C3 + R8 = Impressed!!
The Audi Driving Experience - Enthusiast Program
Last week I was lucky enough to get an invite to the Audi Driving Experience at Texas Motor Speedway through one of my friends from work. The details were few, but there was no way I could pass up seat time in great automobiles along with professional instruction. So when do I show up?
The answer was Tuesday, 10/14 at 12:30pm. So Willie and I set off from work to head out to the track, allowing for time to get there early and get registered. We arrive at TMS, sign the waiver, and head to the infield to park. In one of the garages Audi has set up a great welcome facility - part dealer showroom with paint colors/interior options/Audi swag and literature on all their cars, part cafeteria with a great selection of sandwiches, pasta salad, hot/cold beverages, granola bars, and fruit, and part classroom fitted with nice chairs and a flat panel TV for the instructor's presentation.
We're greeted, registered, and have time for food and drink before the instructor comes out and gathers us for the classroom session. In the classroom we learn about the history of Audi and their Quattro All Wheel Drive, their racing history and heritage, and what separates their product offerings from other FWD, RWD, and even AWD competitors. Next was the basics of automotive physics - oversteer/understeer, weight transfer, friction circle, along with seating positions for performance driving. Once we had the basics covered it was time for our class of 14 to head to the cars...
First up was a quick introduction to seating and steering. They didn't spend too much time on this, but I did find their advice about how close to position the wheel helpful. We got in the new A4 and drove around a very tight course very slowly to practice the Audi endorsed 9 and 3 steering position and hand-over-hand turning. Nice looking car the A4 is, both inside and out.
A4s on the steering course:
After this we were divided up to two groups of seven, and our group went to an autocross course. The weather was very overcast and in the low 80s, but mostly dry with only light mist falling. We were met with A5 automatics and a short, mid-speed course. We were told we'd get 5 runs, all timed. Willie and I got in a gray A5 first with me in the driver's seat. I didn't see my times, but I was told they were all in the mid 25s. Willie hadn't turned a wheel in anger in some time, but quickly caught up and was running well. I wasn't expecting much from the A5 honestly, but it was a delight to drive and I completely forgot it was an AWD car. Very easy to toss and catch, good power - reminded me a lot of my former '98 M3 except a bit bigger and way nicer. The Audi exhibited none of the driveline crudeness or limited turning circle characteristics of AWD cars I've driven previously - both an '06 Subaru STI and Mitsubishi Evo. After everyone's 5 runs were up, we were done with the autocrossing...or so I thought.
Next up was an "accident avoidance" lane change course, followed by a panic stop course, both designed to show off the abilities of Audi's Quattro, abs, and stability control programs. These were done in the A4 and went pretty much as you would expect - anyone with any basic autocross experience has done a lane change course and the only real news here was that it was starting to rain.
Accident avoidance A4s:
After the stability courses, we were surprised with more autocrossing! This time we all used a bogey car - A5 with "S" package 18" wheels and higher performance summer tires -. We'd get 1 practice and 3 timed runs, this time without passengers - this time results were being recorded for bragging rights. Nobody else wanted to go first, so I hopped in the A5 and gave it a go. By this time the rain was coming down hard enough to warrant umbrellas, windshield wipers, and careful throttle application on the autocross course. My times were all in the 26s with the best being a 26.23. The next closest person in our group of seven had a 27.9, but the other group had yet to run.
Lots of rain, with a Q7, base A5, and Bogey A5 "S" in the background:
After our second run at the autocross course we were in for a true delight. The rain stopped and we walked across the street to a line of S5s with manual transmissions parked on the infield road course. After getting some complimentary Audi head socks and the use of loaner Arai helmets (very nice, BTW) we were given instruction to keep a 5 car length max from one another and told to go get in our cars. Willie and I made sure to get in the car behind the instructor so that we could keep maximum pace and consistent laps. The cars all had radios and the instructors were constantly coaching and giving good insight as we made our warmup lap.
I had run the TMS infield course before with the Texas Region SCCA, albeit in modified form for autocrosses, but I've never done any sort of lapping event. This time we were on track with the S5 and were able to run the full course and got in probably about +-15 laps, plus warmup and cooldown. The S5 is a 2-door M3 competitor that has V8 torque and AWD stability and traction. The car is heavy, but the power, brakes, and AWD system make it both entertaining and forgiving. If you were late with the brakes the car would let you know with understeer, but overall if you were mindful of physics and looked ahead the car was a very rewarding drive. The brakes were powerful and never had a hint of fade. The steering was pleasantly quick without the nervousness associated with the STI/Evos I'd driven before. After my laps were up, we pulled off and switched spots so Willie could get his laps in. The session was uneventful and our groupings were good and tight, although there was one straggler in an Audi TT during Willie's run group that kept causing the instructor to slow down to bunch us back up. All in all the S5 is a great luxury performance tourer and was more than up to our abuse.
Audi knows how to build cars, and they also know how to save the best for last. Once we were done with the S5s, we were thrilled to get to go to the other side of the paddock and get in their flagship sports car - the R8. Our instructors asked if anyone had a transmission preference, so of course I selected the manual and again slotted in behind the instructor to get in some consistent laps. The R8 is just a sublime car - from the interior with great looking red-lit gauges, a wonderful gated shifter ala Ferrari, exposed carbon fibre body panels, HUGE brakes, and a perfectly sized and shaped steering wheel. I was shocked that my 6'5" self fit just as well in the R8 (even wearing a helmet) as I did in the pedestrian A4.
R8 interior - a great place to burn some dinosaurs:
After we got in and had a quick reminder of our 5 car length max for the lead/follow over the radio, I fired up our R8 and set off. Even on the warmup lap it was obvious that this was much more intense anything I've ever experienced in a car. The course was run in 3rd gear - the R8's V8 had plenty of grunt to get us out of the corners, and the 100mph top end of 3rd was about our top speed at the end of the still-drying straight. There were a few times I shifted to 4th and maaaybe hit 110, but overall 3rd was perfect for the entire course.
If God's hands look like this, don't be surprised:
The brakes slow you so much better than you can imagine a car stopping - so much so that you almost cannot believe it - but they were also the source of my only gripe with the R8. On full braking the rear end of the car would get very light and start to oscillate a bit - perhaps a function of the car's rearward weight bias, but still a slightly unsettling characteristic at the limit. The good news is that once you lessen brake application and begin steering input, the car changes direction lightning fast and is as neutral as any modified car I've ever driven. Once you're ready to roll into the throttle the 420hp V8 featured elegantly behind the rear glass has a chance to prove it's not there just for looks. The sound is just perfect - a lot like the AMG Merc V8s in that it is deep, throaty, and you'd expect to hear it out of an American car just as easily as out of something German. The thrust provided is even better than the sound, as the AWD and suspension worked in beautiful harmony to propel me towards the next braking zone at a rate beyond anything I'd ever experienced. The R8 literally never did anything I didn't want - always reliable in covering for my being too late on the brakes, forgiving when trying to hit a slightly missed apex, and never once exhibited a bit of understeer or oversteer. I don't know how Audi has done this, but my have they done it.
The heart of the beast:
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the R8 was that as Willie and I lapped the car, probably 30-40 laps between us - the AC was on the entire time throwing 60* air at us. Afterward while talking we both mentioned that during the session we had noticed we'd actually gotten cold from the AC throwing cubes at us the whole time. It was like driving a jet powered freezer! Sure you can go faster cheaper - but not with AWD and certainly not in more comfort. The damn thing made me a bit nauseous while Willie was driving, too, but I wasn't alone! One lady in the other run group had to stop the car while she was driving to puke! At least I kept my sammich down...
In all, my impression of the Audi brand skyrocketed today. After 4 hours in all their major models, I think they have the hardware to be the major player in the German luxo-sport market. The new A4, A5, and S/R models are great cars, but as most enthusiasts know their reliability has been suspect over the years. I had another coworker who spent many thousands trying to fix his older S4's electrical problems only to give up and sell the car in frustration. Once I see Audi fix those problems, they will move into BMW's territory on the list of German cars I'd buy. Given the performance, interiors, and good looks of their new offerings I hope the reliability will soon follow. Maybe by then I'll have saved enough pennies for an R8...
Oh yeah, I wound up losing the autocross to a guy from the other run group. His time in the dry was 26.07, and mine in the wet was 26.23. Stupid rain!
Loading up, Tuesday was the last day for the Dallas event: