Vorsprung Durch Technik: a story of all-wheel drive, diesels, and beyond

There it was, innocuously written on the wall of one of Audi’s factories. “Vorsprung durch Technik”, or advancement through technology, was the idea that progress had to be made through technological evolution, and it has become one of the core tenets of Audi’s operating principles. Starting off as more of a marketing phrase in the 1980s than anything else, it became so synonymous with the brand that Audi had to keep it going for the decades to follow.

But long before those words became synonymous with the brand, the concept was something that had helped Audi progress from being a slightly eccentric left-field luxury car maker, to a brand that stood out both in the motorsport scene and among consumer offerings. Perhaps most amusing of all is that it all began with a controversial decision, an accidental discovery.

For those who don’t know the origins of Audi’s all-wheel drive system, it was not a sleek saloon car or wagon that first bore proof of concept, but rather a modified Volkswagen Iltis (a little military jeep looking thing). It was a cold and snowy Finnish winter day in the 1970s when Audi engineer Jörg Bensinger was doing a bit of testing with a range of Audi products- and of course, the Volkswagen Iltis.

What he found was that despite the Iltis’ relatively low output of 75 hp, it was leaving the other cars and trucks for dead simply because of the extra traction from the four wheel drive system. This inspired Bensinger to produce a road-going car with a four-wheel drive system, but one of the engineering challenges that he faced was the additional weight of a traditional four-wheel drive system that made the car clunky and slow in most situations.

Cobbling parts together from various other Audi models at the time and developing an all-new turbocharged 2.1-litre 5-cylinder engine resulted in the model known as the Audi Quattro (note the capital Q). But more than merely prove its effectiveness in the real world, Audi was confident enough to run in it the nascent Group B category- first as a non-competing course car, and then as an entry in competition. In both cases the performance was staggering, and this was compared to the already insanely quick, unregulated Group B cars of the time.

Group B was shuttered just a few years after it began due to safety issues, but Audi wasn’t done. After spending a ludicrous amount of money developing that immensely powerful and competent powertrain, they took it to the United States of America for some good old fashioned track racing. They put the powertrain in an Audi 200 and entered Trans-Am, dominating it before all-wheel drive was banned.

Not to be deterred, they decided to go one step further and enter the IMSA series with a tube-steel spaceframe car, covered in a body that resembled an Audi 90 quattro. The engine had its displacement increased to 2.2 litres while the turbo was uprated to an even larger KKK unit, with power climbing up to 720 bhp from 510 bhp. Despite dominating in this series, Audi chose to withdraw and instead put their efforts into the DTM series on their home turf.

But roughly a decade later came the beginning of what would be Audi’s biggest racing endeavour yet: Le Mans, and the World Endurance Challenge. By now Audi had made a name for itself with its stunning all-wheel drive system in a number of their high performance road cars, but the next step was endurance racing. In the 1990s, the prototype class of Le Mans racing wasn’t as competitive as it is now and it was common for them to break down or fail; Audi managed a 3rd and 4th place finish with their first R8R LMP car, and they were determined to develop it further.

While the years that followed saw the R8R’s successor taking the win numerous times, it was in 2006 that Audi decided to go for a radical change and develop a diesel Le Mans Prototype. This new R10 TDI had a massive 5.5-litre V12 TDI engine and a completely redesigned chassis compared to its predecessor, but Audi was willing to show the world how powerful diesel technology could be. In its debut year, the R10 TDI took first place at Le Mans and effected a change in IMSA regulations in order to level the playing field. While the competition could run lighter and with more fuel, the R10 TDI still managed to dominate the field thanks to its sheer efficiency and performance.

Trading places with competing team Peugeot over the next few years, Audi’s next big jump was in 2011 with the Audi R18 TDI Ultra. This new car had a smaller 3.7-litre V6 TDI engine, with a special hot-V configuration (that is to say the turbocharger sits in between the engine banks rather than on the outside). Hot-V turbo configurations are now common for nearly every manufacturer, so there is truth in the belief that racing technology can filter down to road cars.

But the real change came when Le Mans Prototypes began to adopt hybrid technology. The R18 E-Tron quattro was Audi’s first attempt at a hybrid LMP car and despite the sheer complexity of a hybrid system, it managed to hold up through the race and brought victory to the team from 2012 to 2014. The introduction of Porsche and Toyota made competition a little too difficult for Audi, and at the end of 2016 they decided to withdraw from Le Mans and the World Endurance Challenge.

Audi will be missed after their close-to-a-decade run in the World Endurance Challenge, but their next target is the world of Formula E. It may be a little difficult to relate with (especially since Le Mans Prototypes were already so far removed from road cars and Formula cars go even further), but it will most likely be a testbed for their electric vehicle technology which will no doubt become a staple in the future. All we know is that for over 3 decades, Audi has gone from strength to strength, developing new technology that has filtered down into their road cars. They’ve proven that all-wheel drive can be competitive, they’ve proven that diesel can be quick, and now they’re probably going to show the world that electric cars can be more than monotonous. We can hardly wait.