Here's an argument that might last until closing time at, say, Seibkens bar in Elkhart Lake: Which is the most successful sports racing prototype of all time—the Porsche 962 or the Audi R8?
While that likely can never be settled, Audi of America was kind enough to bring the last factory-built R8 to our big test at Putnam Park, to provide us with a close look at the spiritual inspiration (and name provider) for the production R8s featured in our main story.
Talk about an impressive résumé: Audi's R8 prototypes won Le Mans five times from 2000 to 2005, every ALMS championship in that same time span. And the car brought to Putnam, R8-605, the Sebring and Le Mans winner from 2005 (where it was campaigned by Champion Racing and driven by Tom Kristensen, J.J. Lehto and Marco Werner), also has the distinction of winning the last race an R8 ever entered— Lime Rock in 2006. That's where an inspired Allan McNish put in "the drive of his life," recalls Brad Kettler, longtime chief engineer for Champion. "He was not about to let this car go out without a victory."
Kettler, who now runs the Audi Tradition fleet in the U.S., praises the R8 for its balance, consistency and adaptability. "It won at Le Mans. It won at Lime Rock. And those tracks couldn't be more different. The R8 even won on street courses."
Moreover, Kettler says the R8—based on a carbon tub made by Dallara—is robust and easy to service, which is essential in endurance racing. "It really had no rivals in raceability, durability and serviceability," says Kettler, who adds that the 1995-lb. car's twin-turbo 3.6-liter aluminum-block V-8 makes between 535 and 550 bhp when breathing through "itty-bitty" 29.9-mm restrictors. "We were down about 15 km/h on the Mulsanne straight compared to previous years, but we were still able to win."
With regard to serviceability, R8s were well known for their quick-change rear-end assemblies. Called Hinterwagens, these fully assembled units—replete with 6-speed Ricardo transaxle, subframe and entire suspension assemblies with preset geometries and corner weighting—allowed for complete gearbox swaps in less than four minutes. "Our record swap, in qualifying at Le Mans, was 3 minutes and 16 seconds," boasts Kettler, who to this day remains annoyed that this practice was banned for 2003 by requiring cars to finish the race with the same gearbox case with which they had started. "It was an advance we had worked hard on. Other teams could have done their homework."
Although we had planned to get some instrumented hot laps at Putnam with Doug Smith at the wheel of this historic Le Mans-winning R8, a lazy fuel injector never quite let the V-8 produce full power. Nevertheless, it was treat to see this R8—one of only 16 in existence— in its element, on the track, where Kettler maintains that it would likely still be competitive today. "Let me put it this way: Andre Lotterer was on the pole at Sebring this year [in the Audi R18 TDI] with a 1:45.8. In tire testing there in 2005, J.J. Lehto ran a string of low 44s in an R8. So yeah, I think this car, race pace, head to head, could compete today."
Not bad for a car designed more than a decade ago...