A single day, one rotation of our planet, a pure measurement set in motion 4.5 billion years ago. Most of us take individual days for granted; the average person gets roughly 26,000. Some are more special or important than others. So much so, we are willing to dedicate the purpose of many to the preparation for a few. Endurance racing is the distillation of this ideal. Three hundred and sixty-four days all leading up to just one. Audi is the current king of endurance racing, and I followed the masters of time through three different countries to the three biggest endurance races in the world: The Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, The ADAC 24 Hours of the Nurburgring, and the biggest of all, The 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Each race and country has its own flavor. The experience with Audi is different as well. At Daytona, Audi Customer teams run the R8 LMS, a car developed alongside the first generation of R8 road car built specifically for racing in the IMSA Tudor United SportsCar Championship. The Nuburgring saw the introduction of the brand-new R8 Ultra, based off the second-generation R8, while the R18 e-tron Quattro prototypes compete at Le Mans. The Daytona Motor Speedway uses most of the high-banked oval along with a road course that winds through the infield. The Nurburgring is the most famous public toll road in the world, and the Circuit De Le Sarthe in France is part permanent racing facility and part public road.
It's a Small World of Racing
The first event is in Daytona, Florida. As an American from the West Coast, this tourist trap best known as a spring break destination feels the most foreign of the three. The race takes place in late January, so the typical Florida heat and humidity aren't issues. As a matter of fact, at night it's downright cold. There is a saying about Florida, "The more North you go, the more Southern it feels." Daytona Beach is roughly two-thirds up the state in terms of latitude.
The feel of the race is laid-back, to the point I wonder if half the people here realize what's about to happen. It's a strange environment, the-top level Daytona Prototypes are the fastest cars on track, but probably the least interesting or relevant to the fans. The average person at the track might not relate to driving a Corvette, R8, 911, or Z4, but they may have driven to the track in their Chevy, Audi, etc. On top of that, you can actually tell which brand is which in the GT cars.
A good portion of the crowd camps out in the infield. The RVs, trailers, and converted school buses are what I imagine a modern version of an old west wagon train would be if cowboys had folding lawn furniture and Costcos. The infield also has tents and trailers from car manufacturers, tire companies, plus fan-fuel in the form of stick-mounted fair food.
I spend most of the daylight hours wandering from turn to turn in the infield. From atop the garages, it's possible to see the front section of the oval and a good portion of the infield road course. Later in the day, I spend an hour or two inside the Audi Customer Racing trailer with Director of Operations Brad Kettler. He's here as "support" for the customer racing teams. In reality, he's a walking iPhone for the R8 racers. If anyone needs an engineering answer, they don't Google it, they Kettler it; if they need a replacement part, they don't tap the Amazon app, they tap Kettler, who gets it out of his pathologically organized trailer. In the office, Kettler is focusing on his laptop screen watching race data while the team radios squawk in the background, a soccer match is on the TV. As crew chiefs and drivers yell back and forth on the radios, Kettler calmly explains what's actually happening.
An R8 spins on the banking under caution. The team's radio erupts with panic and profanity as the driver is stuck on track and says he's lost drive. The crew chief tries continually to break in to gather data. Like Peter Jackson giving Blu-ray commentary over Fellowship of the Ring, Kettler explains that the cold temperatures and slow yellow flag speeds caused lower than expected temperatures in the tires, which caused the spin. The driver has wedged the car between the banking and apron, so the rear tires aren't touching the asphalt; he knows exactly what the problem is and he's one or two steps ahead of the team. After a few moments of driver panic, the team catches up with Kettler's mind and the car is rolling again. I get insights that TV commentators could only hope to give. He points out the crew chief was probably just as panicked as the driver, but he did exactly what he needed to in order to get the driver calmed back down. He knows because he's been there. He worked on the Champion Racing R8 program before working on the Audi Le Mans efforts with Joest. The joke around Audi is that Brad has done every job in racing except catering.
In the middle of the night, I make my way to the top of the grandstands. From up there, you can see the entire track. There are so few people in the stands, I cannot only count them, I could feed them all with a couple of pizzas. The infield, however, is still afire with activity, literally. Our ancestors celebrated by dancing around bonfires, race fans now sit around them and drink. At least they're staying warm.
Dawn is my favorite time during endurance racing. There is something about surviving the night. It's almost as if the race restarts without taking a break. The infield is finally quiet, the fires have burned out, and the natives have retreated behind their black-out curtains. The teams get a second wind, and there are signs of the coming warmth. The most American moment I've had in a long time is eating a funnel cake, standing in the Chevy truck exhibit at the Daytona Speedway while country music plays in the background.
The Audi teams have struggled a bit through the night. They are down by laps now, not just a split time. I see Kettler carving through the crowds; the man who makes some of the fastest cars on earth even faster is the picture of irony wringing out a 50cc scooter. He's still wearing a zen-like smile.
Wandering around, it's pretty easy to tell the all-nighters from those who have snuck away for at least a few hours of sleep and a shower. Top-tip, you want to be the latter. The garages are full of cars and mechanics furiously thrashing. One of the best parts of this series is the access fans have to the teams. I'm wearing a media credential around my neck, and it only gets me a foot closer to the action than the family of four wearing matching neon-green ear protection. Well done IMSA—you have created future fans.
Even with valiant efforts, the Audi teams come up short at Daytona. The R8s won the previous year, but just weren't on pace with the other cars this year. One of the favorites burned up a clutch after a spin and another suffered a penalty after passing the pace car during a caution period, but overall, it wasn't their year.
Paradise Is the Green Hell
A visit to the Nurburgring is a pilgrimage for any car enthusiast, to be here for the ADAC 24 hour race is akin to watching the original trilogy in a screening room at Skywalker Ranch. The entire surrounding area is taken over by racing fanatics and the locals seem to love it and play into it. Entire villages turn into enclaves for racing. Shop windows are decorated; food carts spring up on street corners and even local bakeries will sell you officially licensed merchandise.
The feeling is far more welcoming than Daytona. Here, it's as if the entire countryside is putting on a race, not just tolerating it. Although there is an enormous crowd, it is spread out over the 16-mile track, so it's crowded in a few areas. That isn't to say that there isn't an energy here, because the crowd is more intent on following the race and being a part of it. At night, the campsites are even crazier than Daytona; makeshift nightclubs are built under giant tarps with beer cases for walls. Entire PA systems and tables of DJ equipment are unloaded out of the trunks of Golfs. And the fires; custom-built wood stoves and fireplaces are an art form at the Nuburgring. The next time I'm lucky enough to go, I'm photographing the fire sculptures for a coffee table book.
Audi is out in full force again; 2015 is a big year for the Southern German powerhouse as it's not only launching a fair amount of consumer product but its also rolling out a brand new racecar. Putting on a good show at the Nurburgring isn't just about selling more road cars. The R8 Ultra is a customer racecar, meaning the adage of "win on Sunday sell on Monday" is literal.
This is the highest level of road car based professional racing, but there is also an element of everyman racing. The classes are so varied; the sight of a brand new GT3 class racecar passing 15 year-old hot-hatches is something you don't get used to. Even though it happens, again and again and again. Walking through the pits the contrast between giant race haulers sitting next to box-trailers barely big enough to hold a car and toolbox is best described as heart-warming. Racing is all about family and while some of those bonds have been forged in the heat of competition, some teams are literally made up of a household. While dad's on track, mom is organizing spares and tires while the kids are running the social media accounts and selling merchandize.
The Nurburgring 24 is the shoppers dream amongst the three races. Not only is the selection hands-down the best, the prices are the most reasonable by a long shot. That's including the exchange rate.
At the start of the race, the grandstands are packed. The Germans are shoulder to shoulder and the focus is intense. As opposed to Daytona, everyone here is anxious in anticipation; the love of cars and racing is palpable here.
The classes start in separate packs, with the fastest cars in one thundering group, with the slower cars gapped further back. Within just a few laps, the GT3 cars are lapping the slowest cars on the track; the speed differentials are both hugely terrifying and terrifyingly huge.
The track is so immense that seeing every corner, even in 24 hours feels impossible. Flugplatz, both Carrousels, there are so many must see spots I have to make some tough choices. Most locations only offer a view of two or three turns at once and it forces spectators to forget about the larger race and just enjoy the world's most intense physics class.
This is absolutely the darkest night of any race I've seen. Suddenly I realize just how much lighting there is at Daytona. Walking through the forest it's easy to feel alone. As attrition starts to take its toll on the field, the flash of headlights becomes more precious. I start identifying cars by exhaust notes. Bentleys burble and bark, Vipers bellow, the Audi's mechanical shriek is what I associate with a classic European race engine. The Porsches—the Porsches sound like efficiency - the classic din of a flat six.
The Audi teams run strong the entire race, but suffer from bad luck during the night. There are crashes; spins in oil and at the front of the pack, BMWs and Porsches equal the Audis' pace. In the end, Audi wins by just 40 seconds, the smallest gap ever recorded at the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring. BMW earns second and Porsche third, a testament to the competitiveness of this race.
The Most Important Race In the World
France is the birthplace of motor racing, at least that's what the French claim. Machines have been battling wheel to wheel for over a hundred years. Circuit de la Sarthe began as a triangle connecting three cities, the track is now completely surrounded by housing and businesses and mostly consists of public road. There is a true sense of occasion in Le Mans and the surrounding area celebrates the heritage as much as what's currently happening.
The crowd here is international, but the amount of right-hand drive TVRs, MGs and Jaguars make me wonder if there is a single Englishman left in England. The German fans are here too, although they seem to have a little bit more of an, "on holiday" attitude.
Le Mans is massive. Standing in the pits next to the garages with the grandstands facing them makes me feel like a gladiator in a coliseum. Even walking around before the race, I can feel the pressure pushing down on the teams. I run into Brad Kettler again. He's working as a mechanic and consultant on one of the R18 e-trons. He looks different here, more energetic and more focused. He isn't just supporting the effort, he's wearing his game face.
The efforts put forth by the prototype teams at Le Mans is next level; Audi even more than most. The amount of manpower, computing power and sheer financial power is staggering. A computer room that a layman could be convinced is supporting a lunar-landing, sits behind the Garages. Engineers sit monitoring real time data from the cars anytime they're on track. Each engineer is responsible for spotting anomalies, comparing current data to simulator models and making predictions. This data is then relayed to the race engineer who has the final say on the actions taken by the drivers and crew.
I watch the start of the race from Audi's box overlooking start finish. The visualization of physics is different at Le Mans. The prototype cars are significantly faster than GT-class, but the speed looks effortless. Suddenly the sports cars look like they strike and bludgeon the g forces, the prototypes' battle with inertia is cunning and graceful.
For the first couple of hours, I hover around the garages. It becomes immediately obvious who is running at the pace they had planned and more importantly whose predictions about their competitor's pace are correct. That's a big part of modern Le Mans; not just managing your own race, but forecasting what the other guy can do.
As the sun begins to set, the battle between Audi and Porsche is in full swing. The strategy and on track chess match doesn't exist so much anymore. Endurance racing has become 24-hour sprints. Dusk is all about the Dunlop Bridge leading down to the Esses. The light is spectral red and yellow and suddenly the world is an oil painting.
Partying at night seems to be a universally human thing. France however doesn't seem to have the same level of pyromania as Germany and the States. Things aren't as rowdy in Le Mans unless you count hoards of fans throwing champagne corks at each other. Both chicanes in the Mulsanne Straight are prime places to see high speeds, hard braking, quick cornering and passing. On the opposite side of the track, Audi sets up a two-story structure ideal for enjoying the race. TVs are everywhere, there's an unreal variety of food and a patio that overlooks the Ford Chicanes. It's another spot for passing and as the night goes on, fatigue becomes a factor and some drivers start making bad choices. I see close calls, but luckily, nothing race changing.
Discretion is the better part of valor and I decide some sleep is the responsible thing to do; a shower is the hospitable thing. Cheese, croissant and coffee, the three Cs of French morning sustenance is a must before heading back to the track.
I miss dawn at Le Mans, a regret that will sting for a while. The morning at Le Mans is strangely peaceful. There are bigger crowds in the early hours and my impression is a happier crowd. The dampness makes the English fans feel at home. The amount of partially eaten baguettes littering every horizontal surface is amusingly cliche.
I head down to Tetre Rouge for the first time. The track level views allow for scientific observation of how cars behave. The Toyotas turn-in violently and point the nose in. The Audis are smoother and seem to rotate a bit more. Listening for the subtlety of when the driver gets back in the gas and how quickly is something I probably couldn't have enjoyed without sleep.
As the hours tick away, the crowd starts to get fired up again. The stands on the front straight are filling up and the flags and banners are waving. Some are hung-over, those who didn't sleep are exhausted, some are just naturally grouchy and there's a jackass in the stands with a compressed-air-horn. Don't ever be that guy.
I decide to end the race as it started, from above start finish in the Audi Suite, this time on the patio. Even wearing earplugs, I can hear the crowds. It becomes obvious that Porsche is going to win this thing. There is a bittersweet tinge in the air around Audi. The team comes to win and nothing else; but you can tell, there is a very real appreciation for the necessity of competition.
In the closing laps Dr. Ulrich, head of Audi Motorsports, walked into the Porsche garages and congratulated Porsche's Head of LMP Fritz Enzinger with the hug heard round the world. His emotion was very real and touching.
As the Porsches crossed the line for the final time, the crowds erupted in appreciation. Some teams are happy just to complete the race, while others have already started planning for next year.
Starting at Daytona, then doing the Nurburgring and culminating at Le Mans was an unreal car guy adventure. I would recommend seeing them in that order, but if you have to pick a single race, I would recommend the Nurburgring. It is more approachable, more affordable and after the race, I was out of the parking lot and back on the Autobahn in 10 minutes. Budget two hours just to get out of Circuit de la Sarthe and plan an extra day to even get out of the Daytona Speedway parking lot.
While Formula 1 might be seen as the pinnacle of motor sports, endurance racing is without a doubt the most interesting, most applicable and the greatest development lab for future cars. From the hybrid systems, to construction methods to aerodynamics, these things will affect our lives.
A not so brief history of Audi time.
Audi's conquest of the clock began in 1998 with Audi Sport developing the R8R, campaigned by Joest Racing. The car debuted at the 1999 12 Hours of Sebring taking third. That year at Le Mans provided the new comer with even tougher competition from from BMW, Mercedes, Panoz, Courage and even Toyota. A combination of consistency and durability netted Audi another third with the sister car finishing fourth.
For 2000, Audi and Joest developed what is now known as one of the best racecars in history, the R8. To improve endurance racing abilities, the R8 leveraged the reliability of the previous car and fortified it with a modular architecture allowing shockingly fast repairs. The R8 is powered by Audi's 3.6-liter twin-turbo FSI V8. The word "dominant" seems inadequate to describe its success. In its first year at Le Mans, Audi R8s took first, second and third spots with the third place R8 finishing 21 laps ahead of the fourth place Peugeot. The winning car was driven by Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and the man who now wears the title Mr. Le Mans, Tom Kristensen. Audi went on to win with the R8 in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005. Audi did not field a factory team in 2003 and instead assisted Bentley with its prototype effort. Bentley won its first Le Mans since 1930 with Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello.
During the 2004 and 2005 seasons, Audi fought regulations as much as other teams. The competition was beginning to catch up and it was clear another revolution was needed. For 2006, the R10 TDI was introduced and turned endurance racing on its ear. The 5.5-liter twin-turbo V12 diesel won Le Mans in 2006, 2007 and 2008. In 2009 Audi replaced the R10 with the R15, with a twin-turbo V10, with the same displacement smaller overall size. Campaigned solely by Joest, the R15 managed a third place finish at Le Mans in 2009.
For 2010, the R15 Plus featured improvements all over the vehicle, but most notably in the powertrain and aero-package. The Plus improvements proved to be more multiplicative than additive allowing Audi to sweep the podium.
For 2011, the ACO changed LMP1 regulations that made all 2010 cars virtually obsolete. Engine displacement and fuel cell volume decreased, hybridization was now allowed and the aero package was modified for safety reasons. Audi responded with the R18 TDI Ultra. The car is powered by a diesel 3.7-liter hot-vee single-turbo V6. For 2011, Audi didn't believe hybrid technology was well developed enough to justify the weight and complexity. Audi went on to win at Le Mans in 2011, but only took the top spot as the two other cars were involved in high-speed collisions with GT-class Ferraris.
2012, Audi utilized two different powertrains and raced the R18 Ultra and R18 e-tron Quattro. Both based on the same carbon fiber monocoque, the Ultra was further weight optimized. The biggest innovations were a carbon fiber transmission housing and electric power steering. The e-tron not only allowed for energy recovery during deceleration and more power during acceleration, but finally allowed an all-wheel drive Audi Quattro to compete at Le Mans. The hybrid system utilizes a motor/generator connected to the front axle only and a flywheel energy storage system mounted in the cockpit. Audi again swept Le Mans with the e-trons taking first and second, while the Ultra picked up third.
For 2013, the R18 e-tron Quattro received numerous aerodynamic upgrades including a new rear wing and an F1 style blown diffuser. The non-hybrid Ultra was dropped. Audi took first and third in a hard fought Le Mans.
Regulations were changed again in 2014. Even more emphasis was placed on efficiency rather than out-right speed. The biggest change to competition for 2014 was the return of Porsche to endurance racing. While Audi had the advantage of recent experience, it is hard to call Porsche, with 17 previous wins at a Le Mans, a newcomer to the sport. Besides Porsche, Toyota showed up with looked to be its best car yet. At the end of the race, Audi ended up first and second, with Toyota in third, 5 laps down from the winning R18 e-tron Quattro.
Porsche wanted 2015 to be its year, but Toyota and Nissan both planned to spoil the head to head fight with Audi. The e-tron Quattro received yet another new aero-package as well as increased displacement to the V6 up to 4.0-liters. The hybrid system was also upgraded to a 4MJ system, previously 2MJ. The Audis ran strong all race, but a combination of uncharacteristic mechanical problems and some bad luck meant that only one car was a contender in the closing hours. In the end, Porsche took first and second, with the number 7 R18 taking third. Since 2000, Audi has won at Le Mans 13 times, achieving 5 consecutive wins twice, 2004-2008 and again in 2010-2014.
How to experience the tracks
If possible, I would suggest begging, sneaking or otherwise bamboozling your way into experiencing the tracks like this. As a member of the media, I have a definite advantage, but there are always ways.
At Daytona, I did a ride-along in an Audi S3. The banking is beyond description, even at 100 mph the car squats, you feel the g-forces and I can only imagine what it's like 70 mph faster.
The Nurburgring is enormous. I've driven it multiple times, but still never got a feel for the size. The hot tip here is to take a tour in a helicopter. The Eifel Forest gives the Ring its Green Hell nickname, but looks like anything but. Although nothing compares to actually feeling the camber and elevation changes, the view from above is like looking at thick rolling seas of green.
I got the ultimate two-fer at Le Mans. First, a guided tour around the track by English broadcasting legend John Hindhaugh. The man's knowledge of the history and his respect for the heritage is only matched by his enthusiasm. We rode around in A8s while John pointed out sights over a walkie-talkie, stopping along the way for more stories. The bonus round was getting to drive an RS3 around the Circuit de la Sarthe. The number of people who have driven around the track is few, possibly in the low hundreds. Although the pace wasn't anywhere near race speed, the narrowness of the track, the enormity of the grandstands, all those things just can't be duplicated on a screen.
You can't talk about endurance racing and not talk about keeping your own tank fueled. American racetracks were once famous for horrible hot dogs and stale beer; the Europeans have always known good food. Luckily, we Americans are beginning to catch-up.
At Daytona, there is probably nothing more perfect than an early morning funnel cake, but man can't live on stringy donuts alone. Luckily the corn dog, a cousin of the funnel cake and often cohabiter of the same fryer, is now nearly an art form in Florida.
The Nurburgring, as you might expect, is a about the best because of the wurste. A currywurste and fries in a paper basket sitting in the grass alongside the track is a life changing experience. Just remember, in Germany the ketchup goes on the sausage and the fries get mayo.
Ah France, the self-proclaimed culinary capitol of the world; while a cheap baguette here is better than anything you'll find in the trendiest of hipster artisanal bakeries here in the states, the real magic is in the midnight trackside Grand Marnier Crepe. There are also a few stands the look straight from a farmers market, but the bins are full of candy. Delicious flavored sugar that is the quickest source of energy when the tank starts running low. From an American diner to a school bus selling Chinese food to a churro stand, what lacks in authenticity is made up for by variety.