They say that you cannot really appreciate the ultimate highs of victory if you have not also experienced the whale-dung lows of defeat. For the diesel-powered Audi R18 TDI Team of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen, and Dindo Capello winning the 60th running of the Mobil One 12 Hours of Sebring this past March washed away three years of those lows for the Audi team and fired first shot of a year-long battle in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) that will ultimately be fought between two of the largest automobile manufacturers in the world, Toyota and Volkswagen (Audi’s owner).
Those lows have included an assortment of miscues, accidents, and just plain bad luck for McNish and his cohorts that included horrendous crashes for McNish and sister car driver Mike Rockenfeller at Le Mans last year as well as entanglements with a variety of other slower cars and competitors in the predecessor to the WEC, the International Le Mans Cup , that all but gave the series championship to their arch rival French team, Peugeot, also racing diesel-powered cars.
Instead of fleeing the competition, Audi actually doubled down in the world of endurance racing, seeing the opportunity to again reinvent the diesel power plant like it did in 2006 when it arrived at Le Mans with a V-12 TDI (turbo diesel injected) – and won. Thanks in part to the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) and the the fly in the proverbial diesel soup is that in order to be named world champion, Audi needed to have at least one other manufacturer competing for the title. Without Peugeot, Audi was just a Magic Johnson without a Larry Bird.
Into the frey stepped Toyota, agreeing to compete in the WEC series, which includes the prestigious 24 hours of Le Mans event in mid June. In fact Toyota stole some of the thunder – or in this case electricity – of Audi -- announcing that it would challenge the vaunted German manufacturer with a hybrid petrol powered car.
The new team, which is based at Toyota Motorsport GmbH (TMG) in Cologne, Germany, was unable to attend the race at Sebring leaving Audi with its three-car entry to fight among itself for the victory. The race, which was to be the last for the Audi R18 TDI, which would be replaced by the updated version of the car, the Audi R18 Ultra and its even newer sister ship, the e-tron Audi R18 Ultra, a hybrid-diesel cocktail that may again reinvent the diesel engine.
André Lotterer, and Benoit Tréluyer toured the storied 3.74 mile track in 1:45.820 or 127.235 mph for pole position in the No. 1 car. Kistensen and company was second fastest in the No. 2 Audi and the No. 3 Audi with Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas, and Loic Duval was third fastest a bit more than a second off the pace set by Lotterer. defective electrical shifting unit on the transmission forced the team to make an unscheduled repair, putting the car behind the wall. The repair cost Fassler, Lotterer, and Treluyer 17 laps and relegated them to back markers in the race. But Fassler made the best of the situation once the car got back on the track, posting the fastest lap for the race with a 1:46.567 time, very close to his qualifying time.
In the meantime the No.2 and No. 3 Audis continued their trackside chess match at speeds in excess of 180 mph on the straights. At the halfway mark it was the No. 3 Audi with the overall lead; With a little less than an hour left in the race, the McNish, Kristensen, Capello consortium held just under a one lap lead on the No. 3 car, 89 seconds.
Then disaster struck for Bernhard in the No. 3 Audi. With 45 minutes left in the race, he made contact with a back marker and pitted for fuel and tires – and also a new rear cowl. The stop cost him another three laps to McNish and when he re-entered the race track was four laps down to the leader.Allan (McNish), Tom (Kristensen) and I have been waiting for this victory for three years (they won at Sebring in 2009). It was the right time to be back on the top of the podium. It’s a sweet success, also because we drove the Audi R18 TDI for the first time here at Sebring. Bringing the car home without any scratches in a field of 63 vehicles is no easy feat. We learned a lot last year. Today we showed that we can get through traffic without body contact in a closed car as well."
Six weeks later at in the Ardennes of Belgium at the race track called Spa, the Audi team scored a one-two-three-four sweep of the field, sans the Toyota. The Toyota “called in sick” due to a shunt in a test run which totaled the chassis and without a spare laying around a new one had to be built from scratch. Toyota’s team did not believe it had enough time to sufficiently test to ensure reliability of the car.
The debut of the Toyota car will now be at the 24 hours of Le Mans, but Toyota, which will compete with a newly designed 3.4 liter naturally aspirated V-8 engine remains undaunted and believes that they will be able to wrestle away the Le Mans crown from the Audi team.
Certainly the results at Spa proved that while the Audi diesel-hybrid is going to be a competitive race car – there is still a goodly amount to learn about the set-up of the e-tron hybrid. In fact much was made of the fact that the Toyota team has decided that its car will only be a rear wheel drive car whereas Audi has brought back to the Quattro to the race track with its hybrid power going to the front wheels.
At Spa, it was the R18 TDI Ultra that picked up the win with the No. 1 e-tron car of Fassler and team finishing second. However, McNish in the No. 2 e-tron Audi posted fast time and won the pole position for the race, in which weather conditions (the race started in rainy conditions with a wet track) and tire choice played a major part in the race victory.