Thursday, December 6, 2007

Audi R8 Track Drive (ADE III)

Audi Circles: the R8

"Dip the clutch again, select first, and strive to pull away with stalling and embarrassing oneself", was the mantra going through my head, and it must have worked OK because the R8 set off down the pit lane cleanly. Gear change feels like it has some heft to it, at least compared with various other Japanese or German boxes I've used, but it perfectly complements the steering weight and the seriousness implied by the toothed selector plate. (I now fully appreciate that famous Ferrari "snick-snick" noise people talk about as the gear lever slots from gate to gate.) Throughout all the laps I drove I never once got the wrong gear and very soon built real confidence in what I was selecting and how long it would take. (Minor initial niggle - that machining on the gear knob - see the photo in the last post - was a bit of surprise, and if you were really charging and working the box hard it might be an issue. After reflection, though, my advice would be: Wear gloves and/or suck it up! Once used to it then to me it just helped the hand connect with the mechanical action of the box and would stop it slipping off if things got a bit hectic and sweaty. Again, lovely design touch, doubtless based solely on feedback from the test mule drivers.)

OK, by now we are in third gear and heading up the hill at Infineon. Turn-in is sharp and precise, body roll is .... is .... well, basically missing-in-action. Here's the most remarkable thing about this car: the suspension is always as firm as you need it to be, self adjusting as you corner, accelerate or brake. Don't know how much change the electronics allow, nor what the difference would be between "Sport" (the setting I used) and "Normal", but this car just gives you enormous confidence as you move around the track. I've never driven a road car with this kind of flat-feeling dynamic. My 911 has the sport suspension set up but at these speeds you'd feel it moving around, balancing forces, dipping and rising, and generally acting like it was a drunk row-boat captain in comparison. Sure, not really a fair benchmark - 8 years and nearly $80,000 separate the two - but even so the Audi chassis is in a division all of it's own.

Reinforcing the driver-focused nature of this beast, within three or four corners I was happily heeling-and-toeing. The pedal alignment is perfect, setting the throttle foot in a place where just a slight flex to the right blips the engine revs right to where you want them to be. I also found that the seemingly flywheel-less nature of the engine meant that if you over-cooked the revs they would just drop instantly to the right figure as you raised the clutch. Remember the following: No inertia, no lag! Again, jumping into some cars it can take me forever to adapt and make this technique flow, and sometimes it never works at all. Not here though, it's like the whole car, every control, is poised, waiting for new inputs and then almost telegraphing them before you act. Addictive stuff.

As the pace picked up (dictated by the now increasingly frustrating lead-follow approach) the R8 just carried on delivering the goods. Despite all the protestations over the radio to stick to third gear, I was now using second, third and fourth, following close enough to try and speed things along but without getting so close as to get the instructor all riled. Brakes were strong and firm, the pedal reacting to pressure and not going all soft and relying instead on how far you press it down in order to meter out the required level of retardation.

Despite the short few laps allowed, at least it was a chance to use full throttle in places, get the speed up (over 120 in sections), work the suspension and lean on the brakes. With a car at this level of performance, getting even this far into the envelope would be hard to do without either endangering yourself or your licence! This engine is a revelation, revving freely, instantly and delivering a very decent slug of power throughout the rev range. It's a testament to the platform that it will easily absorb the forthcoming V10 version of the R8 and the 500+ bhp that this will bring. And given the noise that this V8 version delivers, the V10 will doubtless set-off every car alarm within a hundred yards. Can't wait.

This car is a revelation. It's streets ahead of any other road-going Audi, clearly overlapping with that other stable mate in the Audi portfolio, namely Lamborghini. However, this is a car that you could more likely use on a daily basis and which delivers equivalent performance to the smaller Lambo in a package that is more graciously styled and likely better nailed together.

Competition? The 911 C4S would be the obvious comparison point, at least on paper. Having not driven the latest version I can't really offer much insight here (but if anyone out there has one they'd like to let me drive I'd be happy to oblige!) However, I've got the feeling that Porsche are presently getting their Germanic heads together to try and work out how to raise their game so they can compete because, quite frankly, I think the R8 would win.
(Course, instead of competing, Porsche may just buy the VW group instead ... stay tuned.)

No comments: