Audi’s 1-2 finish in the 6 Hours of Bahrain closes the book on one of Le Mans greatest eras. Audi’s run in top flight prototype sportscar racing is over. In 18 years they won Le Mans 13 times along with numerous Championships all across the world. No other manufacturer has achieved that level of success in that amount of time. Their successes are well documented. Their first Victory at Le Mans in 2000 to their most recent victory in 2014. They won as favorites, and they won as the underdog. If you haven’t watched them, Audi has a pair of excellent documentaries entitled “Truth In 24”. I highly recommend you give them a watch. Audi’s history is interwoven into the History of Le Mans. Despite all of their success at Le Mans they failed to win in 2003, overall victory going to VW stable mate Bentley. The Bentley shared more with Audi than its corporate overlord. Underneath brand new body adorned in British Racing Green the Bentley Speed 8 was essentially an Audi, the Audi R8C To be specific.
We are all familiar with the legend that was Audi’s R8 LMP900 car. It was the car that announced Audi’s arrival as a top team in international motorsport. However its birth was different from most high tech prototype racecars, and it was done in the most German way possible. Audi debuted its prototypes in 1998 but instead of launching 1 car, they launched 2. A coupe and an open top model both featuring a twin turbocharged 3.6 liter V8. The rules at the time were in a transitional phase. The GT1 machines were a bit confusing. They were technically based on road cars but the manufactures only had to produce 2 road legal versions to satisfy the rules. Many of the road legal cars never even saw a road, often times being kept in the manufactures private collections. All this meant that they were race cars first and then given just enough civilizing to be considered road legal. To get past all this combined with the slow demise of GT1 the rules makers decided to do away with all pretense and renamed the GT1 category LMGTP. Specifically designed for closed top prototypes, many of the GT1’s were modified to meet the new rules. New boy Audi was not sure which class, LMP900 or LMGTP would be the better option to fight for overall victories. So being German, they built cars to satisfy both sets of rules.
Audi gave 2 separate teams the job to design and build the 2 different cars. The first was the R8R, the open top prototype was given to recently renamed Audi Sport Team Joest. Dallara was handled the design while Team Joest was tasked with building and running the cars. The coupes designated R8C were designed and built by Racing Technology Norfolk, renamed Audi Sport UK. Audi campaigned 2 versions of both cars for the 1998 season with the sole goal of determining which would be best going forward. Ultimately, the open top R8R were chosen to be the Audi contender going forward.
The decision was made based on multiple factors. the LMGTP cars by rule, had to run on narrower tires to offset the aerodynamic advantage the coupes had on the straights. However, the major reason behind Audi’s decision was the lack of pace shown by the R8C’s. The R8C was completed later than its open top cousin. As a result it never got the requisite time needed to test and develop. This led to the R8C’s lacking the pace needed to be competitive. In addition there were aerodynamic deficiencies that plagued the car, chief among which was an air build up under the engine cover. This caused the cover to be blown off on numerous occasions. Given all the data Audi’s decided to go with the more sorted R8R and the R8C’s were relegated to a historical footnote in Audi’s future success.
Or was it. There was no doubt among those at Audi Sport UK that given the time to properly develop the car the R8C could be highly competitive. In 2001 they were given that chance from one of the last places one would expect it, Bentley. Bentley hadn’t competed at Le Mans in nearly 68 years, however the British marque had recently been purchased by VW. Keen to bring the Bentley marque back to its heyday of uber luxury combined with speed they decided to give the R8C a second lease on life. Developed by the same team as the R8C, Racing Technology Norfolk they debuted the Bentley EXP Speed 8 in 2001.
The EXP Speed 8 had a brand new body, new transmission built by Xtrac, and Dunlap tires instead of the Michelin’s being run by Audi. However the majority of the cars internals was carried over from the R8C, chiefly the 3.6 liter twin-turbocharged Audi V8. The Speed EXP 8 debuted at Le Mans in 2001, and showed encouraging pace, finishing 3rd behind the Audis. In 2002 amidst further redesigning entered only 1 car. The new car featured aero evolutions and an enlarged engine. Bentley increased displacement on the Audi V8 to 4.0 liters. Despite treating 2002 as a purely developmental year, the lone Bentley managed to finish 4th, again behind the Audis.
Having learned all the lessons they thought they needed Bentley entered the 2003 Le Mans 24 Hours keen on defeating their German sibling/rival. The EXP was removed and the 2003 contender was simply called the Speed 8. Determining that simply showing up at Le Mans was not the best way to competitive they entered the 2003 12 hours of Sebring. Sebring is a beast of a track, it is often said that if a part is going to brake in 24 hours at Le Mans it will brake in only 12 hours at Sebring. The track is that harsh on man and machine. Again Bentley finished an impressive 3rd and 4th but behind Audi.
Audi had stoped its factory development of the R8’s infavor of developing the radically different, diesel-powered R10. This meant that their top drivers were available. Rinaldo Capello and Mr. Le Mans himself, Tom Kristensen were borrowed from Audi to drive the #7 car with Guy Smith. Mark Blundell, David Brabham and Johnny Herbert would drive the sister #8 car. In addition to utilizing 2 of Audi’s drivers, Team Bentley (Apex Racing) received massive support from the team responsible for Audi’s success, Team Joest. With no full factory team to fight against, Bentley cruised to a 1-2 victory. With the #7 car winning by 2 laps over the #8. Bentley had finally returned to the top step on the Le Mans Podium.
However Bentley would not have enjoyed the sweet taste of victory if it wasn’t for an abandoned car from Audi. The engine and primary components of the defunct R8C formed the backbone of the Speed 8. In addition to the car the Bentley received support from Audi drivers and Audi’s chosen partner Team Joest. Furthermore, some of the aero lessons learned on the Speed 8 were carried over to the R8’s successor, the R10. It may have said Bentley on the car, but dig a little deeper and it was really an Audi.