By Ronan Glon
Monday, Jun 18th, 2012 @ 6:05 am
 
Audi has captured all three spots on the podium of the 80th 24 Hours of Le Mans race thanks in part to its diesel-hybrid R18 e-tron race cars. This marks the first time in the race's illustrious history that a hybrid has come out on top of the pack.

Peugeot, Audi's arch enemy over the last few years, did not participate in this year's race because financial issues forced it to put an end to its endurance racing program earlier this year.

That doesn't mean that Audi was in a class of its own. During the first part of the race the automaker faced stiff competition from Toyota's gasoline-hybrid TS 030 race cars. One of them even took the lead of the race at about 8pm on Saturday night but a series of crashes and mechanical failures ended up sending the Toyotas to the paddock for good.

With the Japanese competition out of the way, the Audis spent a sizable chunk of the rest of the race fighting over first place in their category. When all was said and done the first two spots went to the R18 e-tron while third and fifth went to the R18 Ultra, a lightweight and non-hybrid variant of the car. The winning Audi lapped the Le Mans track 378 times.

"This is no doubt a historic victory for Audi," said Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, the head of Audi Motorsports. "We were the first to win Le Mans with a direct-injection turbo gasoline engine and the first to be successful with a diesel engine. It's a great result that Audi is now the first brand to have achieved victory with a hybrid vehicle."

Instead of a heavy battery pack, the R18 e-tron uses a big flywheel to store the energy that is generated while the car is braking. When the driver pushes the gas pedal, the flywheel sends the power to two electric motors that spin the front wheels, giving the car an acceleration boost. The rear wheels are driven by a 3.7-liter V6 TDI turbodiesel and do not get power from the hybrid system.