Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich has overseen Audi's run of success at the Le Mans 24 Hours over the last decade. At the launch of the R18 – Audi's first closed Le Mans challenger since 1999 – he explained why the German auto maker had moved away from the open-cockpit approach.
Q. Why have you decided to go with a closed-cockpit car?
Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich: There are two reasons. The first is the change to the sporting rules, about two and a half years ago, when they decided to change the pit stop limit from four mechanics to two. With four guys changing tires the driver change was the important factor for the pit stop time. Now, with the doubling of the time to change the tires, even with the closed car, you can easily change the driver before [the tire change is complete].
Point two is the more you reduce the engine power the more important the fuel efficiency is. The aerodynamic efficiency of a closed car will always be better than an open one, because you have all the disturbances that are given by the open cockpit, such as the driver helmets. So, nowadays, there is not really a choice – it has to be a closed one.
Q. Have you considered building a closed Le Mans car before, apart from the R8C in 1999?
WU: When we decided on the R15, it was six months too early – before the new tire change rule. If it hadn't been like that, maybe we would have already considered making the R15 a closed car.
Q. Are you concerned Peugeot's greater experience with closed cars will give them an advantage?
WU: They had an advantage with their closed car, so we worked very hard on the efficiency of the open car to a very high level, to get closer and closer to the closed car. So we hope we can match them straight away.
Next year is the first time both manufacturers have the same situation: we have new cars, following a new rulebook, and it's a new challenge.