7 Le Mans insights from Audi

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Le Mans comes around every year in June, and there’s no more successful modern-day team at the world-famous French event than Audi.

The brand has won the race 10 times since it first entered in 2000. This year, it’s hoping for another overall victory, with a two-pronged attack of diesel R18 TDI and diesel-electric R18 e-tron quattro hybrid racers.

To help non-motorsport media learn more about Audi’s involvement in motor racing, the firm once again held its Racers and Drivers Dinner at Goodwood last month. Yours truly was a lucky guest at the event, also attended by Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, Nick Mason and many, many others.

Here are some of the factoids I picked up on the night.

1 Le Mans is close

The winning margin of 2011 has perhaps been overlooked: it was 13.854 seconds. After 24 hours of racing: that’s amazing. Two different cars, from two different countries, engineered by hundreds of different people to completely different rules, piloted by six different drivers… and the difference between them after 1440 minutes of racing was 0.5 seconds an hour. Staggering.

So, while Le Mans racegoers may pass out in the evening, any team that so much as blinks will miss out. Even at 4am, the pressure is on to keep the pitstops tight, watch the strategy and keep the driver both informed and alert.

Another way of putting it? You snooze, you lose.

2 Engineers don’t care what fuel a car uses

Do you approach things differently with it being diesel instead of petrol, I asked Audi engineer Kyle Wilson-Clark. Nope, was the simple answer. It’s immaterial what fuels it: engineers simply look at the characteristics of the engine and optimise the car for them. An engine, to an engineer, is simply a source of power, delivered with a certain set of characteristics. Diesel does more, over a lesser rev range, so driveshafts need to be updated and the gearbox needs to be beefier, but much more detail than that is immaterial. The best engineers are not old romantics when it comes to engines.

3 Audi still smarts about Quattro

In 1997, Audi won seven national championships with the A4 quattro. That was it, as far as the FIA was concerned: it banned four-wheel drive from national racing championships. To turn the other cheek, Audi stuck it out (and won the following year’s BTCC championship in a FWD A4), but it still hurts.

15 years on. Quattro is back: the R18 E-tron quattro has a Williams-sourced hybrid device that drives the front wheels, with the engine driving the rear. The FIA still had to have a say, mind: it can only be used over 120km/h, so as not to give too much of an advantage…

4 Endurance racing prioritises people management

Asking people to do the impossible is asking them to do more than just a job. It is how well you approach this with your crew that determines how successful you will be. There’s more: it also demands there is a clear hierarchy of respect, that you know what each person can do and how best to ask them to do it.

5 Le Mans race engineers have structure

As mentioned, Audi engineer Kyle Wilson-Clark doesn’t know the vital statistics of the R18’s engine. He doesn’t need to know: he has a powertrain engineer who themselves have a number of technicians working for them, taking care of all the details. Wilson-Clark knows what he needs to know: that’s how the structure works.

This is matrix theory in practice. Information is shared where necessary but extraneous detail is not imposed on everyone. Team work in practice: each is a vital part of the system and no one person is the fulcrum that would bring down the team if they were run over by a bus.

6 Audi runs its trucks on race fuel

Is the race fuel a special blend? Nope: and if the Audi timetable can’t fit in a stop at a filling station, it’ll top the team trucks up with any spare race fuel too. The beauty of running a diesel race car…

7 It takes more to being a racing driver than driving fast

Audi drivers are chose, explained Dr. Ullrich, for their ability to fit into the team. This is such a close-knit family – and here, that really isn’t a cliché – that any conflict or character clashes would quickly become an issue and so are avoided.

Oliver Jarvis was chosen because he is young and fast, yes, but also because he gels with drivers like Kristensen, like McNish. They have banter, they respect each other, they appear to trust one another. Jarvis was chosen because the team was sure he’d fit in. Just being quick isn’t enough when a team is this close, works under such extreme conditions for so long and is so reliant on one another performing well.

Choosing the wrong driver could even be corrosive and lead to a breakdown of the team.

Le Mans 2012: this year, it’s on 16 June 2012. Will Audi be victorious once again?

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