Posted Mar 29th 2012 1:00PM
Audi's customer racing program with the R8 LMS has been an unequivocal success. Since the delivery of the first race car in March of 2010, more than 40 examples have competed in 18 different championships worldwide, racking up more than 100 victories. In 2011 the R8 LMS captured important wins at the 24 hour races at Spa and Zolder, as well as claiming a GT3 class victory at the Nürburgring 24 Hours. Most recently the R8 LMS won the Bathurst 12 Hour race in Australia for the second year in a row.
One of the places the R8 LMS hasn't had a big impact, though, is here in North America. For 2012, Audi did finally homologate a version of the race car for Grand-Am, but it's a version that's significantly changed from the model that competes in the European GT3 series. The aerodynamics of the car are less aggressive to meet Grand-Am standards, the 5.2-litre V10 is detuned by around 75 horsepower, and driver aids like ABS and traction control have been removed.
With the R8's success in motorsports internationally, Audi has hinted that it is currently looking at expending the car's presence to other racing series stateside. One man, James Sofronas, isn't waiting around for the good folks at Ingolstadt to take action, though. He got his hands on a pair of GT3-spec R8 LMS race cars and is in the process of homologating them for a racing series here in North America. He recently invited us to take a closer look at the R8 LMS and learn more about the car's domestic racing future.
Related GalleryAudi R8 LMS
Standing in a large workshop surrounded by more than a dozen Porsche and Audi street and race cars, we asked Sofronas, the founder and majority owner of Global Motorsports Group, what exactly he does. He simply answers, "I kind of wear a lot of hats." It's an understatement, to say the least. Sofronas keeps busy with what are essentially three full time jobs, handling the day-to-day management and finances of the shop, which specializes in tuning high performance European cars, as well as racing full time in the SCCA Pirelli World Challenge and the American Le Mans Series. He also provides complete support for no less than 15 clients' race cars including maintenance, prep, setup, logistics and data acquisition.
Despite dividing his time between so endeavors, Sofronas has been successful both on and off track. The Global Motorsports Group, which started in a small 1,200-square-foot shop, is now in a 15,000-square-foot facility and has a steady stream of Porsches, Audis, Lamborghinis and Aston Martins flowing through it to get a variety of upgrades. As far as racing goes, consistency is the name of the game for Sofronas. In more than 130 World Challenge race starts, he has 23 podiums, 40 top five finishes and 82 top ten finishes. Sofronas hasn't yet been able to take home a driver's championship, but he's come close, finishing second in 2009 and third in 2010.
For the most part, Sofronas' success in World Challenge has been with Porsche and the 911 GT3 Cup, and he admits that it has been helpful having his shop located across the street from Porsche Motorsports North America. "We have a huge relationship with Porsche," he tells us. "We will never take that relationship for granted." Even so, Sofronas can see the appeal of the Audis. "Fabryce [his business partner] is actually a really big fan, and I'm slowly becoming a fan of Audis. I've owned several street car Audis and I absolutely love them." Many of GMG's clients are also fans of Audi, so when an R8 LMS race car came up for sale in Europe, Sofronas thought it was the perfect time to get involved. "We showed it to our client and he was extremely interested in it. We ended up negotiating with the team manager over at Phoenix Racing, and we bought the car." After another client expressed interest, a second R8 LMS was also purchased.
The R8 LMS sitting in the GMG shop, the first of the two to arrive, is an impressive sight to behold. Nearly all of the bodywork, with the aluminum doors and roof being the only exception, are constructed of carbon fibre. This example has yet to receive a race livery, allowing the beautiful carbon weave to be seen. There are distinct differences from the R8 street car, from the intricate roll cage and the conversion to RWD, but Sofronas points out that there are lots of similarities as well. "Remarkably enough, a lot of this car is from the street car – the underpinnings, a lot of the suspension, some of the switch gear and even the paddle shifters," he tells us while we take peek inside the car. The engine is the exact same as the road car as well, which makes for a long life. Sofronas tells us that the engine is likely good for 20,000 hours of use before it will need a rebuild, an exceptionally long time for a race car.
As we previously mentioned, the GT3-spec version of the R8 LMS is significantly different than the one recently homologated for Grand-Am. It's one of the reasons why Sofronas wanted to start with a European version rather than one built for a race series on our side of the pond. "The Grand-Am versions frankly are muted versions of these," he told us. "They are restricted, they have less aero on the car, they have less clutch on the car, and they can't run ABS or traction control. It's a shame because together with all that the car is pretty impressive."
With no wish to compete in the Grand-Am series with the R8 LMS, Sofronas is looking to the same race series that he competes in with his Porsche. "We are in the process of negotiating with SCCA to find a home for this car in the Pirelli World Challenge series. They are a little more restrictive than FIA GT3, but they are broader than Grand-Am." Sofronas says that his own company will take on the task of the homologation process, developing a custom splitter and rear wing that fit within the rules of World Challenge." The splitter will be slightly smaller, restricted to 5.1 cm within the bodywork, while 10.1 cm will need to be shaved off the rear wing's depth.
As far as the 5.2-litre V10 goes, Sofronas thinks it will need to be slightly detuned, but not by much. The SCCA uses a horsepower-to-weight ratio to equalize competitors in World Challenge, allowing everything from 1,454 kg (3,200-pound) Cadillacs with over 500 horsepower to lighter Porsches with around 450 horsepower to compete in the series. "This car is closer to the Cadillac as far as horsepower, but it's a little bit lighter," Sofronas tells us. "Most likely we are going to have to run this car with a restrictor and a little bit of weight added to it, which is ok as long as it fits with the criteria of all the other cars."
Overall, though, Sofronas wants to keep the car as original as possible. As he points out, Audi spent millions of dollars developing the car and was able to make use of much more resources than are available to him. "The goal is not to change too much, because they've done a great job with the car. It's really to just make sure the car fits within the guidelines of World Challenge, and then we'll see how competitive we can be."
With Sofronas' involvement in the ALMS, we also asked if he thought that the R8 LMS could be modified to run in that series as well. "Absolutely," he answers. "In fact, I've had discussions with some of the management at IMSA, who sanctions ALMS, and there's no doubt that this would be a great car to run in GT2." The task of converting the car to run in the series would be much more involved, though, and Sofronas believes it would take more manufacturer involvement to make it happen. "Audi needs to get more involved in the homologation process for ALMS," he says. "It's a lot stricter. But there's no question this belongs in that series competing against Ferrari and Porsche and BMW. I see this happening a lot sooner than I thought a year ago. Now that we've got cars here, I think the opportunity is even greater."
For this season Sofronas has fairly reasonable expectations for the R8 LMS, especially considering both of his clients aren't professional drivers. "They want to try and run it in the series and go have some fun," he admits. "They're not out to win championships." Looking into the future, though, he sees plenty of potential for winning. He points out that in the last two years, every car in the World Challenge series has won a race. "There's no reason why this car, if it fits within the rules that they mandate, that it should be competitive and win races," he says. "It's just a matter of when." When that happens, of course, Sofronas hopes to be in the middle of it. "We would like to be the official race team for World Challenge. I think this is a first good step."