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How tech from Audi’s insane R18 e-tron is coming soon to a garage near you

For nearly a century, racecars have been about pure speed. They’ve been stripped-down tarmac leviathans built for one purpose: going faster than the other guy. Over the years, that speed obsession widened the gap between road-going cars and racecars. One look inside the gutted cockpit of a NASCAR racecar will confirm that even today’s “stock” cars bear little resemblance to what you can get at the local dealer.

That, however is changing. Instead of being merely temples to speed, today’s most advanced racecars are crystal balls that show us what sort of technology will be in our driveway soon.

There’s a good chance, though, that for 2014 the most efficient racecar at Le Mans will win the day.

In order to reconnect racecars to their road-going roots, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) has rejiggered the rules of several of the top racing series in the world, including Formula 1 and the World Endurance Championship (WEC), to better parallel the efficiency constraints facing global automakers.

Not only does this make the racing more compelling to watch, the billions of dollar spent and technology developed adapting to the new racing guidelines can be directly applied to production cars.

Perhaps the best example of this transfer from race-day to road-going tech is Audi’s R18 e-tron, a totally unique car that will soon compete in the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans. With both a super-efficient diesel engine and a hybrid power system, Audi’s R18 is a far cry from the brutish, gasoline-swilling racecars we’re familiar with. And some astoundingly high-tech bits aren’t far off from the next Audi you spot on the road.

We caught up with Audi at the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack in Austin, Texas to find out more about how this new breed of car could change not just racing, but the entire automotive industry.

No gold medals for lead feet

Historically, the fastest car with the best overall time has been crowned the victor in the WEC. There’s a good chance, though, that for 2014 the most efficient racecar at Le Mans will win the day.

That’s because the new regulations limit a team to how much fuel can be used every lap. Using too much will be penalized, but unlike last year, any fuel not burned in one lap will not be rolled over into subsequent laps, but rather lost.

2014 Audi R18 e_tron quatro front angle
Image used with permission by copyright holder

It’s essential, then, that the driver drive at 100 percent every single lap. Go too fast and they risk exceeding the energy limit. Go too slow and they risk falling behind in the race and forfeiting not just time but also energy. Drivers will now have to not only battle for position, but also battle for efficiency – a staggering concept that flips basic preconceptions about racing on their head.

Drivers are trained to accelerate as long and as hard as possible on the track. And when they have to brake, it needs to be hard and fast, with virtually no time going from gas to brake. For 2014, though, there are instances in the WEC where drivers will have to coast. This is almost inconceivable in the racing world, as it goes against the core strategy of racecar driving.

From racecar to road

Audi joined the 24 Hours of Le Mans race back in 1999. Back then, the German automaker ran a gasoline-powered racer. In 2001, Audi upgraded its fuel delivery technology to a turbocharged, direct-injected TFSI system, which would later make its way into production cars. The 4.0-liter TFSI V8 that we named Engine of the Year last year, is a perfect example.

Unlike the LED headlights of years past, which moved with the turn of the steering wheel, the new laser headlights are guided by GPS.

Then in 2006, Audi made a controversial leap to TDI diesel-powered LMP cars. Audi driver and 9-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen wasn’t thrilled. “The first time I heard about it, I thought, ‘That’s going to be at least one year gone,’” he concedes. “But the first time I opened the throttle and felt the torque of the engine … it was quite powerful.”

This TDI system, just like TFSI before it, would be implemented in road-going cars. While all Audi diesels utilize TDI technology today, the first and direct implementation of this fuel delivery technology was offered in the 6.0-liter V12 TDI Audi Q7, which – unfortunately – was never sold Stateside.

Distinctively, Audi’s motorsport and consumer car engineering teams work together; anything one side creates is shared with the other, benefitting both consumers and the racing team.

For 2012, Audi brought its Le Mans cars even closer to its showroom models with a quattro all-wheel drive hybrid, called e-tron, which used electricity to drive the front axle. While this EV quattro system has yet to make its way to everyday Audi models, it could very well make an appearance in road-going cars in the years to come.

For 2014, Audi has made another technological showing with the laser headlights in the R18. They’re not only incredibly bright, they’re also adaptive. Unlike the LED headlights of years past, which moved with the turn of the steering wheel, the new laser headlights are guided by GPS.

This means that when the driver makes minute steering corrections, the lights aren’t dancing about on the circuit. Instead, the lights know where they are and stay fixed to the coming corner.

Just like the e-tron system before it, Audi’s laser headlights are surely aimed for production – when the laws change. Right now, federal regulations outlaw such headlights, a fact that Audi and lawmakers are working together change.

Faster, stronger, leaner

For 2014, Audi will have to limbo under even stricter efficiency standards.

“The target is that the whole efficiency of the car should be improved that much that we can run as fast as last year with more than 20 percent less energy. And that’s a big step,” says Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, Head of Audi Motorsport. “In the next year, we’ll have five percent per year as a target.”

To achieve increased efficiency numbers, Audi motorsport engineers counter intuitively upped the displacement of the TDI engine from 3.7 liters up to 4.0 liters, and upped the boost pressure of the turbocharger.

Efficiency of the car should be improved that much that we can run as fast as last year with more than 20 percent less energy.

Early reports indicated that Audi would be using an electronic turbocharger for the 2014 season. But after much testing, Dr. Ullrich admitted that the electric turbo wasn’t performing as intended and was replaced with a standard turbo.

Mated to the up-sized V6 is an electronically controlled sequential seven-speed racing transmission, which routes power to the rear wheels. Up front, a motor-generator unit (MGU) on the front axle powers the front wheels. Unlike, say, Audi’s cousin, the Porsche 919 LMP car, which is a traditional hybrid with lithium-ion batteries on board, the R18 e-tron stores the energy it gathers from the front axle MGU in an electric flywheel accumulator.

For the 2014 WEC racing series, there are several different vehicle classes, all separated by energy. In the R18’s class, there are several energy stages measured out by kilojoules of onboard energy: 2, 4, 6, and 8.

This year, Audi opted for the 2-kilojoule class. By comparison, it’s believed the Porsche team will opt for 6 or 8. While this means that the Audi R18 will have less onboard power than Porsche, it will also have to carry less weight in the form of batteries.

It’s a yin and yang scenario. More power means more weight. A heavier car is inevitably a slower car. But the extra power allows for more acceleration … but is counter balanced by the extra weight.

Ultimately, Audi decided that, with the new WEC rules, a lighter, less powerful car would be superior.

To see if that’s true, we’ll have to wait for June.

The affect on consumer cars

Aside from making for more tantalizing racing, what does the tech-laden R18 e-tron racecar mean to you? Firstly, it means more high-performance diesel-powered Audi TDI models.

In Europe, Audi offers many of its S models in torque-y TDI guise. The SQ5 is a perfect example. In the U.S., the SQ5 is powered by a supercharged, 354-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 similar to the S4 sedan. Across the pond, the SQ5 is a twin-turbo, 313-hp 3.0-liter V6 TDI.

As diesel popularity grows in America, and if its R18 keeps winning races in step with its technical leaps, Audi wants to roll more TDI performance models into North American showrooms.

2014 Audi R18 e_tron quatro right side
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Thinking further out, imagine the powertrain that rockets the R18 e-tron around the track powering the next-gen R8 supercar. From there, the electric quattro system and its torque-y diesel V6 could make its way into the next S5. Yes, the hybrid quattro will have to do more in a road car than on a racetrack, but it’s not inconceivable that we could be there in a few years.

It took TDI technology just two years to go from LMP car to Q7 family SUV. What’s to say that a high-performance e-tron TDI sports car couldn’t make a similar leap into production?

Le Mans 2014

If you’d like to learn more about the R18 e-tron, or about the WEC season, or the Le Mans race, you’re in luck; we’ll be at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race this year with Audi, which kicks off June 15.

Between now and then we’ll be digging into the history of the Le Mans, the significance of the WEC, and any further developments or news of the R18 e-tron between now and race day.

Be sure to check our Countdown to Le Mans for all Audi R18 news and news of its competitors.

Nick Jaynes
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Nick Jaynes is the Automotive Editor for Digital Trends. He developed a passion for writing about cars working his way…
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