Audi R8, Part 2: Welcome To The Racetrack!

Here it is, folks, the long-awaited sequel to Audi R8, Part 1! Some rumors have been making the rounds among our more conspiratorially-minded readers that the long delay was due to my imprisonment at an Audi-run rendition facility at an unnamed Eastern European location, on the orders of Audi brass enraged by my mentioning a '92 Honda Civic in the same breath as their übercar. Not true! The reality is less exciting (and more lame) than that: I just haven't had time to finish the damn thing. OK? Right, now let's head over to Infineon Raceway!

Audi R8, Part 2: Welcome To The Racetrack!

See, Audi has this swank setup at The Racetrack Formerly Known As Sears Point; it's all part of their Audi Driving Experience program, in which Audi owners get to hoon it up on the track under the supervision of pro drivers. As a certified Doctor of Automotive Journalism, I was permitted entrance to the sacred confines of Audi Driving Experience HQ...

Audi R8, Part 2: Welcome To The Racetrack!

...where they have this eat-off-the-floor-clean garage full of European-spec Audi machinery, all powered by variations of the godly Audi V8.

Audi R8, Part 2: Welcome To The Racetrack!

They had all the little details covered for me and the rest of the journalists at the track, from the Audi-branded sunscreen and tins of M&Ms...

Audi R8, Part 2: Welcome To The Racetrack!

...to "carbon fiber" Audi-branded bottled water. And that brings up an observation about the Audi PR operation that I think is relevant here:

Audi R8, Part 2: Welcome To The Racetrack!

When we got to our hotel rooms the night before track day, each of us got a USB flashdrive full of a bunch of images and specs of the cars that we could use when writing our stories. That was nice and all, but what if a journalist had a laptop with only a couple of USB ports, and both were needed for other devices? Why, that journalist would have to unplug his or her mouse or whatever to plug in the Audi flashdrive, resulting in an unacceptable inconvenience. So what they did was give each of us a 4-port USB hub (Audi-branded, natch). The super-competent Audi handlers had this kind of attention to detail right down the line, too, prompting me to think that if their engineering and manufacturing operations have their shit wired anywhere near as tight as their PR squads, their cars must be well-built indeed. Clever, those Audistas.

Audi R8, Part 2: Welcome To The Racetrack!

We got a quick lecture about the dos and don'ts of the Infineon track from one of the Audi pro drivers.

And then it was time to go make some V8 noise at the track. Listen to that! Yet the engine sound inside the R8 is quite muted; your tax-attorney R8 buyer doesn't want to have noise interfering with his important phone calls while driving, you know. However, the official Jalopnik Point-O-View™ on the subject is that an engine that sounds this good outside the car needs to be all snarly and loud inside the car as well.

All right, rant over (but if I ever buy an R8, the sound insulation is coming out and Cherry Bombs are going in). Audi's pro drivers had a fleet of RS4s, which they used to pace us around the track and make sure no hoon journalist was going to stuff a $130,000 car into a wall. The pros were very polite Germans, full of helpful pointers about the cars and the track. They didn't even lose their cool when one journalist (who shall be left mercifully unnamed) spun an R8 into the weeds and missed a wall by a foot.

So, driving the R8 already! What's it like? The day before, Gizmodo editor Brian Lam and I had taken an R8 for a little drive in the twisty mountain roads near the Wine Country resort at which Audi was putting up the journalists for the event. Sadly, we spent most of our drive stuck in construction zones, creeping along at an average speed of roughly 11 MPH and feverishly searching the sound system's SD memory cards for tolerable music. But we did manage to do a little bit of enthusiastic country-road driving, during which I learned the following:

  • The R8's brakes can apply sufficient negative Gs to separate your retinas.
  • You need those brakes, because the R8 is so effective at shielding you from engine noise and road imperfections that you will often be going much, much faster than you think when you're getting into the groove of driving a curvy mountain road. You're not isolated from the road, since you can feel what the car is doing well enough, but a glance at the speedometer can give you a quite an "Oh, shit!" moment.
  • Audi's all-wheel-drive and stability-control systems are pretty good at keeping your R8 out of a ditch when even those amazing brakes aren't enough.
  • I'm not a good enough driver to get anywhere within shouting range of the R8's handling limits- and I wasn't going to try to push the car really hard on a public road, anyway - but the thing sticks to real-world potholed asphalt in a zero-drama manner that makes me suspect Audi has harnessed quantum physics and installed a device that takes advantage of the Strong Nuclear Force to hold the car down.
  • Don't put the R-Tronic automatic transmission into full-auto mode when you have to do any sort of driving requiring stopping and starting. In fact, don't buy the R-Tronic in the first place.
  • The R8 doesn't attract anywhere near as much attention on the road as you might think.

Audi R8, Part 2: Welcome To The Racetrack! Now let's return to Sears Point, where I didn't have to worry about killing innocent bystanders if my racetrack n00bness became an issue. Here's where it might be helpful to know that all my previous racetrack experience is confined to dragstrips; while I've driven plenty of Detroit beasts with more V8 power and worse brakes than the R8 and never done anything worse than break parts, the sum total of my knowledge about driving on racetracks that aren't straight lines is "don't brake in the turns" and "don't hit stuff." But I figured, hey, might as well start with Sears Point (er, Infineon), right? And I'm driving an AMC (A in't M y C ar) here, so: yeehaw!

Audi R8, Part 2: Welcome To The Racetrack! We had a dozen or so journalists and only a few R8s, so those who didn't throw vicious enough elbows on their way to the cars had to settle for RS4s and S5s their first time out. Thus, my first taste of behind-the-wheel Infineon action came courtesy of an RS4.


That was fine with me, though- I figured the RS4 couldn't be anywhere near as nuts as the R8, so a couple laps in one will be good practice. But the RS4 has pretty much the same godlike V8 as the R8 and turns out to be much more of a handful on the track (it also sounds just as good, as the video above should illustrate). I just dumped the clutch and slammed through the gears uphill to the first sharp turn... at which point all the Quattro and stability control in the world couldn't keep the car pointed in the direction I had in mind. Figuring that was nothing more throttle couldn't solve, I hooned my way around the track for a highly dramatic- but embarrassingly slow- lap, brakes pouring smoke from the stability-control computer's frantic attempts to keep things sane. At that point I suspect the Germans weren't too enthusiastic about the idea of letting me behind the wheel of their flagship car.

Audi R8, Part 2: Welcome To The Racetrack! Thing was, Audi's 4.2 liter V8- did I mention that it is God in mechanical form?- is just so damn intoxicating when you don't have to worry about getting T-boned by cross traffic or busted by John Law, and I just didn't care that the car was sliding all over the place and the other journalists were running way faster laps then I was. I just wanted to rev the piss out of it, all the way up to the absurd 8,250 RPM redline, and then get to the next spot on the track that would allow me to rev the piss out of it again.

Audi R8, Part 2: Welcome To The Racetrack! Luckily for Audi, before I went and set the speed record for an R8 sliding on its roof, I had the chance to learn what the hell to do on a racetrack. That's because one of the other journalists was Jack Baruth , who was there to review the Audis for Dubspeed (check out his recent S5 article here ), and he was kind enough to sacrifice many precious laps of solo driving in order to give me a crash course in proper driving technique. You might also know Mr. Baruth as our own ViergangFuchs , and he holds the most important trophy in all of motorsport: Winner of the 24 Hours of LeMons! Yes, he was a member of Team Bernie's Revenge, driving a '86 Supra to the checkered flag at LeMons Detroit, and thus the ideal choice for Jalopnik-approved driving lessons (it didn't hurt that he's an extremely patient instructor, in stark contrast to my high school driving instructor, "Coach Bob," whose technique involved screaming, shoulder punches, references to the necklace of human finger joints he'd brought back from Khe Sanh, and a twin-brake-pedal-equipped VW Rabbit). Since the R8s and RS4s were in most demand by the journalists, we used the S5 for my lessons.

The Code of Conduct to which I must adhere as a Doctor of Automotive Journalism forbids me from showing video of how slow I was at first; plenty of tire-charring drama and noise, but little speed. Once I started keeping my hands correctly positioned on the wheel and stopped worrying about blowing up the engine, Jack was able to concentrate on teaching me some fundamentals of throttle technique, the best way to deal with each of Infineon's turns, and so on. Above is a video showing Jack's low-key teaching style.

Then Jack took an R8 out for a few laps with me riding shotgun, at which point I understood the point of the big brakes, midengine setup, frame made from alloys containing lots of weird isotope numbers, etc. In the hands of a seriously skilled driver, the R8 goes where it's supposed to, doesn't do anything homicidal when it starts to lose its grip, and manages to get all its power from engine to road without excess theatrics. You just, well, go really fast.
Finally, it was my turn to drive the beast around the track. But... it really isn't a beast (well, at least not with the stability control turned on). The engine makes so much power over such a wide RPM range that you don't really have to shift much, the brakes will save your ass when you're approaching a turn like Old 97 in full panic mode, and when it starts to slide it does so in a predictable- and controllable- manner. When you get on the throttle, the engine seems to pull as hard at 80 as it did at 30. The seat holds you firmly in place and all the controls are where they ought to be and the whole experience feels so well-engineered.
And all that brings me back to my main complaint about the R8: it's an amazing example of the heights great engineers can reach with their work... but it's just not crazy enough. If I had R8 money for a car, would I buy one? No... but I might take that money and buy two S5s. Come back later, when I finally get around to writing the next review, and I'll tell you why.