After dominating Le Mans-class endurance sportscar racing for years now, Audi is left with little to prove. Plus, with sister-company Porsche returning with an LMP1 program of its own, and Bentley reportedly considering the same, rumors have been circulating that the four-ringed automaker could quit while it's ahead. It's something that rivals old (like Peugeot) and new (like Toyota) were undoubtedly rooting for, but no such luck: Audi isn't going anywhere but the finish line.

The German automaker's racing division – which is, incidentally, undergoing a thorough shake-up in preparation for new opposition – has brought its new R18 prototype to these United States for testing at Sebring, saying little more than that it's preparing to challenge the new FIA World Endurance Championship in the new year. But take a close look at the photos the company released along with the statement after the jump and the keenest of eyes may notice that the new R18 has undergone what looks like some significant changes.

Of course, all we can see from the outside is the aero package, but sources suggest there's something more lurking under the skin. The Audi fanatics over at QuattroWorld insist this latest prototype is packing a hybrid powertrain, putting it up against Peugeot's 908 Hybrid4 and Toyota's upcoming hybrid challenger. If that's the case, we can pretty much guarantee that whoever's car will cross the finish line in the upcoming season of endurance racing will be doing so with a bit of battery boost, too.
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- Tests at Sebring (U.S. state of Florida)
- Allan McNish plus five other Le Mans winners at the wheel
- Preparation for 2012 season

Ingolstadt, December 17, 2011 - Audi Sport is intensively preparing for the 2012 sports prototype season. A test team has started the next trial phase of the LMP1 sports car for the 2012 season in the United States this week.

After the previous tests of the further development of this year's Le Mans winning car took place behind closed doors, Audi is now going into public at a race track for the first time. Today (17 Dec), Audi Sport runs tests with two vehicles at the Sebring (Florida) circuit. The second LMP1 sports car serves to compare the test results. Taking turns at the wheel of the two development vehicles are the 2011 Le Mans winners, the Swiss Marcel Fässler, the German André Lotterer and the Frenchman Benoît Tréluyer. Also involved in the tests are Dindo Capello, Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish, who were last victorious at Le Mans in 2008.

The tradition-steeped American circuit has a special significance for Audi, not only because Audi has celebrated nine victories at the Sebring 12 Hours since the 2000 season. The 5.95-kilometre track that features 17 highly different types of turns offers plenty of variety, which makes for excellent test conditions. The rough concrete of the former airfield's take-off and landing strip in combination with the tarmac of the other track sectors puts the material to a particularly tough test. On March 17th, the 12-hour race will open the new FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) as well as the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) at this venue.

While the component tests have already started, Audi will not announce the details of the 2012 racing program, the driver line-up and the technical state of the development until a later date.

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