Article and Photos by Andreas Dharmawan
Yellow rolling hills filled the field of vision as I drove on the access road of Laguna Seca raceway. Monterey Bay, California, weather was cool and balmy. Ice crystals at the high altitude created bans of thin clouds before the deep blue sky. The rising sun radiated from behind the rolling hills. This morning serenity would not last for much longer since Grand-AM race drivers would start the morning practice session.
Audi Club Golden Gate corral was located in the blue zone at turn 5. At 7:50 in the morning, our corral was already half full with member cars. A large white tent that could easily host over a hundred people was at the far corner of the corral. Audi Club flags and banners were very visible from a distance. A few vendors and sponsors were setting up their show cars and pavilions in our corral. Among premium-car-brand corrals in the blue section, our Audi Club corral was the largest and had the most elaborate setup.
In the past, Audi Club Golden Gate had been hosting this same social event at American Le Mans (ALMS) race annually. But since Audi R10 LMP1 pulled out from ALMS, the club moved the event to Grand-AM because APR Audi Customer Racing team races in this championship.
From a distance, thundering engines broke the morning silence. The first practice session had started. A few minutes later, we saw a string of colorful cars coming down the hill towards turn 2 Andretti hairpin. I often watch Audi Customer Racing teams racing in European GT3 races on YouTube. This event was a great opportunity to watch Audi Customer Racing program in person on this side of the pond with other fellow Audi fans.
Audi Customer Racing Program
Since the program was initiated in 2009, Audi R8 LMS has won 118 races and 13 championship titles around the world. Audi competed as the titleholder in 24-hour races at the Nürburgring, Germany, and Spa, Belgium. The current model called R8 LMS Ultra has many improvements compared to its breakthrough successor.
R8 LMS components are 90 percent identical to the R8 production-version components; hence, the aluminum frame comes from Neckarsulm R8 production site. R8 LMS V10 engine is mostly the same as the production version; this is on purpose to leverage the proven durability of the R8 V10 production engine. Lessons learned in customer racing program make their way back to the production engine assembly line.
This second generation of R8 LMS embodies the ultra lightweight design. The combination of aluminum suspension, Audi Space Frame, carbon fiber, and high-energy absorbing crash foam not only reduces the fuel consumption during the race but also increases passive safety. R8 LMS Ultra is not painted; the body is coated with cathodic dip coating (CDC) to reduce even more weight. A safety cell designed specifically for racing is added to protect the driver at extreme speed crash. The above customization is performed at the satellite site in Heilbronn-Biberach, near Neckarsulm.
APR Audi Customer Racing Team
APR LLC was founded in 1997 with a mission to provide the highest quality and most highly engineered aftermarket performance parts for Audi, Volkswagen, SEAT, and Skoda cars. Today, it has an impressive 36,000 sq. ft. campus in Opelika, Alabama.
The paddock area was a hive of activities. Rows of truck trailers that had transformed into sophisticated portable car shops were packed in grid formation. A boxy plain trailer once unpacked became a workshop complete with the enclosing tent. This scene reminded me of the 18-wheeler Optimus Prime of the Transformer movie. Throughout the year, APR races VW GTI/GLI Grand-AM ST Spec race car, Audi S4 Grand-AM GS class car, and recently Audi R8 Grand-AM. APR is the first Audi Customer Racing Team in America.
Many Audi Club members descended to the APR workshop to meet the race drivers, Jim Norman, Dion von Moltke, the CEO of APR, Stephen Hooks, and the entire APR team. After the morning practice, the Audi R8 No. 51 was pushed back into the workshop. Once raised on its built-in jack, Stephen invited us to gather around the car so he could tell the story about this exciting car.
The Audi R8 Grand-AM differs from the European Audi R8 LMS Ultra GT3 cars. Due to Grand-AM regulation, the new front splitter has to be shaved because it may not protrude from the front contours beyond 38 mm. The front under body must be flat. The standardized rear wing is drastically slimmer than the rear wing of the R8 LMS Ultra. Unlike the GT cars, Grand-AM cars must be raced with the driver and passenger window down. This configuration creates a massive turbulence area in the rear of the car. All of the above net to a loss of up to 70 percent down force. Additionally, ABS and traction control are now allowed in Grand-AM. Classwide continental tires must be used as well.
The above deviations from the proven specs of R8 LMS Ultra gave interesting challenges to Audi Customer Racing support team and APR racing team at the beginning of the race season. After every race, the team discovered ideas to improve the R8 Grand-AM’s dynamics. After several races, the slim rear wing was moved further back and higher. Adjusted damper characteristic and softer spring rate were experimented. These changes and other minor tweaks compensated the lower down force and performance in subsequent races improved dramatically.
Audi Club Hospitality Tent
Towards noon, many Audi Club members made their way back to the hospitality tent. Some explored the paddock in the morning observing many racing teams examining, repairing, and adjusting the cars after the morning practice. Some climbed the hill to check out the famous corkscrew turn of Laguna Seca. A specialty caterer had setup a very mouth watering spread consisting of colorful salads, baked fish, barbequed chicken, grilled tri-tip, and a variety of nicely-adorned desserts.
Our corral was the busiest among the premium and sporty German and Japanese brands. R8, S, RS, and modified A, and stock cars filled the corral. The overflow lot was crowded by mostly Audi cars. It was a great showing of our club supporting APR Audi Customer Racing Team.
In addition to shuttle service to paddock area and vista points, Audi Club had informative and fun activities at the tent. Continental tire consultant provided in-depth seminar about tire technologies, tire selections for different uses, and of course discounted prices for Audi Club members.
At noon, the race started and many of us stood by the fence to see No.51 red, black, and white APR Audi R8 navigating through close formation of cars while braking hard on turn 5, positioning itself appropriately at the apex to accelerate out of the turn. The smell of heated brake pads, the burble sounds of downshifting engines, and the engine crescendo at the turn exit increased the afternoon excitement. A flat TV screen showing the turn-by-turn coverage allowed us to follow the whole course from this tent. What a great weekend!