We came to Daytona Beach, Florida where you can drive on the beach, gun shops outnumber doughnut shops and you can putt-putt and fish for alligators at the same place. But we're not here for any of that – we've made the trip with Audi in order to experience the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the first race in the 2013 Grand-Am season and the only 24-hour race in America.
Three teams are racing four Audi R8 Grand-Am cars – WeatherTech Racing, Rum Bum Racing and APR, which is running two cars. Shown to the world two years ago, the R8 Grand-Am is part of Audi Sport's R8 LMS customer racing program that was commenced in 2008, and ever since 2009 has been nabbing success all over the world: In four years it has taken 154 victories and 17 series titles. That is with less than 100 cars sold to customers throughout the world, and the trophies – either class wins or overall victories – have been gathered from all of the major endurance races except one: Daytona.
Related GalleryDay one from the Rolex 24 at Daytona
Some of the things we found out on the first day:
Audi Sport and Audi customer racing program:
- The customer racing program really began in 2002 when Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich, the head of Audi Sport, decided he wanted a sportscar for the brand. The result of that, five years later, would be the R8. The side-bladed coupe debuted in 2007, in January 2008 Audi Sport received permission from Volkswagen Group mandarins to develop it for racing, and in 2009 it hit the track as an in-house racing program and began winning races. It was delivered to its first customers in 2010, and continued its winning ways. As of now there are 50 customer R8 racing cars in Europe, 21 in China, eight in the US, six in Australia, three in Japan and one in South America. Four satellite operations provide local support in the US, China, Japan and Australia.
- Some perspective: Audi's modern era of road racing began in the US after it won the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 1985, 1986 and 1987 with that Quattro. It switched to Trans-Am the following year and took the Trans-Am title in 1988 with the 200 Quattro, then won again in 1990, the 200 Quattro taking a record number of victories in a season. Since then there have been ten victories in the 12 Hours of Sebring, nine consecutive titles in ALMS before switching to the World Endurance Championship (there are eight R8 customer racing cars in the US, four are here at Daytona, the other four are at the Circuit of the Americas doing the WEC round), and nine wins at Petite Le Mans with the R8 and R10 TDI.
- The customer racing program has expanded to include the TT-RS as well, but Romolo Liebchen, who heads the customer motorsport program, says the TT-RS is a special case. He says he has bigger plans for the division: "I see a chance for having additional products, but it has to fit. That's down the way. But this is just the beginning. There are 21 customer cars in China and a one-race series there that will expand to an Asian cup series."
- On coming racing in the US, Liebchen said, "We decided two years ago to find a way to go to racing in the US. It's the right market and I felt there was potential for the R8, and if we pushed hard together with the road car division, we could help each other." Grand-Am is the inheritor of the "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday" mantra once owned by NASCAR, and Audi calls this race "Showroom Daytona." The pace car is an R8 in Daytona Gray, and the desire is unmistakable when Liebchen states, "One of the biggest dreams I have is to win this race."
- On the peculiarities of Grand-Am racing, a more national racing series as opposed to the blatantly international FIA GT3 series, Leibchen was diplomatic: "Grand-Am comes out of pure American history and [so it] is more focused on the US. The focus in those other series [like GT3] is on details and complex technical solutions, where here it's to keep it simple, to keep it easy so everyone can do it. But it's not so simple when you look more closely. It's sophisticated, just in a different way. Each way is interesting and provides its own challenges."
- Last season the R8s struggled, an issue Liebchen put down to having to learn new ways and the spec tires provided by Continental. "We had to learn the special things about this series, and we didn't understand the tires. It's a very special tire, and we didn't really focus enough on it." For this year, while they'd all love to win this race, he says, "The focus now is to show that we are competitive."
- It's thought that the merger of Grand-Am and ALMS at the end of this year might lead to the series taking on a more international flavor, but in truth no one is quiet sure what to expect. On a side note, Wolfgang Ulrich said this year's 12 Hours of Sebring will be the first US race for the R18 e-tron quattro, and he'd like to win it during the last year of the current regulations.
The Audi R8 Daytona:
- Grand-Am is a derivation of the R8 LMS Ultra that was unveiled in late 2011, the Ultra itself a derivation of the first customer racing R8. It shed 70 kilograms through advancements like carbon doors and a smaller racing clutch (the first customer cars used a slightly upgraded version of the road car clutch), it had more advanced cooling and aerodynamics and wider front wheels. The Grand-Am package was homologated in 2012, and the second evolution is almost ready for 2013 with a new aero package, new rear wing and a different exhaust.
- It has the same spaceframe as the road car, clothed in a carbon composite body. Over 50 percent of the race car is the same as the production road car, and the horsepower-restricted 5.2-liter V10 is stock from the showroom but for three changes: there are new crankshaft bearings that can tolerate higher temperatures, the driveshaft to the front wheels has been removed since Grand-Am is rear-wheel drive only, and the stock exhaust is gone. Even the dry sump is the same as an R8 on the dealer showroom floor. The race car uses Brembo high-performance racing brakes, has a smaller splitter than the GT3 car, goes without the optional dive blades on the front for this race and employs special dampers suited to Daytona.
- One of the WeatherTech Racing drivers said that the Grand-Am car has 70 to 80 percent less downforce than the GT3 car he drives in Europe. Trying to replace aero grip with mechanical grip means a softer setup so the car moves around more, especially under braking, and every input must be much smoother.
- Today's race begins at 3 o'clock EST.
- Track length for the 24-Hour race is 3.56 miles for sports cars, the infield course and chicanes range from 30 to 50 feet wide, the banked turns are 3,000 feet long and inclined at 31 degrees. Here's what it looks like from the view of an R8 driven by Frank Stippler – he's with the APR team and was one of the winning drivers in the Nurburgring 24-Hour race last year – on a hot lap:
- If all goes well the R8 can do 768 laps, a distance of 2,734 miles or 4,329 kilometers.
- Out of the 24 hours 23 hours and 28 minutes will be spent on the track, 32 minutes in the pits for 30 pit stops.
- Sixty-four percent of the lap is run at full throttle, equating to 15 hours and one minute wide open. That will eat up 20 sets of slicks and drink up 2,150 liters of fuel.
- There are 28 shifts per lap, 21,504 shifts over the course of the race.
- There are 13.9 turns of the wheel in one lap, making 10,675 complete turns of the wheel in 24 hours.
- Coming off the banked turn and into the Bus Stop the R8 – and driver – experience a maximum braking force of 1,520 horsepower.
The best Audi qualified in sixth, Filipe Albuquerque putting the WeatherTech R8 in sixth on the grid. After that, René Rast in the #52 APR Audi qualified 11th, ex-DTM driver Markus Winkelhock in the Rum Bum Racing Audi 16th, Matt Bell in the #51 APR Audi in 27th. Everyone got moved up a spot when the third-placed NGT/MOMO Porsche was disqualified for having a rear wing one millimeter out of regulation spec; still, the first eleven spots on the grid are separated by less than a second.
That's our report for now, we'll have more from the race.