed in Italy by Dallara. It was built like a Meccano set and parts could be changed extremely quickly, bringing new meaning to the notion of endurance in long races.
The R8 dominated its class and took a series of consecutive wins at Le Mans from 2000 to 2005, only beaten in 2003 by the Bentley Speed 8, which was built from an Audi R8C! And regardless of its track record, every year the Audi team came back with its eye on another victory. In 2002, the starter’s flag had barely been lowered when the Audi team stormed ahead, leaving its competitors standing. “We gave it everything we had,” said Tom Kristensen, driver of the #1 R8. The car was perfect and, as usual, outperformed its competitors to take the first three places in order - #1 first, #2 second and #3 third! Yet nothing was ever taken for granted: the German mechanics did an exemplary job and the partnership with the highly experienced Reinhold Joest played a crucial role in the R8’s success. Audi’s engineers were also particularly impressive, making the R8 a truly formidable racing machine. The prototype was highly representative of the marque’s evolution in the mass-production sports car segment, and led to the launch of a road-going R8. The icing on the cake? Biela, Kristensen and Pirro left their mark on history by taking a third consecutive win at Le Mans - the first for any driving trio.
With 140 vehicles and a myriad of items having belonged to drivers, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest spotlights the history of motoring in Sarthe, a story of human and technological endeavour, and of the international success of its race. Bentley, Ferrari, Jaguar, Ford, Porsche, Matra, Audi… the marques that have put their stamp on Le Mans are all in pride of place, treating visitors to the very best of the world’s greatest endurance race. In addition to the permanent installations, an additional 350m² are set aside for temporary exhibitions. After their tour of the museum, visitors can also take a look around the Bugatti Circuit.
BREAKING NEWS: THE 24 HOURS OF LE MANS POSTPONED TO 19–20 SEPTEMBER 2020