Right on schedule, Audi has pulled the sheets off its next-generation Le Mans prototype. As had been rumored before the unveil, the R18 has abandoned the open-top design of its forefathers – the R8, R10 and R15 Plus – for a closed canopy to improve aerodynamics and reduce driver fatigue.

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The company hasn't worked with a clamshell since 1999, and we're guessing is has more than a little to do with Peugeot's 2009 Le Mans win. That victory is the only wrinkle in the Audi's domination of the world's most difficult motorsports race, and it's no small coincidence that work on the R18 began in mid 2009.

The R18 gets its grunt from a 3.7-liter TDI V6 engine, and while Audi isn't saying exactly how much horsepower or torque the oil-burner produces, we have to guess that the figures are nothing to sneeze at. Behind the engine is a new six-speed transmission, though the innovations aren't simply chained to the drivetrain. Audi used a single-piece construction carbon fiber monocoque to keep weight down and increase stiffness, and those epic all-LED headlights are the first make their way to Le Mans.

While Audi is planning to campaign a total of three R18 racers at the 2011 Le Mans race this summer, the vehicle's first appearance will be at the six hours of Spa on April 24. Click past the jump to see the full press release.


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