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Auto blogWed, 23 Jan 2013 15:45:00 EST
We were baffled a few weeks back when the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series announced new classes that will make up their combined racing program in 2014. Gone from the list is the Le Mans Prototype class, otherwise known as LMP1. The LMP1 class has long been the top dog of endurance racing, both in Europe and the US, so we couldn't figure out why this newly minted racing series was jettisoning it like yesterday's donuts.
It appears as if Audi is confused by the move as well. The German brand has announced it will participate in this year's ALMS opening round, the famed 12 Hours of Sebring, as it does every year, and bringing two Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro hybrid race cars with which to compete. Unlike every other year, Audi is treating this year's race as its potential swan song in this famous Florida race.
There's a good reason that Audi is so fond of the 12 Hours of Sebring, as it debuted the gas-powered R8R there in 1999 that kicked off its participation in the upper echelon of endurance racing. The R8R preceded the R8, which debuted at Sebring in 2000 and won that race, starting an amazing career for that car that included five more wins at Sebring. The R8 was followed by the R10, then the R15 and R18, and finally we wind up at today's R18 E-Tron Quattro - all winners, all dominant, all exciting to watch.
This is the new Audi R18. It looks like the Bond villain of race cars (it has red running lamps), and if Audi's past is any indication, it'll prove difficult to beat in the LMP1 class of the 2014 World Endurance Championship.
The car's full name is the Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro, just like last year's car. Also like last year's car, the new R18 draws its power from a V6 turbodiesel, which powers its rear wheels, and Audi's E-Tron hybrid system, which runs its front axle. Unlike last year's car, though, this R18 has a secondary hybrid system. Audi has fitted the V6 with an electric turbocharger and figured out how to capture waste heat generated when the engine reaches its boost limit. That power can then be stored and fed back into either the turbo or the front axle's hybrid system under acceleration.
There are a number of changes to the body on the new car, forced in large part by series regulation changes. The car is narrower, particularly at the front, but it's also taller. The front end is set off by a new wing, as part of a new WEC regulation. Audi seems quite pleased about this, citing an improvement in front-end downforce and a reduction in cost. Like Formula One, the WEC contenders now have to contend with a ban on the so-called blown diffuser, which forced exhaust gases over the diffuser, creating downforce. That's necessitated some changes from Audi, although as we have no rear shots of the car, we can't tell you what it looks like.
The closer automotive technology comes to making good on the promise of fully driverless vehicles, the better we see just what difficult work reaching that ultimate goal will become. That's because, unlike so many other in-car technologies that need only integration into a vehicle, truly autonomous cars will also insist on involvement with the surrounding environment, fellow motorists, infrastructure in cities and other communities and making it all work without exposing automakers to law-breaking or tremendous possible litigation. Clearly that isn't all about to happen in one go.
At CES in 2012, Audi told us about a debuting technology that would mark a significant step along the path towards self-driving cars: Traffic Jam Assistant. This year, the German automaker invited us out to Las Vegas to see the jam-busting technology in action, on a relatively busy freeway.
The Traffic Jam Assistant (we're pretty sure that name is still in Beta) promises to relieve drivers from the tedium of slow-moving freeways by taking care of braking, acceleration and staying inside of the lane - all with no input from the human behind the wheel. While still a fair step from truly autonomous driving, the goal here is to give a commuter some respite from the mechanical, time-wasting traffic jam paradigm, potentially opening up a space for productivity in the process. (Audi can't come right out and say that TJA will allow you to use your cell phone in traffic, as that's still against the law in many places, but something like that is clearly on the radar... er... LiDAR.)