How Audi uses race crashes to make cars safer

Dindo Capello's face turns from joyful to terrified. His friends are peppering him with questions, but his eyes are fixed on a video monitor, where a helicopter-borne camera is panning over the scene of an accident. Capello's trying to gain as much information as possible on the health of his friend and Audi teammate, Mike Rockenfeller.

Replay footage emerges on screen. It's the # 1 Audi R18 being clipped by a slower Ferrari GT car. The feed cuts to an on-board shot. The Ferrari didn't hold its line, cutting into the path of the R18, which rotates 360 degrees, shedding more than 100 mph before slamming head-on into the Armco. The video goes black.

It's approaching midnight and I'm sitting in the Audi Racing Arena just shy of pit entrance on the La Sarthe circuit here at the 2011 24 Hours of Le Mans race. I'm sorting through some photos I'd taken during the golden glow of sunset hours before. About ten feet away from me sits Capello, a three-time Le Mans winner. Earlier in the race, he and co-driver Tom Kristensen had been demoted from racecar gods to Audi spokesmen after Allan McNish, their third-in-seat, had survived a spectacular shunt just past the Dunlop Bridge, ending the trio's day in a DNF. Despite the outcome, Capello had been in good spirits afterward, sitting with friends and describing the joys of Le Mans.

Then, over his shoulder, the first shots appeared of what looked to be another Audi R18 crash. This time, it was in the dark at the end of the high-speed Mulsanne straight. The first thought on everyone's mind: Who was driving and is he okay? Even in the age of "safe" motorsports, it's not impossible to die in a 190 mph crash. After a few torturous minutes, the helicopter camera zooms in on Mike Rockenfeller standing on the other side of the guardrail, having emerged from the wreckage presumably under his own power. Capello breathes a sigh of relief, then becomes enraged at the Ferrari driver's mistake. There was nothing Rocky could have done.

At 2:00 am, the race is still under safety car as crews repair the track. It takes me about that much time to walk to the scene of the accident where workers are finishing up, having replaced 124 shattered guardrail pieces in under two hours. It was a hard hit.

Every racing series claims that manufacturers use it to prove technology for road cars. That's true. Every major series does create innovations that help everyday drivers on their daily commutes. But looking at how many of those innovations has come from Le Mans, there's no doubt sports car racing is the global standard of motorsport innovation for road cars. Since the introduction of the Audi R10 TDi in 2006 and the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP in 2007, diesel has been at the forefront new technology in endurance racing. But that's five years ago, and with new rules, its arguable that diesel no longer has the relentless competitive edge it once did. The next phase of trickle-down development is lightweight and strong materials. The company's starting to brand this effort under the term Ultra, for ultra-lightweight, and even created a clever commercial hook for it.

Lamborghini, a wholly-owned division of Audi AG, announced last year a new focus on developing lighter and stronger cars. The new Aventador LP700-4 is the exemplar of the company's pledge: a car with a full carbon-fiber tub developed with Boeing and University of Washington researchers. Audi's new R18 too has a carbon tub, although one that's much more refined than that of the Aventador. That tub saved the lives of two Audi drivers during Le Mans weekend this year.

Before the 24-hour race, the R18 underwent several modifications. Audi saved nearly 90 pounds by changing the design of the body panels after initial testing. The car's closed cockpit improved aerodynamic efficiency, compared to the R15 from last year, while a smaller-displacement V6 TDI saved weight and space. The R18 chassis needs that space for forward-thinking packaging purposes: Rumors persist that it could house new electric propulsion technology in the not too distant future.

Audi's already leveraged its Le Mans TDI development to improve its road cars, and has seen strong U.S. sales of both the TDI A3 and Q7. Now, the destruction of two of its three cars on race day — and the fortuitous outcomes for its drivers — seen by millions around the world on TV and the internet, provides an unexpected focal point for its materials research. At the risk of insensitivity, the sight of McNish climbing out of that car is a powerful image, one with which Audi can make materials research a cause célèbre. But how soon can Audi start adopting those new processes and innovations to its road cars?

In the end, with the team's remaining R18, Audi won the 2011 24 hours of Le Mans. The real victory was for the engineers who designed the safety cell of the R18. Racing gives us a glimpse into the future of any manufacturer. All we need to do, as viewers and fans, is to clearly distinguish what's actually happening by reading between the lines.

Photo Credit: Josh Decker/Quattroworld