This mean looking machine is charged with the responsibility of winning the tenth Le Mans title for Audi, who are the defending champions of the world’s most famous endurance race after conquering the 2010 podium with a 1-2-3 finish. And for the first time since its Le Mans debut in 1999, the four rings will contest a car with a roof.

“In the future, aerodynamic efficiency will be even more important at Le Mans than it was in the past,” says Head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. “A closed car has clear advantages in this respect. Our computer simulations have been confirmed in the wind tunnel and during initial track tests.”

The engines have shrunk for 2011 as the rule makers aim to cap engine power. The R18 will be motivated by a 3.7L V6 TDI (from a 5.5L V10) but no figures have been released. Although hybrid drive has been approved for 2011, Audi is keeping faith with a pure diesel. The 6-speed transmission has been modified for use with the smaller engine.

Today’s Audis sport eye catching LEDs, and it’s the same for the R18. Those imposing headlights, which are the first to completely consist of LEDs with optimised amount of light, are a technical highlight here. During the day, the lights form the shape of a “1”, inspired by Audi’s historic brand logo, not 1Malaysia.

Development of the R18 started in mid 2009 while the V6 TDI has been running on the dynos since the summer of 2010. This car completed its first track test with Allan McNish at the end of November. The planned race debut is at Spa-Francorchamps 6 Hours in May 2011. Prior to that, the prototype will be able to lap Le Mans during the official test day on April 24.

Le Mans 2011 happens on June 11-12. Audi will field three R18s, which will be entered by Audi Sport Team Joest. The team will contest the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, consisting of seven endurance races on three continents (including the Le Mans 24 Hours) with two cars. At the opening race at Sebring in March, the team will use two “R15 plus plus” cars instead of the R18. “Sending the R18 into a race at such an early point in time would be difficult in terms of logistics and interfere with our development program,” explains Dr. Ullrich.

Gallery after the jump.

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