Here's Why Audi's Return to Top-Level Sports Prototype Racing Is a Big Deal

Marshall Pruett
·4 min read
Photo credit: Gerlach Delissen - Corbis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Gerlach Delissen - Corbis - Getty Images

From Road & Track

Audi's extended absence from global prototype racing could be nearing its end. A dominant force in endurance racing for nearly two decades, the German auto manufacturer has revealed plans to build a new model to comply with the hybrid Le Mans Daytona h (LMDh) regulations which debut in 2023.

Key to the LMDh formula—which takes IMSA's Daytona Prototype international class currently populated by Acura, Cadillac, and Mazda, and adds a mandatory 40-hp kinetic energy recovery system—is its ability to compete in IMSA's WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC).

"We are evaluating other possible fields of activity for us in international motorsport," said Audi Sport managing director Julius Seebach in a statement. "In doing so, we have our customers' wishes in mind as much as the company's future strategy, which is clearly focused on electrification and carbon-neutral mobility. This is why we are intensively preparing to enter the new sports prototype category LMDh with its highlight races, the Daytona 24 Hours and Le Mans 24 Hours. The most important message for our fans is that motorsport will continue to play an important role at Audi."

Photo credit: FIAWEC - YouTube
Photo credit: FIAWEC - YouTube

By choosing LMDh as the prototype framework to pursue, Audi opens the door to racing at the 24 Hours of Daytona, 24 Hours of Le Mans, 12 Hours of Sebring, and any other marquee events of interest.

Had the company chosen Le Mans Hypercar (LMH), the new WEC-centric prototype formula due to go live next March, options to race in North America with IMSA would have been limited. While the governing bodies of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and WEC have welcomed both LMH and LMDh, IMSA has not extended the same invitation for LMH.

Thanks to the 2023 formula shift, the decision to build a new car conforming to LMDh standards also gives Audi a longer runway to build and test the LMP2-based car. Four boutique chassis manufacturers—Italy's Dallara, France's Ligier or ORECA, and Canada's Multimatic—are available for manufacturers to select as partners in the LMDh customization process.

In the changeover from LMP2 to LMDh, brands like Audi are permitted to outfit the car with custom bodywork with a heavy road-car styling emphasis, and to install a combustion engine that fits whatever marketing goals that meet its needs. Among the recent DPi offerings, Mazda's Multimatic-built RT24-P model makes use of the smallest motor, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo, while the reigning champions at Acura rely on a 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 in its ARX-05s, and Cadillac, with the largest engine, is the only non-turbo in the group with its bellowing 5.5-liter V-8.

Facing a goal of delivering 630 reliable horsepower from its choice of engine to complement to the 40 hp from KERS, Audi is free to look towards its production fleet for motors that could be developed into racing options, design a purebred racing motor, or pull something from its existing fleet of customer sport cars to propel its LMDh model. One familiar option to Audi will not be present, however, as the rather relaxed LMDh engine regulations do not permit the use of diesel fuel.

Photo credit: Rick Dole - Getty Images
Photo credit: Rick Dole - Getty Images

Audi's self-imposed departure from prototype competition came at the conclusion of the 2016 season amid the Dieselgate emissions scandal. Prior to the costly penalties directed at its parent Volkswagen Group, and the marketing fiasco that followed, Audi ascended to a place of exaltation through its high-profile wins at Le Mans and in the former American Le Mans Series. Its R10, R15, and R18 LMP1 prototypes set new standards for success using turbodiesel technology in the sport, claiming numerous championships and 24-hour wins.

With its R18 e-tron quattro in 2013, Audi took its first step in the new hybridization of the WEC's LMP1 formula, where it remained until shuttering the program in favor of joining the new all-electric FIA Formula E championship. To prepare for LMDh, Audi confirmed its factory Formula E effort will wind down at the end of the 2021 season, leaving sister brand Porsche as the lone VW Group representative in the open-wheel championship.

Photo credit: Andrew Hone - Getty Images
Photo credit: Andrew Hone - Getty Images

Among the other aspects to solidify with Audi's return to prototypes is whether it will elect to field a full-time campaign in IMSA, the WEC, or both, and whether its LMDh model will be made available to customers, or held firmly in the factory's control.

For three glorious years, Audi's R18s competed with the Porsche's 919 Hybrid in WEC. Although Porsche has not gone as far as Audi to openly signal its LMDh plans, the brand is known to be among the anticipated participants when the class breaks cover at the 24 Hours of Daytona in January of 2023. A resumption of the internecine fight would be a gift to the endurance racing world.

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