Lord of the Rings: Audi Sport customer racing aims for North American glory

Written by Jordan Lenssen | Photos by Audi Sport, IMSA, & Jordan Lenssen on .

Audi Sport customer racing aims for North American glory

Audi’s technical prowess in sportscar racing is second to none; its LMP1 program has stolen Le Mans 12 of the last 14 years – a testament to its strength of developing some of the most consistent, durable vehicles the world has ever seen. Overseas its R18 is looking to capture a fifth-straight win at the 24 Hour race, but in North America, it is taking on a new challenge with a car that resonates with the masses – the R8.

Lord of the Rings Jordan LenssenFrom a GT standpoint, the R8 is the perfect specimen: low, wide, with a mid-rear engine layout and quattro drive that delivers ground-gripping power to all four wheels, the result of nearly four decades of development born out of rally racing. The car uses the same nomenclature as the R8 LMP1 prototype that drove to the Le Mans winner’s circle an astounding five times in its seven-year history – a timeline literally unheard of in today’s environment where cars are being phased out after a single season.

While there is no direct technology infused into the current road and race cars from the LMP, the R8 carries the nameplate deservedly. The platform has allowed Audi to venture beyond its factory Sport program to offer customers the chance to race one of the most technologically advanced, and perhaps underrated modern supercars.

The R8 has been the anchor to the Audi Sport customer racing program since its inception in 2009. Code named “R16,” the R8 LMS and its evolutions are developed under a private subsidiary of Audi AG called quattro GmbH, the firm responsible for the infamous Rennsport “RS” road models and the entire R8 program – street and race – building and prepping each car at its facilities in Neckarsulm. The racing versions of the car comprise of the GT3-spec R8 LMS and LMS ultra (a CFRP bodywork version), as well as the R8 GRAND-AM and its current evolution, the R8 LMS GTD, both specially developed for GRAND-AM GT and the subsequent Tudor United SportsCar Championship (USCC) GT-Daytona class for 2014.

Lord of the Rings Jordan Lenssen Audi Sport 8North America is in a unique position with the R8 race car as the only continent which runs the car in two different specifications: there are eight standard FIA GT3-spec R8 LMSs in the Pirelli World Challenge, while four teams run the IMSA-spec R8 LMS GTD (GT-Daytona) in the USCC. The GTD versions received significant changes to meet the regulations carried over from the previous GRAND-AM GT class. The R8 LMS GTD is essentially a modified R8 GRAND-AM, utilizing revised/angled rear wing supports, a dual channel rear diffuser, new central upward-exit tailpipes and new suspension to meet the lower ride height requirements. As well, the new R8 LMS GTD uses a smaller diameter roll cage and closed side windows.  

Compared to the GT3 car, the IMSA GTD is also equipped with three windshield strut bars similar to NASCAR, a smaller front splitter, smaller winglets and a narrower rear wing, although it carries the more aggressive rear diffuser. It is also 150 mm shorter, 10 kilograms lighter and operates without ABS or traction control.

Tasked with caring for both series, Brad Kettler is the Director of Operations for Audi Sport North America out of West College Corner, Indiana, a small town that acts as the intersecting point for two states and five counties. Unlike its racing counterparts in Aston Martin, Ferrari or Porsche, here you’ll find no corporate head office. Instead, Audi Sport North America operates out of five small brick and mortar buildings owned by Kettler under his company, Kettler Motor Werks.

Lord of the Rings Jordan Lenssen Audi SportAn engineer by trade, Kettler’s relationship with Audi began as the Technical Director of Champion Racing and the R8 LMP1 program in 2001. After winning consecutive ALMS series championships from 2004 to 2008 and Le Mans in 2005, he moved to the 24 Hours’ most successful outfit in Audi Sport Team Joest as Race Engineer in 2009, where he currently operates the R18 e-tron quattro program as part of the World Endurance Championship.

While he’s overseas tending to his motorsport duties, Kettler Motor Werks and its transportation division, Kettler Sport & Logistik, are responsible for final preparation of each customer race car, as well as ongoing repairs, engineering and technical support, deliveries and trackside support for both the World Challenge and USCC.

His shop is a consistent revolving door of the 13 professional race cars under his care, along with a sprinkling of historic icons that include various 911 and Audi restoration and performance projects, Quattros and some of Audi’s most championed cars, including the last race-winning R8 LMP1 from Lime Rock Park, 2006.

The small-shop approach gives Audi and Kettler a distinct advantage over its competition when it comes to tailoring programs for each of the eight Audi Sport customer racing teams. Their trackside support is second to none; on race weekends, Kettler’s Sport & Logistik’s division sends out a truck for each series filled with a supplies list that would make any garage cringe with jealousy. While competing manufacturers require teams to carry their own spare parts, Audi and Kettler have placed that responsibility back on the manufacturer. If you need a part, buy it, otherwise, don’t worry about it.

“What we’ve tried to create is a value-added aspect to what we do with our parts and technical support,” Kettler says. “One of the things about any racing program, and especially endurance racing is the depth of stock that’s required to survive is pretty serious. What ends up happening is that teams who are well prepared will have to carry a pretty high level of stock to survive the event by themselves.

Lord of the Rings Jordan Lenssen“On our main Tudor (USCC) truck, we essentially carry two cars broken down into every individual nut and bolt in the drawers. Depending on the item we may have three or four cars worth of certain items.”

Kettler’s approach to the Audi program allows teams to focus their resources where they’re needed most. It also removes the financial burden of being left with overstocked parts at the end of the season when regulation changes deem many of them unusable. For Audi and its teams, it’s a clear win-win.

It’s this attention to detail that has attracted some of the most elite teams to drive the R8 GTD in USCC, including Flying Lizard Motorsport, which made the surprising switch to the Audi program after years as Porsche’s North American factory team, racing the 911 GT3 to two ALMS team championships, three driver championships, and a team-high third place at Le Mans in 2005. When Porsche ended its 997 chassis support in favour of the new 991, the team was forced to take on a new challenge.

“We were at a juncture where we were going to see a change in the car [and the series] regardless,” Flying Lizard Team Manager Eric Ingraham says. “It was unclear at the time how reliable the new [991] was going to be, although the Audi was a known commodity.”

Lord of the Rings Jordan LenssenUndoubtedly, Audi’s track record also had an impact on the team’s decision to make the switch. Since its introduction in 2009, the R8 LMS and its variants have won 23 global championships including the 2013 FIA GT3 title, making it the most successful GT car during that span. Given its success in prototype racing, the record isn’t a fluke.

Flying Lizard nearly stormed away with the R8 LMS GTD’s first win in the new USCC series opener at Daytona, but a decision by stewards relegated them to second place after a hotly-contesting penalty charged them obstructing a competing Ferrari 458 on the final lap of the 662 lap, 24 Hour race. The decision cost Audi a crucial three points in the manufacturer’s championship, which, after two of 11 rounds (at the time of print) would have otherwise put them in a tie with Porsche for first place. Instead, Audi sits third, just five points back of Ferrari, and three behind Porsche.

The R8’s success in endurance racing carries Audi’s tradition of developing some of the most capable sports cars ever built. Jackie Ickx called it “the best handling road car today,” which, as a driver who helped vault the 911 into racing folklore, is perhaps the greatest endorsement it could ever receive. While legends like Ferrari and Porsche have taken their racing heritage to the streets, the Audi R8 is using old-school tactics to prove just how capable its street technology is on the track.

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