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Diesels Dominate LeMans

What comes to your mind when you hear the words, “diesel” and “racing”?
Tuesday, February 26, 2013 - 09:13
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Mention the words “diesel” and “racing” in the same sentence and my mind first conjures up images of the beginning scenes from the movie “Smokey and the Bandit.” Remember that movie? You first heard a starter cranking over a big rig’s diesel powerplant, followed by huge blasts of black diesel exhaust emanating from the dual stacks, pointed proudly skyward just behind the cab. Fast forward to the scene at the truck rodeo, where truckers battle on a dirt circle track as the Bandit snoozes on a hammock in the pits.

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Navy CPO Scott Sigmon competes in pulling competitions for fun, a sport most of us would easily see a diesel dominate in.

But mention those same words to Audi engineers, and you’ll get an entirely different response.

Le Mans and Diesels
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is to endurance racing fans what the Daytona 500 is to NASCAR, but with a much older history. The first running of the race was back in 1923 on the roads surrounding the small town of Le Mans, France. The race has been held every year since, except for a French workmen’s strike in 1936 and a 10-year period between 1939 and 1949 due to World War II. Cars produced by Bentley, Alfa Romeo and Bugatti dominated the early races, and it didn’t take long before the competitors started developing innovations to their designs, looking for that competitive edge.  

he goal of Le Mans is simple: See who can travel the farthest distance in a 24-hour period without breaking. Cars designed for this, and other endurance challenges, must balance speed with durability. Even with modifications to the course to limit speeds, though, cars running at Le Mans today routinely exceed 200 mph on certain sections.

No manufacturer has succeeded in meeting the challenge of Le Mans in recent years more than Audi. By the end of 2005, Audi had racked up five out of six wins at this historic venue with the R8. In 2006, Audi switched to diesel, fielding the R10 TDI. “Diesels provide excellent power and range, which is what is needed to be successful in endurance racing,” says Mark Dahncke, Product and Motorsports Communications Manager for Audi of America. “Fundamentally, a drop of diesel fuel contains more energy than a drop of gasoline.”

The front axle MGU and related systems is added to the R18 ultra, creating a four-wheel drive hybrid version dubbed the “e-tron Quattro.”

This was not the first diesel to ever compete in Le Mans, but it was the first to enter the winner’s circle. In 2007, Peugeot followed Audi’s lead and fielded a diesel car of its own. They came close to toppling the German automaker in 2007 and 2008, but it wouldn’t be until 2009 that they would score the win. Audi must have been a bit upset by the loss, though, returning in 2010 with the R15 TDI and claimed a 1-2-3 finish after engine and mechanical problems forced the four Peugeot entries back to the garage. In 2011, Peugeot came back strong to give the latest Audi, the R18 TDI, a hard run but the Audi held out and crossed the finish line just ahead of its closest rival.

During the last 13 years, Audi has racked up an impressive Le Mans scorecard. Its brand has won 11 out of 13 races, and over half of them were won with a diesel powerplant.

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