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Friday favourite: When Audi’s Silverstone special stunned Treluyer

The Audi R18 e-tron Quattro went through many different guises while retaining the same name. But to Benoit Treluyer one particular example of the successful LMP1 racer stands apart from the rest

Marcel Fassler (CHE) / Andre Lotterer (DEU) / Benoit Treluyer (FRA) Audi R18 e-tron quattro

Marcel Fassler (CHE) / Andre Lotterer (DEU) / Benoit Treluyer (FRA) Audi R18 e-tron quattro

Perhaps it should come as little surprise that Benoit Treluyer should name the Audi R18 e-tron Quattro as his favourite car, given he won the Le Mans 24 Hours twice in cars bearing that name.

But his pick from what might best be described as a family of LMP1 cars, with each year’s variant bearing differences to varied degrees of significance, is the 2015 iteration he raced to victory in high-downforce trim at that year’s Silverstone World Endurance Championship season-opener.

“That car was just crazy to drive,” says the Frenchman, who shared with Andre Lotterer and Marcel Fassler. “Silverstone is one of my best memories in terms of sensation driving; going to Becketts with car flat everywhere was amazing.

“We had to release the throttle, we couldn't stay flat on the entry of Becketts just because it was bouncing, and the hybrid couldn't accept this bouncing with oscillation. But the car could have gone much quicker. As well in Spa, I think, we had the low [drag] package and I still remember I was overtaking outside in some corners.”

Audi’s response to being beaten by Toyota to the 2014 WEC drivers’ and manufacturers’ title was to revamp its V6 turbodiesel racer, that had itself been an all-new design that year, around the same monocoque. It went up a megajoule class on hybrid power, from 2MJ to deploying 4MJ per lap, boasted a new single energy-retrieval system (the 2014 edition had been the first not to run two front Motor Generator Units) and had all new aerodynamics to boot.

Tests at Sebring and Aragon suggested that Audi was onto a good thing, an impression subsequently confirmed at Silverstone.

The high-downforce update Audi brought to Silverstone in 2015 made the car stand out above the R18 fleet Treluyer raced to victories at Le Mans

The high-downforce update Audi brought to Silverstone in 2015 made the car stand out above the R18 fleet Treluyer raced to victories at Le Mans

Photo by: Ebrey / Motorsport Images

“We were sure about our aero package for Silverstone,” remembers Treluyer, now 47. “It's always difficult in Silverstone at the time of the year, which is always very cold to put the tyre in [the right] temperature [window] and everything. We had our high downforce set-up, so it was much easier, we were confident at the time.”

The front row was locked out by Porsche’s potent new 919 Hybrid – correctly described as an all-new car, albeit one which shared the name of the machine that had debuted in 2014 – which boasted the maximum 8MJ deployment. But the Audi threat was clear in the corners. It was strong in the high-speed sections and didn’t give anything up in low speed either, thanks to effective mechanical grip.

“We had a high downforce before, but that one was really high,” explains Treluyer. “We had big [air] intakes below the high beams and everybody was thinking it was for cooling the brakes, but it was not at all. It was just downforce.”

Once the pole-sitting Porsche of Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard retired with gearbox problems, Fassler was pitched into a battle with the sister Porsche of Neel Jani, the Swiss pair repeatedly swapping positions as Fassler’s overtakes were frequently countered by the 919’s punchy hybrid system.

"We had big [air] intakes below the high beams and everybody was thinking it was for cooling the brakes, but it was not at all. It was just downforce"
Benoit Treluyer

That changed though when Lotterer took over and ambushed Jani’s team-mate Romain Dumas into Village. This time the Audi remained ahead and, once in clear air that allowed its strengths to come to the fore, their R18 could not be caught – although a late stop-go ultimately reduced the winning margin to 4s.

The Fassler-Treluyer-Lotterer axis won again at Spa in low-drag spec, although Treluyer says the car didn’t feel especially different. He reckons “we had pretty much the same amount of downforce”.

“At the end, they always find a solution to still have a very good downforce with low drag,” the 2006 Formula Nippon champion adds. “It was always a compromise.”

Treluyer, Fassler and Lotterer got their 2015 WEC campaign off to the best possible start at Silverstone, although momentum ultimately swung towards Porsche

Treluyer, Fassler and Lotterer got their 2015 WEC campaign off to the best possible start at Silverstone, although momentum ultimately swung towards Porsche

Photo by: Ebrey / Motorsport Images

But there were no more victories that year for Audi, as Porsche triumphed at Le Mans with its third car driven by Nick Tandy, Nico Hulkenberg and Earl Bamber, then swept the remainder of the WEC after its high-downforce package produced a resounding victory on debut at the Nurburgring. Now without its downforce advantage, and still facing a deficit on boost, Audi was always playing second fiddle – but usually outpaced the Toyota TS040 that had remained in the 6MJ class and failed to win a race all season.

Webber, Hartley and Bernhard benefitted from team orders at Fuji, where Audi brought another high-downforce upgrade, but four wins in a row meant they were sitting pretty heading to the Bahrain finale. A faulty mechanical throttle actuator left them a delayed fifth, but Treluyer, Fassler and Lotterer couldn’t take full advantage and finished second to miss out on the crown by five points.

The e-tron quattro moniker was dropped for 2016, the final year of Audi’s successful Le Mans programme that yielded 13 overall wins before it focused attentions solely on Formula E. Although Treluyer admits he was not a fan of its latest new monocoque’s aerodynamic overhaul, he was taken by the results of moving up to the 6MJ class.

“When we got a really big hybrid, then the exit of the corner seven in Sebring was really impressive,” he reflects. “It was like a really big surprise for us, how quick we could get out of corners. That was incredible.”

Victory at Silverstone, that turned out to be short-lived due to a skidplank infringement, was the #7 Audi crew’s only success of a year in which the sister car of Loic Duval, Oliver Jarvis and Lucas di Grassi won twice before the marque bowed out. Treluyer maintains “the car was not too bad” and “would have been really impressive” with the benefit of a second season.

“It's always difficult the first year, you have many problems to solve during the winter and you are not looking really deeply in small set-ups adjustment,” he says.

It brought the curtain down on a six-year spell driving cars given the R18 nomenclature, which began in 2011 - the first year for the non-hybrid R18 TDi that replaced the R15. Victory at Le Mans that year alongside Fassler and Lotterer came in unforgettable fashion, following dramatic accidents for the other works Audis of Allan McNish and Mike Rockenfeller.

The 2016 iteration of the R18 had dropped the e-tron moniker and was based around another new monocoque - Treluyer believes it had potential

The 2016 iteration of the R18 had dropped the e-tron moniker and was based around another new monocoque - Treluyer believes it had potential

Photo by: Ebrey / Motorsport Images

Treluyer played a key role with a vital quintuple stint spanning three hours and 20 minutes at sunrise, but snaring pole for that event also is a fond memory which he calls his “biggest surprise” with the R18 breed.

“We were with old tyres, and the car was really well-balanced,” he remembers of 2011. “I was playing with a delta time I had, and I was thinking 'maybe I can improve', but not expecting to be on pole position with these tyres.

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“I got no traffic, everything was good, and I did a good lap time. I said, 'I'm sure Andre will jump into the car, now we put the new tyre and we can play for pole position' and we didn't have to! It was so quick with all tyres, that was crazy.”

Treluyer claimed the first WEC title of the modern era in 2012 and a Le Mans double with the e-tron Quattro, before adding the Sebring 12 Hours to his CV in 2013. A third Le Mans victory in four years followed in 2014, the first year for a new 4.0-litre engine that replaced the outgoing 3.7-litre motor which he believes “was not so much difference”.

The decision to can a planned move into LMDh for 2023, to allow for greater focus on its impending Formula 1 project, means Treluyer, Fassler and Lotterer are likely to remain the most recent of Audi’s Le Mans winners for the foreseeable future.

Treluyer scored his third Le Mans victory with an R18 in 2014, but it doesn't surpass his enjoyment in the following year's model

Treluyer scored his third Le Mans victory with an R18 in 2014, but it doesn't surpass his enjoyment in the following year's model

Photo by: Richard Dole

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