Earlier today Fourtitude published PR photos and a press release issued by Audi Sport about a test this week in Sebring of Audi's 2012 LMP1 conspicuously not referred to as "R18" . Since that time, many websites have begun analysis and/or speculation. Here's a quick summary, including some of our own intel on this subject summarized at the end.
Racecar engineering has published a story about the 2012 R18, including suggestion that a new hybrid drive system will be a Flybrid design developed by English engineering firm Flybrid Systems.
MulsannesCorner.com is always a good resource in the analysis of prototype racecar design. This website has published an analysis of the Audi shown testing in Sebring this week. Check it out after the jump.
There's more on the hybrid rumor over on SPEED.com, including interesting sleuthing of Audi PR photo EXIF data that suggests the name of the car will be R18H (for hybrid) and if this is accurate then time stampings place the R18H testing at Paul Riccard as early as Nov 17, just after the Zhuhai round of the ILMC.
QuattroWorld also posted the PR about this week's Sebring test but included an intro editor's note about a rumor surrounding the driving team of Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller. Notably, it suggested that their absence perhaps suggests they may relinquish their seats in one of Audi's three LMP1s at Le Mans.
So What Do We Know?
First, on the 2012 R18 being a hybrid powered R18H, the name may or may not be set in stone. Photo naming data isn't always the best indicator as it is often a shortening of the actual name.
As for the rumor of a hybrid R18, a highly placed source at Audi has told us directly that the 2012 Audi LMP1 will in fact be a hybrid. Ulrich Baretzky had told us previously that the R18 program was originally designed as a three year program and that the car's V6 engine configuration had been chosen in part to make room for a hybrid drivetrain. Baretzky never did confirm when the hybrid would come into play, but he emphasized this would not happen until it made engineering sense to do so. Last year the rules favored diesel only. This year, providing our intel is correct, it appears this may have changed.
We actually asked Baretzky about flybrid drivetrains at Petit Le Mans when the Bernhard / Dumas / Rockenfeller team were running an exhibition race in a 911 hybrid at the very same event where Audi Sport was running the R15 plus. The Porsche's flybrid setup an especially interesting technical experiment given the added electrical drive, provided by a flywheel making use of recaptured energy under braking, essentially made the 911 all-wheel drive. Could Audi's LMP1 program become a quattro? We asked Baretzky.
The answer was a bit disappointing. Of course Audi would have interest in an all-wheel drive race car but explained that this isn't exactly how the rules are set up. Energy from the flywheel and thus to the front wheels can only come at certain higher speeds and in certain conditions (long straights) that essentially negates the traditional grip advantages of all-wheel drive and thus Audi's nearly unmatched experience with quattro in racing. No doubt rule makers are trying to avoid an unfair advantage and all-wheel drive to augment grip could give Audi exactly that. Yes, other manufacturers would also be allowed to do the same but one need look back only to the touring car era such as the B5 A4's halcyon years in the BTCC to see that not all teams or all-wheel drive cars are created equally. Though several such as Ford experimented with all-wheel drive setups, only Audi did so competitively and beyond that captured the championship of every series where an A4 quattro had been entered in 1996.
The short of it is that the rules are written so as to keep companies like Audi from taking advantage of an all-wheel drive drivetrain. Hybrids in sportscar racing are meant for efficiency purposes only.
And what of the Bernhard / Dumas / Rockenfeller driver team rumor? To be honest, we don't know their source so we're not sure how much weight to give it. The only mention we've heard of this team leaving Audi was a wishful quote by Roger Penske who imagined his dream team for the upcoming Porsche LMP1 project. Bernhard and Dumas still wear the Porsche logo on their Audi Sport driving suits, but that doesn't change the fact that Porsche's LMP1 program won't be race ready before the 2014 season. Where else they'd go is certainly a mystery.
Of course Audi won't confirm any driver team changes before the official announcement next year. The one question for us that remains is what will happen to Dindo Capello. Rumors of the Italian's retirement may have been greatly exaggerated. There was talk certainly of retirement last year but when we put it to Dindo at Le Mans he suggested he'd like to continue so long as he was on pace. Judging by his performance at the end of the season last year, pace doesn't seem to be an issue and he was perhaps the most effective driver on his team at staying clear of damage. That Dindo is in Sebring bodes well for the likelihood of his return. However, if he does not return, we suspect his seat will be filled by Audi Sport test driver Marco Bonanomi who seemed to be on a team building exercise when he joined McNish and Kristensen in a triathlon last year.
Check out more photos of the Audi LMP1 seen testing this week in our photo gallery via the link below.