Editor’s note: Occasionally, we feature a concept vehicle on the site. Most don’t make it into production but this one did..the Audi Le Mans quattro concept became the Audi we now know as the R8.
Originally published on November 19, 2003
Ready to run in only eleven months
Top-secret task for a small Audi team
Combining motor racing, luxury, high-tech and design
The Audi Le Mans quattro is the first car of its kind: a high-performance sports car that sends a tingle down your spine but is also suitable for regular day-to-day driving – a driving machine with luxury built in. It was developed in conditions of strict secrecy, according to the Audi philosophy that even a show car must be close to reality and fully functional. Only eleven months elapsed between the first design sketches and the car’s sensational debut at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show. The car’s concept indicates the direction that future Audi developments will take, with its combination of stimulating design and the brand’s entire motor-sport and technical know-how. But how does a show car like the Le Mans quattro come into being? Let us look at the making of this car in more detail.
Our first source of information is Dirk Isgen, Head of Concept Development at AUDI AG. He tells us: “Following the Pikes Peak quattro and the Nuvolari quattro, this is the third Audi concept car to appear this year. It is evidence of our future formal idiom and the brand’s model policy. It is a thoroughbred mid-engined sports car concept that for the first time makes the technical features of the successful Audi R8 competition car available for road driving. You can imagine that we are doubly pleased when the innovative high-tech features on a car such as this prove to function well and the car can be driven.”
The Le Mans quattro certainly has a vast number of new technical features, for example its innovative LED lighting, its aluminium frame structure with carbon-fibre reinforced outer skin made of plastic and composite material, its digital cockpit display, the 5.0-litre twin-turbo V10 engine with petrol direct injection FSI and the new Audi magnetic ride suspension concept – all visionary technologies that are far more than a glimpse of some distant future, since they can now be sampled in practice in the Le Mans quattro.
It took the team a mere eleven months to design and construct this car with its top-quality cutting-edge technology. This tight time schedule was a dream and a nightmare at one and the same time for the small development team assembled by overall project manager Bernhard Voll (Technical) and project managers Rüdiger Kiehn (Design), Frank Lamberty (Exterior Design) and Jens Sieber (Interior Design). Lamberty comments: “Assuming responsibility for a complete car is a very attractive prospect, but with a time schedule like this, the pressure and stress are much more severe. You have to enjoy what you’re doing!”
For the Le Mans quattro project a core team of eight Audi employees was nominated, comprising two technical specialists and six designers, but with additional support from numerous experts from a wide variety of internal Audi departments. By way of comparison, the development time needed for a series-production car is in the region of 36 months, and makes use of all the personnel capacity available in a major industrial group. For the Le Mans quattro, the designers and technicians had less than a third of this time at their disposal. Sieber recalls: “It’s as if the product creation process were speeded up, like an old film.”
Bernhard Voll reminds us, however, that only a small, efficient team would be able to meet such a tight deadline: “We were able to take decisions quickly and directly, since we all worked in one large room, every member of the team was normally available all the time and there were no multiple hierarchy levels to take into account.” His design colleague Lamberty agrees: “The need to reach quick decisions was much greater because of this enormous pressure of time, and so we were able to achieve tangible results far more quickly.”
The race was on when, in October 2002, the Audi Board of Management decided to have the Le Mans quattro built. One team was just finishing the Pikes Peak concept study for the Detroit Motor Show, another was working hard on the Nuvolari GT show car for Geneva. The Board’s instructions to Concept Development and Design were nonetheless clear: “Develop a mid-engined supersports model.” The project was given the internal development code ‘F03’, standing for ‘Frankfurt 2003’ – in other words, the concept car for the IAA Frankfurt Motor Show. The two previous projects had been coded similarly: U03 (for USA) and G03 (for Geneva).
In the words of Technical Project Manager Voll: “It was clear from the start that what was wanted was a high-performance sports car suitable for day-to-day use.” An ultimate driving machine, certainly, but one demanding no sacrifices in comfort and user-friendliness. A car just as capable of driving down to the hairdresser’s and parking there for an hour or two. As you can imagine, this was quite a challenge for us.”
An image board was used to compile a ‘personality’ for the Le Mans quattro. Attributes such as competition capability, luxury, high-tech, design and day-to-day suitability were shown on the board as associative photo motifs, together with the intended target group, the driver’s lifestyle and the car’s historical relevance (for instance its affinity with Auto Union racing cars).
Following discussions on strategy with Dr. Martin Winterkorn, Audi’s Chairman and Board Member for Technical Development, the first presentation was held before the end of October 2002, with drawings and sketches shown to the Board, after which the basic concept of the car – its ‘package’ was finalised. After this, a creative competition was organised between Audi Design’s stylists at company headquarters in Ingolstadt and those at the Audi Design Centre in Munich.
Lamberty has this to say: “Such competitions are very hard on everyone involved. Five teams submitted drafts, but of course only one could be chosen. But members of those that lost out were invited to join the final development team.”
With the technical basis and positioning as a working specification, the next task was to “give the car an appetising look” (Lamberty’s words). By mid-November, three possible exterior designs were still being considered, but the interior design had already been signed off. For two weeks on end, vast sets of CAD (computer-aided development) data were compiled and fed to the high-performance computers.
In December 2002 the Virtual Reality (VR) Centre in Ingolstadt was able to project its first animated visions of the Le Mans quattro on to a “powerwall” six metres wide and 2.25 metres high. The car was beginning to take shape, if only in virtual form for the moment. Using the CAD data for the remaining three body versions, 1:4 scale clay models were formed and presented to the Board of Management shortly before Christmas. The choice fell on the most sporty of these versions. Designers from Audi Sport, incidentally, supported the project with their specific motor-sport expertise, as did employees from the Wind Tunnel Centre in Ingolstadt, the Aluminium Centre and Engine Development in Neckarsulm, as well as Lamborghini and Cosworth Technology.
For reasons of secrecy, the car itself was not built at the Ingolstadt plant but at one of Audi’s pattern-making suppliers not far outside the city. Secrecy was of course a major concern throughout the F03 creation process. All the team members were asked to sign a separate declaration of confidentiality just for this project, and undertook to impose the same strict conditions of secrecy on their families, partners and colleagues past and present. As a result, only a very small group of people within the Group were aware of the project.
Almost every Le Mans quattro component had to be produced by hand, using cost-intensive and often time-consuming methods. “Every switch, every wheel rim had to be machined out of solid blocks of aluminium!” says Rüdiger Kiehn. Scarcely any of the car’s components came out of the series-production parts bin, and almost every component installed on the Le Mans quattro is, like the car itself, unique.
Kiehn: “For a concept car, there is no need to allow for the use of existing parts to any great extent. Developing a one-off prestige object of this kind is quite different from developing a product intended for series production.” The designer’s task is to explore the absolute limits of what the project permits, and the task of the technical experts is to bring the whole thing into line with reality and make it capable of being driven. It’s only to be expected that these different approaches clash violently on occasion. As interior designer Sieber puts it: “We naturally argued a bit about the details!”
Be that as it may: both the designers and the technicians are not only full of praise for the constructive cooperation that was achieved, but also for the highly collegial atmosphere that prevailed within the team. “There was a remarkable strong feeling of trust and motivation. Indeed, we would never have succeeded without it,” says Voll. One problem faced them all: the fearfully tight time schedule. Voll sums this up dramatically: “We fought hard to gain even a single hour wherever we could.” The small team worked a two-shift day while developing the new car, and presented its latest results once a month to the Audi Board. But it was quite common practice for a Board Member to drop by personally in between times and see what progress was being made.
Until April 2003 the forms and functions were still subject to continual change, but then the fateful day of the ‘design freeze’ arrived – the moment when the Le Mans quattro’s shape was finalised and no further modifications were permitted. The model was scanned and digitised. These data were then used to produce the hardware for a roadgoing version of the new mid-engined sports car.
The aluminium space frame had already been constructed (in January) and the engine, running gear and electronics installed (by the end of February). Next came the outer skin, the interior equipment and trim, the paintwork and many other items. There were often moments, as Kiehn readily admits, “when we thought that we would never manage it in time.” The Frankfurt Motor Show dates were looming up rapidly, and whereas in an emergency the production start of a new car can be postponed for a short while, this is unfortunately not possible when it comes to the world’s biggest motor show.
Finally came the brief three-day period in which the Le Mans quattro was completely assembled for photo and film shooting sessions in Munich and on Audi’s proving ground in Neustadt. Lamberty recalls: “It was a fantastic feeling at 5 o’clock in the morning on August 9th, with the sun just rising and the car being taken out of its transporter and driven under its own power for the first time.” The project team only received ‘their’ Le Mans quattro again for further essential work a few days before the motor show was due to open its doors.
On September 8th, the F 03 project team was finally able to declare: “We’ve made it!” They all travelled to Frankfurt to attend the presentation of the F03, an event almost as spectacular as the car itself. Audi’s Chief Executive Officer drove it in front of a racetrack stand specially erected in a Frankfurt city street closed for the purpose, and the flash bulbs went off in their thousands – a fitting tribute and reward for eleven months of hard, unceasing work.