The Audi R8C was far too new and untested to stand a chance at Le Mans even if the field had not been as packed with contenders for victory as it proved to be in 1999. One area that Audi had used their rally background to get an advantage over their competitors was the ability to change the entire transmission in next to no time on the R8R. Dry-break couplings were fitted to engine, clutch and gearbox oil cooler fluid pipes. Special tools were made to facilitate removal of the bellhousing, all of which was possible because the R8R's rear wing was part of the tail section rather than being attached to the gearbox. During the run up to the race a practice run was undertaken and the whole rear end of transmission and rear suspension was replaced ready to get back on track in around five minutes! Another improvement to the transmission came with the adoption of the Mega Line pneumatic gearshift for the R8R. This system allowed the drivers to keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times, helping with cornering, and there was a dramatic reduction on the wear on the dog-rings in the gearbox, greatly improving reliability over a long distance race.
Favourite to take victory were Toyota and their trio of GT-One racers. The #1 was driven by Martin Brundle, Emmanuel Collard and Vicenzo Sospiri
The 1999 edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours was something of a high water mark for the participation of manufacturer backed teams in pursuit of outright glory. No fewer than four other factories joined Audi in the hunt for victory, 15 cars in total. Leading the pack was three Toyota GT-One entries that were fastest in May's PQ sessions with Martin Brundle wringing a 3:31.857 out of the dramatic looking GT. Toyota came close to winning with this car in 1998 and in the intervening period introduced over 100 detailed modifications, some driven by the changes to regulations like removing the ABS system, others by a desire for greater speed and reliability.
Leading the challenge to the Cologne-based Toyota outfit was Team AMG Mercedes. In 1998 they hammered Porsche 10-0 in the FIA GT Championship but both of their CLK LM cars retired early at Le Mans, both with engine failure after an oil seal in the power steering broke taking with it the hydraulic system. A new car was produced for 1999, designed by Gerhard Unger. Powered by a 5.7 litre V8, the Mercedes-Benz CLR was different from from its rivals with a wheelbase some 20cms shorter than the Audi or Toyota coupés. In turn this meant that the front and rear overhangs were much longer, the aim was to create maximum downforce with the minimum drag. This aerodynamic approach was to have dire consequences during race week........................
BMW entered two of its elegant V12 LMR roadsters , the result of the lessons learnt from their ill fated 1998 Le Mans campaign, with both cars were retired before darkness on Saturday as a result of wheel bearing failures. This enabled Munich, and their partners in crime at Williams Grand Prix, to come up with a solution more suited to winning at Le Mans. In 1998 BMW had stood by and watched Toyota, Mercedes and Porsche take this approach to the rule book, while they had run a conventional two seater, twin roll hoop arrangement. This had unfavourable consequences in speed and fuel economy that were substantial, so for 1999 BMW and Williams were going to the edge to gain in all round performance. Experts in homologation and what the rules would really allow, like Peter Stevens and Graham Humphrys, were consulted and the result was like a single-seater with enclosed wheels, OK a bit of a simplification but you know what I mean. The most obvious changes from 1998 were the relocation of the radiators to midships. Also the single roll hoop that was sneaked in by reference to an obscure piece of the ACO's regulations concerning roll hoop construction and design. After victory at Sebring early in the year it was clear that BMW would pose a significant challenge.
Nissan was the only non-German based factory team at Le Mans in 1999. They had previously campaigned a GT, the R 390, but had followed the lead of BMW in switching to a roadster. Also a first for Nissan was the 5 litre V8 engine, all previous endurance racers had been turbocharged. The neat, Nigel Stroud-designed car was also late in being approved and, like the Audis, had not as much testing behind it as would been desired. Something of a dark horse.
With five factories contesting the race everything was pushed to the limit and beyond...............During the first session on track Wednesday evening Eric van de Poele's Nissan crashed heavily after the throttle stuck open. The popular Belgian suffered fractured vertebrae and R391 was a write off, one car down.
While Martin Brundle was pushing his Toyota to the limit and to a pole position time of 3:29.930, the Audi R8Cs were struggling, with #10 in 20th (3:42.155) and #9 three places further back on 3:45.202.
The Audi R8R pair got on quietly with their pre-race running with Capello's 3:34.891 being good enough for 9th place, Biela just half a second behind. A good result seemed within the team's grasp, though the message came down from the Board, a podium was the minimum that would be accepted or else.........................
The Mercedes-Benz CLR, now sporting new winglets, is pushed on to the grid despite the disasters that had befallen Mark Webber on Thursday and earlier on Saturday morning.
If Dr. Ullrich and the crew at Audi felt under pressure, this was nothing to situation that had blown up at Mercedes-Benz. Mark Webber's CLR had almost flipped on Thursday evening on the run from Mulsanne Corner to Indianapolis. Despite a press conference the following declaring everything to be OK, it was clearly not, as the media reported to the extreme irritation of Mercedes Boss, Norbert Haug. Webber repeated his aeronautic display during the Saturday pre-race Warm Up session. This time it was in front of the cameras and the world saw dramatic images of the flipping and flying CLR frozen high above the track. Another press conference was hastily convened and another announcement was made to an even more sceptical media that the situation would be resolved by the introduction of front winglets which would improve front downforce "by 25%". The more numerate of the hacks mused that 25% more of nothing is still nothing. Given the history of Mercedes and Le Mans back in 1955 when Pierre Levegh's 300 SLR had flown into the crowds packed along the pit straight, killing 83 spectators and the unfortunate driver, surely it would be the prudent course of action to withdraw the other CLRs. But no, the edict came down from the Head Man at Stuttgart, Professor Hubbert, that Mercedes-Benz would start the race. I was on the grid exchanging pleasantries with Roland Bruynserade, Chief Safety Officer for the FIA, when the two CLRs were pushed past us on the the way to their slots. He stood staring at the scene unfolding, shook his head and said something about not believing it and rushed off, doubtless to make a few urgent calls.
I have worked for teams at Le Mans that have had problems with the car right from the start, it is a nightmare situation that can only end in pain, with no prospect of redemption, so I can sympathise with the hard working crew of Audi Sport UK. #9 was in after half an hour to have the suspension checked, then, just before 20.00, the car stopped at the entry to Les Hunaudièrs, the differential had broken, the car was the third retirement. #10 lasted but 20 minutes before stopping to change gearbox, a process repeated around midnight. The agony continued till 8.20 on Sunday morning when the gearbox failed again stranding Perry McCarthy out on track, ending the Le Mans' career of the Audi R8C .
The other side of the Audi operation ran much more smoothly with only minor niggles afflicting #8 R8R. All the misfortune seemed to flow towards #7 which had no less than four transmission replacements but with the quick change system paid off, with each new gearbox being fitted in around five to ten minutes rather than the 50 minutes taken each time by the R8C.
#8 ran strongly in the top five for most of the race, things were going to plan.
Both Audis benefited from the retirements of other contenders, the two top Toyotas each had a big accident during the night, Brundle was unscathed but Thierry Boutsen ended his long career after also sustaining a fractured vertbra. Engine failure accounted for the Nissan. As to Mercedes-Benz, the catastrophe forecast by many happened just before 21.00 when, watched by the world on television and endlessly replayed, Peter Dumbreck's CLR somersaulted into the trees at almost the same point where Webber had crashed on the Thursday. The other Mercedes was swiftly withdrawn, the public relations disaster was complete, the only saving grace was no one, driver, marshal or spectator, had been injured in these huge accidents. Reading Mark Webber's account of his crashes it is clear that there was a loss of control at Mercedes management at the highest level, they genuinely believed that it could not be the fault of the car, somehow the drivers had screwed up. They have not been seen at Le Mans since.
The race had one final twist in the tale. The BMW of Lehto, Müller and Kristensen had led from almost the first hour and had a cushion of three laps over their sister car. Then the roll bar broke and jammed open the throttle pitching JJ into the barriers at the Porsche Curves and out of the race. This misfortune elevated the #8 Audi to 3rd and the #7 to 4th, which, considering the situation Mercedes were enduring, was a good performance. Could they hang on?
The Audi R8C was never seen again in competition, all resources were focused on developing the new 2000-spec car, the R8. However, the R8C did contribute substantially to the next Volkswagen Group endurance coupé, the Bentley Speed 8. Also designed by Peter Elleray and built at RTN, the Bentley beat the rest, including the legendary Audi R8s, to win Le Mans outright in 2003.
Third and fourth places at Le Mans was not quite the end of the story for the R8R. While a completely new car would be unveiled for the 2000 season, the R8R would act as a test bed for proving the components such as engines and transmission. The engine had performed faultlessly during the race, as we have come to expect from the work of Ulrich Baretzky's department. Detailed improvements in power and weight reduction would lead to a major development in 2001 with the introduction of FSI direct injection technology. There would be two more races for the R8R in 2000 in the American Le Mans Series rounds at Charlotte and Silverstone, while the new R8 was kept in reserve for the Le Mans 24 Hours. A podium place in the UK for Allan McNish and Dindo Capello was an appropriate way to mark the end of the road for the R8R.
Audi's course was set for the next 17 seasons, racking up titles and victories no matter who was the opposition. The pit lanes and paddocks of the endurance world will feel strange in 2017 with the Four Rings.