In 2017, AC Motorsport made its first start in the 24H SERIES with the Audi RS 3 LMS, and after securing its maiden TCE win at last year’s Hankook 24H DUBAI, is now eying the Overall TCE Teams’ championship. If successful, this would be latest in a surprisingly long-line of accolades for Audi’s still relatively new TCR contender…
There’s arguably no venue on the 24H SERIES calendar more perfectly suited to the Audi RS 3 LMS than the Dubai Autodrome.
In 2017, Cadspeed Racing with A Tech secured Audi its first-ever TCR class win at the Hankook 24H DUBAI, just three months after the RS 3 LMS’ global unveil at the Paris Motor Show. In 2020, with, admittedly, some help from the weather, AC Motorsport secured its first TCE division win in the 24H SERIES with the Audi in Dubai, and but for brutal bad luck just five hours from home, would probably have done so in 2019 as well. Granted, TCR victory wasn’t realistically on the cards for Audi in 2018, but Bonk Motorsport nevertheless secured its sole TCR podium of the year with the RS 3 at the Autodrome.
It’s no real surprise then that AC Motorsport, Audi’s most prolific customer in the 24H SERIES’ TCE division since 2018, is once again eyeing the top step of the podium in Dubai in 2021.
“Dubai was one of the main objectives at the very beginning of our story,” explains AC Motorsport team manager Arnaud Quédé. “We’ve put a lot of energy into this race over the years, we know the [Dubai Autodrome] very well, and we always have a very strong line-up. The car is always very strong at some of the faster tracks too, like Pergusa and particularly Dubai. So we know we can win this race.”
What is it about the Dubai Autodrome though that seems to suit the RS 3 LMS so well? Ask Audi itself and it would cite the “perfect aerodynamics” and “classic touring car shape” of the RS 3 Sedan – chosen over the four-door RS 3 ‘Sportback’ as the base for the TCR homologation – as a major contributory factor. And, yes, there is validity to that: the aggressive side skirts for example, longer than they would be on the four-door hatchback, work in tandem with the ‘glaring’ front splitter to reduce the amount of air flowing underneath the car, creating more downforce than customers could reasonably expect from the four-door Sportback as a result.
That the sedan is also a more attractive option for customer teams in North America and Asia, where the ‘limousine’ shape tends to be more popular than the hatchback, may well have had a helping hand as well….
Then there’s the engine. Admittedly, with 2-litre turbocharged four-pots being one of the basic pillars on which TCR was launched back in 2015, to say the RS 3’s 1,984cc, four-cylinder is a secret weapon up Ingolstadt’s chromed sleeves might be a bit disingenuous, particularly since you’ll find pretty much the same ‘EA888’ turbocharged four-cylinder powering the Golf GTI TCR and CUPRA TCR of VW Group sister brands Volkswagen and SEAT.
Let’s not forget though that ‘fast Audis’ have been a motorsport staple since the brand’s quattro era emerged at the latter end of the 1970s. Be it with the luminary ‘Ur-quattro’, the Group A V8 Quattro, A4 and RS 5 DTMs (it’s no coincidence that the RS 3 LMS shares the same ‘boxy’ wheel arch with all of them), and pretty much any R8 LMP1 prototype since 2000. An almost sarcastic amount of silverware across both road and rally courses prove beyond doubt that Audi knows how to build a stellar engine.
Indeed, when the silks dropped from the latest road-going generation of the RS 3 Sportback – also at the Paris Motorsport Show in September 2016 – the engine was among its strongest selling points. Borrowed from the equally punchy Audi TT RS, albeit with a lighter aluminium block and hollow-bored crankshaft that shed 26kg from over the front axle, the RS 3’s 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder fired 400hp and 480Nm (354lb ft) to all four wheels and punched “the most powerful series-production five-cylinder in the world” from 0-100kph in just 4.1 seconds. On par, incredibly, with a 550hp Jaguar F-TYPE R.
Only when Mercedes-AMG’s 421hp A 45 S 4MATIC+ arrived in June 2019 was the RS 3 knocked from its lofty perch as the most powerful hot hatch on the planet.
Hardly surprising then that perennial Audi fan Arnaud and AC Motorsport patriarch/driver Stéphane Perrin were keen to jump on-board when plans to go endurance racing started getting serious…
“We like Audi!” Arnaud continues. “My own car is an Audi – I’ve driven Audis for 20 years now! – and the development that went into the RS3 really impressed us. We really liked the design too!
“I remember that Stéphane, when we first started looking at endurance racing with CREVENTIC, felt Audi’s first TCR car would be a great starting point for us. We have worked with the RS 3 now since 2017, and, okay, we need to improve the reliability a bit, but it’s been a very strong [addition] to AC Motorsport. I think Audi said this was the perfect way to get started in touring car racing, and I’d agree with that.”
TCR regulations of course meant that the 2,480cc five-cylinder ultimately didn’t make the jump from road to track in 2016, but its four-cylinder replacement was hardly a cold fish. Audi execs even had a 400hp version of the TFSI in mind when developing the RS 3 Sportback before eventually opting to follow Audi’s “long tradition of five-cylinder engines.”
Plucked from the S3 sedan from which the RS 3 had evolved, and now featuring a rejigged cooling system, intercooler and crankcase, the TFSI four-cylinder produces a far-from tepid “up to 350hp” and “up to 460Nm” (339lb ft). Enough to bolt the RS 3 LMS from 0-100kph in 4.5 seconds.
The TFSI beating heart was not the only component to jump from the road to the track either. Both share parent company Volkswagen’s ‘modular transverse matrix’ (MQB) platform, and the TCR’s steel body has been adopted from its road-going counterpart “nearly unchanged”, save reinforcement around the weld-in steel safety cell and some select weight shedding (the LMS’ 1,145kg dry weight is at least 300kg lighter than the RS 3 Sedan). Suspension is a more robust combination of MacPherson and multi-link in the TCR model, though the mounts remain mostly the same thanks to the LMS being only 110mm longer and 148mm wider. Take a peak in the cabin, past the PS03 ‘safety seat’ that’s mounted slightly lower and further back than in the roadcar, and you’ll even see the same ‘S Tronic’ gearbox, complete with leather-gaited gear lever, you’d find in the S3 sedan (we should point out that AC Motorsport’s example features a sequential DSG six-speed instead).
That the ‘cost-effective’ RS 3 LMS is also built at SEAT’s Martorell factory in Spain alongside TCR variants of the CUPRA and Golf GTI means only one VW Group parts supplier is required on-site during race weekends, keeping running costs low.
“Customer service with Audi has always been great. It was really easy for us to buy the car, we have support when we need it during races, and having other [VW Group] cars competing with us is a big help too: sometimes we don’t have all the spare parts we need, so we can exchange with Red Camel-Jordans.nl or Autorama Motorsport because the CUPRA and the [Volkswagen] Golf share a lot of the same [components].
“We actually did help Red Camel at Mugello when they had some mechanical problems. We all want to win, but it’s friendly competition, and it’s always good to have more cars on-track. And because running costs with the Audi are [respectable], TCR is always a strong race.”
In December 2016, Audi’s first two customer TCRs were delivered to Britain’s Cadspeed Racing and Spain’s Speed Factory Racing Team ahead of the former’s entry at the 2017 Hankook 24H DUBAI.
Against a quartet of SEAT Leóns, the likes of which had just secured the TCR International Series title for the second consecutive year, Cadspeed’s RS 3 LMS won on its competitive 24-hour debut (the team had already driven to 4th and 5th in the TCR Middle East season opener at Dubai that weekend). Julian Griffin, Erik Holstein and Finlay Hutchison joined two-time British Touring Car Championship Independents' Cup winner and one-time BTCC Production Class champion James Kaye on driver detail for Cadspeed that weekend, the Audi the latest of many touring cars James had already raced up to that point in his career…
“The cars I competed with before in the 24H SERIES have been mainly production-based cars,” James explains to CREVENTIC. “I’m thinking of my earlier time with the Honda Civic and the Integra, etc, and we even competed with a 4WD Mitsubishi Evo X at Silverstone and Dubai a few times. I drove the 500hp MARC Focus too, which was a complete animal!
“The difference now is that, yes, TCR is a production-derived series, but the cars are very, very good: easy to maintain, cost-effective, and the driving experience is very similar to a British touring car. Not quite as focused as the BTCC but they’re still very good. And that’s great: from a team’s perspective, you can attract the driver, and the driver knows what he’s getting too, whether its the Audi, the VW, the Honda, the CUPRA, etc.
“For me at the moment in my career path, is the best way forward.”
From a driver’s perspective though, how does the RS 3 LMS stack up?
“As a driver, you will race anything,” James continues. “You will race a pushbike! In the Audi, you have a DSG box, so you don’t have to deal with a stick shift. Most of the cars have ABS, although I prefer the car without that because I’m old school like that. For a gentleman driver coming into TCR, you can have air conditioning, you can have all the driver aids you might see in a proper GT3 car, but primarily, the Audi is very, very rewarding to drive. You can feel the peak in the tyre, so you know in the first five or six laps, you will get the absolute best out of the car. As a driver, that’s what you want, and the Audi really gives you that.”
Incredibly, on its second 24H SERIES outing, the Audi RS 3 LMS won again, this time with Bonk Motorsport at the 2017 Hankook 12H MUGELLO, Car Collection Motorsport adding further legitimacy by propping up the TCR podium with its own example. More was to follow, and in the first five 24H SERIES events of 2017, an Audi RS 3 was on the TCR podium at four of them.
September 2017 is also where AC Motorsport joins the Audi RS 3 story, the Belgian team, already a seven-year veteran of race car prep and rental, pulled the trigger on its first endurance racing program at that year’s Hankook 24H BARCELONA.
Granted, it was not the smoothest of transitions into the 24H SERIES: across its first four starts with CREVENTIC, a slightly underwhelming 8th in-class at Spa-Francorchamps in 2018 marked AC Motorsport’s only classified finish. A star-making performance in Dubai in 2019 was also cruelly upended when heavy amounts of tyre pick-up in the rear wheel arches ignited on-track, dropping the #188 Audi to a disappointing 5th at the flag.
Fortunately, AC Motorsport’s first TCR podiums weren’t too far around the corner, the Audi finishing 2nd in TCR in Mugello in 2019 and 3rd one-round later at Spa-Francorchamps. Two more runners-up spots that year in Portimão and COTA, as well as 2nd in-class at the inaugural TCR SPA 500, left AC Motorsport 2nd and 3rd in the Continental and European Overall TCE Teams’ standings respectively. Performances that went a long way to impressing the vastly experienced James Kaye, by now a team regular…
“I started racing professionally in 1990 – before some of you were even born,” – Grimly, CREVENTIC’s Quinten Kentie who conducted this interview was born in 1998! – “And when you get to a certain level as a driver, the teams have to be at and usually above that level.
“So, for example, my favourite team is Barwell Motorsport. It’s my family, effectively: I grew up with [managing director] Mark Lemmer, he’s the godfather to my children, and they’re one of the most professional motorsport outfits out there. Synchro Motorsport was a very interesting team too because they’re a works Honda team but made up entirely of the employees that work within the factory. So they know everything about the car, but they’re not race engineers. Their day job was building the car, and that meant the emphasis was on the drivers and engineers they brought in for race weekends. They had a very, very good way of going racing and that’s reflected by the fantastic results they achieved.
“Now, AC Motorsport is very, very good, but it’s still a very young team. It’ still growing, but the guys made a huge step forward when Vincent Radermecker went to drive for them, and he brought a huge amount of knowledge into the team. They’re really getting to grips with the Audi too, so expect big things from them in TCR in the future.”
Of course, AC Motorsport’s successes form just part of Audi’s international TCR achievements. In May 2020 for example, Ingolstadt announced a “Variant Option” for the RS 3 LMS, one that, tellingly, focused more on extending the car’s mileage rather than “pursuing the aim of making any changes in terms of competitiveness.” Clearly more than 600 podiums secured across nearly 1000 entries alone in 2019 spoke more than enough volumes with regards to the RS 3’s performance on-track.
Indeed, with the 2020 season and its maiden TCE class win now in the bag, AC Motorsport’s attention has duly turned to the 2021 24H SERIES championship. The step on the road to which, fittingly, is Dubai. And we’ve heard the Audi goes rather well round there…
“Our first goal is to win Dubai again,” Arnaud continues. “And from there, we want to compete for the [Overall TCE Teams’] championship. It’s going to be tough because there are some really strong teams in the 24H SERIES, but we’re ready to take on this challenge with Audi.”
- Arnaud Quédé and James Kaye were speaking with Quinten Kentie and James Gent at the 2020 Hankook 12H MUGELLO.
- Words – James Gent
- Images – Petr Frýba and Audi Sport