What if you could test your mettle a against a motorsports legend whose name is synonymous with speed and victory, all on on one of the best and most challenging racetracks in the world? It's like a dream come true. That's how Allan McNish must have felt when he learned he'd be doing a hot lap with me — Patrick George from Jalopnik!
At least, that's how this hot lap in a 2015 Audi S3 on the Circuit of the Americas right before Lone Star Le Mans played out in my mind. The reality probably wasn't like that at all. I'm told it rarely is.
While I lived in Austin a long time, I somehow never got to actually drive on the track. I wanted to very badly, either at a track day or a press event, but the opportunity just never came.
The Circuit is kind of special to me, and not just because it's cool having a world-class racetrack in your backyard. I wrote about the track's development when I worked at the newspaper in Austin and covered both U.S. Grands Prix for Jalopnik. Through all of that, and with other races I've seen, I have long wondered what it would be like to experience it from the driver's seat.
I finally got the chance thanks to Audi, who tied their press drive for the S3 into Lone Star Le Mans weekend. In addition to driving the car across Central Texas and hanging out at the track on Saturday, they snagged some hot laps for the writers on the trip.
And we wouldn't just be driving all willy-nilly, like a bunch of clueless jokers. We'd be following McNish, a three-time winner of both Le Mans and American Le Mans, as well as a 2013 World Endurance Championship winner.
Oh yeah, and he'd be in a V10 R8, while we'd be in the 292-horsepower S3. Super easy to keep up with that combo, right?
When we arrived at the track, the Audi folks and a rep from IMSA laid down the ground rules: It was a "spirited" parade lap, that was all, so no passing, no contact, none of that "I must drive flat out" idiocy. Basically , have fun, but don't be stupid, and remember it's not a race.
And because it's Texas, they also had to make sure none of us were drunk before we started. (We were, however, probably allowed to bring guns.)
But the pace would be quick, and everyone knows the Circuit of the Americas isn't for fools. It's a tight, technical, high-speed track, and things can go wrong out there.
I could practically see the Jalopnik headline in my head: Tudor Race Delayed Three Hours Following Parade Lap Crash, New Audi S3 Totaled, Four Auto Journalists Also Dead. That was not something I wanted to be responsible for.
I jumped into the back seat of an S3 and we were off. A few minutes later I found out my driver was ex-Jalopnik scribe Ben Wojdyla, whom I had never met before. Ben's a very good driver and he's been at this longer than I have. We got to talking about how his first time on the Nürburgring was in a Buick. I have never driven on the Nürburgring.
The S3s lined up, but we were so far back that I didn't catch a glimpse of McNish or his R8 until we lined up right around Turn 6. And with that, we were waved onward, running counterclockwise like they do in F1.
We weren't really certain how many laps we'd get. Wojdyla turned in the first one. Like I said, he was good. He knew how to handle a car at speed on a track like this. The car in front of us took sloppy line after sloppy line, and he could have passed, but he didn't.
After Wojdyla turned in his lap, we returned to the staging area at Turn 6. I can't remember if this was said by the guys at the track or over the radio, but they said "two laps." None of us knew whether that meant two laps total or two laps left, but I hopped into the driver's seat.
Now, I've done track days and autocross before, but I was still nervous. It's a high-level track, and maybe the fact that it was built for guys like Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel (well, maybe not so much Vettel lately) had me wondering if it was above my skill level.
Oh well. Too late to turn back now, even if I wanted to, which I didn't. I was off.
I wish I could sit here and give you a play-by-play of how to attack each corner at the Circuit of the Americas, and maybe I could if I spent more time out there. I was too busy concentrating on being smooth, finding the right line, and braking and accelerating properly out of the corners.
By the way, it helps that like most modern tracks, the Circuit has a ton of runoff areas if you get into too much trouble. Unlike, say, Spa, where if you screw up you're in a Belgian forest.
The really tricky parts of the Circuit are the hairpins. Turn 11 at the far end of the course was the hardest. My first time through went like shit, I'm pretty sure. After that is the back straight, where you can really cut loose.
I got the S3 up to about 115 mph there before braking hard for the tight left that is Turn 12. (Later in the day, I rode shotgun in a Dodge Viper TA whose driver got it up to 140 mph.) The sweeping "S" corner after 12 is tough too.
It's a special feeling though, blasting through the straight after Turn 20 with the grandstands on your right. No one was in them at the time, but it's still like passing through some hallowed gateway. For the briefest of moments, I felt like a racing driver.
That's silly to say, I guess. Maybe all of this is. Some auto writers I know have done this in a Porsche 918 Spyder, and plenty of people do it in actual race cars. But even in my lowly S3, I still felt pretty good.
Much to my surprise, Turn 1 — the uphill blind left that is arguably the Circuit's most famous feature — wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. Maybe I've played out in my mind the best line to take there, or maybe I've seen so many races from that vantage point (my favorite on the course) that I knew what not to do, or maybe I just wasn't in a fast enough car. Probably the last one, but I still thought I took it well both times.
So how was the S3 out there? It's good. It does more than fine on a track. It's got enough power to have plenty of fun, but not enough to overwhelm most drivers. I encountered far less understeer than I expected.
Most of my prior track experience was in my old WRX, and this car felt similar in terms of power delivery and even handling — a testament to how good Audi's Haldex-based all-wheel drive is these days. I think really hardcore drivers will covet more power, more on the edge handling, but the S3 still holds its own.
Here's the thing I love about being on a track: I have found nothing in life that requires the level of total mental and physical concentration that this does. Nothing. Even if it's just a simple track day, driving like this takes all of you, 100 percent at all times. And I love that feeling. I don't get to experience it nearly as much as I'd like.
I didn't get enough time out on the Circuit. I need to get back there soon, to learn what it has to teach.
You may be wondering if I ever chased down McNish. I didn't; we were so far back I barely saw his R8. From what I hear he set a pretty intense pace. Not surprising, considering what he can do in a car like that.
But hours later, I caught him in the media room when I was writing up some stories. Stef Schrader spotted him and we went over to talk to him. He was already chatting with some folks.
I told him I was one of the guys out on the track this morning in an S3, and that I'm sure he was deeply impressed — dazzled, even — by my driving skills. "I just wanted to come over and say you're welcome," I told him.
"So you were one of the ones at the back, huh?" he said with a grin. And we talked for a brief minute, about the S3 and other things. He was gracious and funny and seemed like a really great guy. It was a real pleasure getting to meet him.
I was feeling pretty damn good about myself for the rest of the day. A little later, I was introduced to Rowan Horncastle, who writes for Top Gear's website and magazine, by a mutual acquaintance. I told him I drove on the track earlier in an Audi S3 and I did pretty well.
"That's awesome, mate," he said. "I was out there earlier today too in a Porsche 911 GT3."
And then I went back to not feeling so awesome about myself.
Images credit Patrick George, Tilke, Audi