Audi R8

Audi R8: developing a gearbox for a Le Mans legend

28 Feb 2022


After half a century of long-standing partnerships with some of the industry’s top-tier motorsports OEMs, Ricardo engineers understand that reliable and innovative technical solutions can make a real difference when going for the podium finish. This is especially true in the competitive world of endurance racing where both the durability of the vehicle and the stamina of the driver are pushed to their limits.

The delicate balance between maximum reliability and optimal performance necessary to compete in the world of endurance motorsports requires an impeccable understanding of the full vehicle system and the intricacies of the sport itself. This is the reason why Audi Sport approached Ricardo to support its bid to enter the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the American Le Mans Series.

Ricardo and Audi: Learning from experience and daring to innovate

Audi identified that drivetrain reliability had been a recurring problem for sports car racing across the board for many years. Any problem with the drivetrain meant significant setbacks for teams whilst repairs were made. Overcoming this problem would provide Audi with a significant advantage out on the track.

Ricardo’s reputation for innovation in the motorsports industry made us the perfect technical partner to develop a solution for Audi. The specifications had to match the performance excellence expected of the Audi brand, whilst meeting the demands of the world’s most challenging circuit endurance event.

Working in partnership with Audi Sport and their gearshift system provider, Mega-Line, Ricardo developed a clean sheet design for a 6 speed, stressed case, aluminium gearbox which included a suite of transmission components to maximise reliability.

To address the problem of on-track repairs, Audi elected for an innovative modular approach to the development of the chassis. A ‘quick-change’ rear-end was formed around the gearbox casing which carried all the rear suspension, crash structure and rear wing support for the vehicle. This was then plugged onto the back of the engine. Technical issues that could potentially write off a vehicle from a race could now be addressed in minutes by replacing the whole rear-end.

Success after success for the R8

After a valuable learning year in 1999 with the R8R, Audi debuted of the R8 at the 12 hours of Sebring in 2000 saw the R8 take 1st and 2nd on the podium. This was followed shortly by a resounding success at the 2000 Le Mans, with the R8 dominating the race, taking a 1-2-3 finish; 21 laps ahead of 4th place finisher.

The quick-change rear-end technology was only called upon during Le Mans to address collision damage. In doing so, the R8 was out of the pit in mere minutes after incurring damage which could have taken hours to address. This strategy was so successful that The Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) would go on to change the regulations to mandate that a car must complete the full race distance with the same gearbox case, which was identified as the most difficult part of the rear-end to replace during an event.

The 2000 series would only prove to be the start of a legacy of success for Audi in endurance racing. Using a transmission system developed by Ricardo, the R8 went on to claim consecutive wins at Le Mans in 2001 and 2002, and further overall wins in 2004 and 2005. Audi also managed to secure consecutive overall season championship in the American Le Mans series with the R8 between 2000 and 2005.

Looking back on a legend

History has proven the R8 to be one of the most successful sports cars of all time and Ricardo is proud to be a part of its lasting legacy. Indeed, many elements of the gearbox developed for the R8-programme still form a key-factor in the performance and reliability of Ricardo’s world-class motorsport transmissions to date.

Steve Blevins, Head of Engineering for Ricardo’s Performance Products segment looks back on the success of the programme:

“The R8 programme was incredibly important to us, and we still reflect fondly on our involvement with Audi Sport. At the time, Ricardo was really well known in rallying, but this was an important step into circuit racing. Endurance racing is, without a doubt, the best arena for engineering reliability into a gearbox.”

Martin Starkey, Managing Director of Ricardo Performance Products, adds:

“To this day, Ricardo is proud of our engagement and association with Audi Sport during their victorious return to Le Mans. True development partnerships have long been at the core of Ricardo's business ethos and public success, such as this, was great recognition for the entire team.”

Join us for next month’s retrospective as we take an in depth look at Ricardo’s involvement in the development of a single seater chassis for an Italian manufacturer.