Wednesday, October 26, 2016. Arguably the greatest dynasty in endurance sports car racing will be consigned to the history books, as Audi Sport announced it will be withdrawing their legendary LMP1 team at the conclusion of the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship.
It is a shocking, melancholy day in sports car racing. After eighteen consecutive years at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, winning the Grand Prix of Endurance a whopping thirteen times in that frame of time, Audi have now begun taking their final laps for the millions of fans they’ve captivated along an unforgettable racing journey.
Audi’s endurance racing dynasty was forged with the strength of every member of the team working in unison – engineers, directors, mechanics, and of course, the drivers. And while it was never by design, Audi found many of their greatest driving talents had at one point made their name racing in Japan, in the Autobacs Super GT Series.
Tom Kristensen will forever be remembered as the greatest champion in the history of Le Mans, winning the race a record nine times, and seven times at the wheel of an Audi Le Mans prototype – which by itself, would have broken Jacky Ickx’s previous record of six wins.
Kristensen was one of the finest gaijin drivers in Japan in the early to mid-1990s, between Japanese Formula 3000, the All-Japan Touring Car Championship, and beginning in 1994, the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC).
By comparison, Kristensen’s JGTC success was only fleeting, especially when compared to his record in single-seaters and touring cars. But even driving for smaller Toyota teams like FET Power Craft Racing, the Great Dane showed glimpses of the legend he would become in years’ time, taking the fight to the mighty McLaren F1 GTRs in his only full JGTC season in 1996.
Audi signed Kristensen from BMW in 2000, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Audi Sport Team Joest won Le Mans three years in a row between ’00-’02, then put their factory team on pause while leaving their world-conquering Audi R8 prototypes in the hands of customer teams for Le Mans. One such team was Team Goh, run by Kazumichi Goh – the director of the McLaren factory team that dominated the 1996 JGTC season.
In 2004, Team Goh went the distance and picked up Audi’s fourth Le Mans victory, the fifth in a row for Kristensen. Driving the final leg of the race to victory was Seiji Ara (pictured left of Rinaldo Capello and Kristensen), who joined the great Masanori Sekiya, winner in 1995, as the only two drivers from Japan to have ever claimed overall victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Twelve years after his milestone victory, Ara still competes in Super GT, now flying the flag for another German manufacturer – BMW.
Throughout Audi’s history in endurance racing, they always sought to challenge convention, and ultimately redefine it. Their 2006 victory was the first for a turbodiesel engined vehicle, the Audi R10 TDI.
Its’ successor, the R15 TDI, never quite left the lasting legacy that the R10 did, but it did enjoy a landmark victory of its own in 2010 – one that kept the winning connection of Audi LMP1 and Super GT going.
This time, it was with Romain Dumas – whose time at Toyota Team SARD in 2001 is an oft-forgotten footnote in what has become one of the most accomplished careers across multiple forms of motorsport. Dumas partnered Mike Rockenfeller and Timo Bernhard in victory in 2010, the ninth overall win for Audi. Covering 5,410 kilometers, they set the all-time distance record at Le Mans.
Six years later, Dumas added a second Le Mans crown – this time with Porsche.
2010 was also the year that Audi formed the team that would set the standard over the following six years of their endurance racing dynasty. They signed André Lotterer, a two-time GT500 class champion with Lexus Team TOM’s, and Benoît Tréluyer, also a former Super GT champion with NISMO, and the winningest gaijin driver in Super GT history.
These two former rivals were joined by Swiss DTM star Marcel Fässler, and together, they formed a unique synergy. Their breakthrough victory came in the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Down to just the #2 Audi R18 prototype of Lotterer, Tréluyer, and Fässler after two horrifying crashes for their other two entries, the trio fought back the challenge of Peugeot, and held on to win the 2011 race – a victory documented in the feature Truth in 24 II.
As a unit, Lotterer, Tréluyer, and Fässler won the great race three times, in 2011, 2012, and in 2014 – which will now go down as Audi’s final victory at Le Mans. They also secured Audi’s first ever World Endurance Championship title in 2012.
It would be unforgivable to overlook the role of engineer Leena Gade, who helped guide her drivers to those three Le Mans trophies and the WEC title over her six years with Audi, becoming one of the most powerful leading women in motorsport and becoming a role model to young girls who aspire to follow her path in the future.
In their success, Lotterer and Treluyer elevated the prominence of Super GT around the globe, applying the skills they had acquired in their time in Japan to the world’s stage.
Then came another Super GT champion: Loïc Duval, 2010 GT500 champion with Dome Honda Racing, who joined Audi in 2012, and helped guide Kristensen and Allan McNish to their final victories at Le Mans in the tragedy-struck 2013 race. They went on to win the World Endurance Drivers’ Championship in unison later that year.
When Kristensen retired at the end of the 2014 season, another Super GT alumni was called up to take his place. This time, it was former Lexus Team SARD driver Oliver Jarvis, who partnered Duval and Lucas di Grassi as they won the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps earlier this year.
If Audi doesn’t win either of the last two races of the season, that victory by Duval, Jarvis, and di Grassi will stand as the last of an incredible 108 race wins out of 185 entries from 1999 to 2016.
And they weren’t the only Super GT drivers to have driven for Audi along this magical journey. Two-time GT500 champion Michael Krumm drove for the Audi Joest factory team in 2002. Tom Coronel and Hiroki Katoh both drove privateer Audi R8s in the early 2000s. Inversely, former Audi LMP1 driver Stéphane Ortelli made a one-off Super GT appearance in the 2015 Fuji 500km.
Audi won fourteen endurance racing championships with their Le Mans prototypes, including nine in a row in the American Le Mans Series of yesteryear. As their accolades in racing grew, so did their presence in the consumer car market – growing from 645,000 road cars manufactured in 2000, to 1.74 million at the end of 2014, surpassing Mercedes-Benz’s total production in the same year.
Beyond the success that can be quantified in numbers, and sales figures, and trophies, there is the endearing racing spirit that built up a loyal, passionate base of supporters over nearly two decades. In a motorsport culture where “winning too much” is punished with venom and disdain, Audi maintained its respect and fostered a healthier outlook on their success. Even when they never had the fastest car, they seemed to find a way to win on reliability and tenacity alone. And any time someone beat Audi in a straight fight, especially at Le Mans, they had to fight for every lap to do so.
Vorsprung duch Technik – or, “Advancement through Technology” isn’t just a boardroom-drafted slogan. It’s a testament to everything Audi stood for over eighteen years of racing excellence at Le Mans. It’s the mantra of what they will continue to stand for as they shift focus to the Formula E Championship, while maintaining their presence all around motorsport in DTM, World Rallycross, GT Racing, and so much more.
The connection between Audi and Super GT helped the former to drive its way to success in the greatest arenas in global motorsport, while elevating the latter’s profile as a legitimate top-flight racing series as the years went on. And in the big picture, there may never be another program that set the standard of excellence the way that Audi did in the premier category of endurance racing.