Audi debuted two race cars in the Spa Six Hour race yesterday, to a perfect result - fielding two each of the new Audi R18 ultra and R18 e-tron (hybrid) quattro cars, the marque finished with a stunning 1-2-3-4.
In the end, it was the diesel-only R18 ultra which prevailed over the R18 e-tron quattro diesel-electric hybrid by 46 seconds. All cars ran strongly, and the hybrids in particular will benefit from the outing, as the balance of the car with its electrically-driven front wheels is still far from optimal. The winning Audi R18 ultra (diesel) was driven by Romain Dumas, Loïc Duval and Marc Gené also scored more valuable points for Audi as it was the second round of the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC). It had fielded last year's cars in winning the first round comprehensively as well.
Crossing the finish line just 46 seconds later was the trio which won last year’s Le Mans - Marcel Fässler/André Lotterer/Benoît Tréluyer.
Driving the first diesel-electric race car in history, the team had taken pole position for the event, and dominated the race in the early stages before a bold tire choice by the eventual winner gave it an advantage it maintained to the flag.
The famous Spa-Francorchamps racetrack in the Ardennes hosted an intriguing battle between the two almost identical cars - except for the hybrid's additional front wheel drive train.
André Lotterer in the "No.1" R18 e-tron quattro took the lead from Tom Kristensen in the "No.2" hybrid sister car during the initial laps.
Throughout qualifying and the race, the Audis were in a class of their own.
During qualifying practice, the four Audis ran 1-2-3-4, a long way ahead of the Lola Toyota with another stellar driver combination including F1 driver Heidfeld and the talented son of F1-great Alain Prost, Nicolas.
At the end of qualifying, the starting grid looked like this.
- 1. Capello/Kristensen/McNish (Audi R18 e-tron quattro) 2m 01.579s
- 2. Bonanomi/Jarvis (Audi R18 ultra) 2m 02.093s
- 3. Fässler/Lotterer/Tréluyer (Audi R18 e-tron quattro) 2m 02.232s
- 4. Dumas/Duval/Gené (Audi R18 ultra) 2m 02.705s
- 5. Prost/Jani/Heidfeld (Lola-Toyota) 2m 04.232s
As expected, the race was entirely a battle of the teams within the Audi camp.
At the end of the first hour, on a drying track, Lotterer was nearly a minute ahead of the "No.3" Audi R18 ultra of stand-in driver Marc Gené. Former F1-driver Gené is standing in for the injured Timo Bernhard in the Audi squad, and he was the only Audi to switch to slicks during the first round of pit stops while the other teams all chose intermediates.
Gene's gamble gave him lap times four seconds a lap better than the next car and within just 37 laps, Gené and then Duval clawed back the deficit.
On lap 63, Duval took the lead it would hold to the finish. Gené obviously likes the hilly circuit as his win as a last-minute stand-in gave him his third win in the event, after his successes in 2008 and 2011. The Spa 24 Hour race might be a round of the World Endurance Championship, but in many ways it is the dress rehearsal for the world's most important car race, the Le Mans 24 Hours, and it's hard to see that event turning out much different.
Toyota is the only contender with a realistic chance of running at Audi speeds for 24 hours, and that chance must have seemed awfully slim to the Toyota team which showed up for the event and put its car on display.
Toyota wasn't running because it simply wasn't ready and what it saw must have made it feel twice as uncomfortable as sitting out a race meeting it should have been competing in. Its major competitor ran 1-2-3-4 throughout the race at Spa, and experienced a total of one unscheduled pit stop for a lighting problem.
It has four reliably working race cars of two different types, four proven driver teams and with Peugeot pulling out of the sport late last year, Audi Sport Team Joest seems very likely to add an eleventh Le Mans 24 Hour victory to the trophy cabinet.
The Le Mans endurance classic runs on June 16-17.