We've been hearing about it for years-America will be going diesel, Audi Style. Even Driving Miss Daisy will be a convert. The replacement for the all-conquering, record-breaking, Le Mans-winning R8 came in the form of the R10 "Vorsprung durch Technik" Diesel which promptly won Sebring on its maiden voyage in 2006. Fans of Chicken Little were quick to squawk that the success of the Audi diesel was the end of racing as we know it. No more grunt and scream of a hi-rev powerplant-who wants to hear a woosh anyway? The R10 brigade wooshed its way to another diesel triumph in 2007, but saw the string of overall wins snapped last year. Ingolstadt had to make do with the LMP1 class laurels in an incident-filled race but came from a long way back to finish on the same lap as the winning Porsche RS Spyder.
Still, one cannot argue that Audi has put its stamp on sports car racing in a unique and almost unheard-of manner for the last decade. Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, and most certainly Porsche are what we grew up seeing on the grids. Once in a while BMW would field a top-level effort. Before 2000 it seemed unthinkable-Audi? Ingolstadt did it almost effortlessly with a consistent reliability that seemed unnatural. All those wins at Le Mans, Sebring, circuits around the planet. Records come and go, become history and fodder for forum chat, bragging rights at the bar, and so on. However, what emerged from this decade-long Oktoberfest is a cultural turning, making driving a diesel hip. No major manufacturer can ignore a market that will demand sporty diesels as opposed to stinking taxicabs and that garbage truck you can't seem to pass. Porsche even finally got hip to the fact that its Cayenne was losing market share and has dropped a VW rudimotor into its four-door box. The epic battle at Le Mans for the last two years has been about image, of promoting diesel technology between two large manufacturers. Peugeot and Audi both want to win races, but come Monday morning, it's just sell baby, just sell.
This year will be a year of transition. The budgets for big-time motorsports teams have been reduced to the point that only the most important (commercially viable) will be contested. For Audi, those two are Sebring and Le Mans with the new R15 TDI. From a PR point of view this poses a problem in the States. For the last two years the R10 has been featured heavily in advertising showcasing Audi's diesel technology. Now with the introduction of a number of platforms becoming available with TDI, the flagship of that technology will disappear from these shores after the 12 Hours of Sebring. A quantum of quandaries.
Last October, Audi took to the highways across America with a rolling TDI roadshow dubbed the Audi Mileage Marathon. A3, A4, Q5 and Q7 diesel variants all got time in the spotlight. Even the hot shoes of Audi Sport got into the script with Le Mans record holder, Tom Kristensen, taking a stint with the invited hacks and scribes that drove the marathon.
We at ec are, if anything, inventive when it comes to road trips. Prior to last year's 12 Hours of Sebring, invites went out to the media to attend the race and see the new R8 coupe with the big-banger V12 TDI. Audi made it more enticing with a fleet of Euro-spec Q7 TDIs to sample. Readers of my past columns might recall that I had planned to drive a 1962 VW with 21,000 original miles back from Sebring. When that seemed like a not so good idea, I asked Audi for a Q7 TDI. Shockingly, they agreed. My companion, Lizett Bond, tends to cover more of the equine subjects with an occasional foray in to more cultural subjects, but she's more than versed in what makes for a good ride. She had her assignments and I had mine. And with that, we landed in St. Pete and headed out to partytown, home of the annual 12 Hours of Abuse for man and machine.