These days, your average Le Mans prototype race car doesn’t so much resemble a car you can buy as it does a 90-million-Euro single-seater multirole fighter jet with twin turbofan engines, capable of 20,000 afterburner-propelled pounds of thrust, a 65,000-ft service ceiling, and 9 g turns, carrying eight tons of bristling weaponry, including HARM, Brimstone, and Storm Shadow air-to-surface missiles, and all the buttons, gizmos, geegaws, screens, and fail-safe computer redundancies that would give Gemini-era NASA engineers collective aneurysms.
And at the highest levels of endurance racing, as with Audi and its R18, the cars start to look less like cars and more like—well, a Eurofighter Typhoon.
So, the official Audi publication Encounter (aka “The Audi Technology Magazine”) put the two together: Audi driver André Lotterer and Geri Krähenbühl, the Eurofighter’s chief test pilot. Lotterer, a three-time Le Mans winner, set the fastest lap record at Sarthe in 2015.
Krähenbühl, who trained at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, is one of the few people in the world qualified to fly the Messerschmitt ME262—the world’s first production fighter jet.
Both men poked about each other’s respective vehicles, or their “offices,” if you’re of the hilariously humblebragging kind. “I was a bit shocked by how little you can see out of it,” said Krähenbühl, the test pilot, inside the R18: “I also found all the buttons pretty confusing. The clutch and a few other switches are intuitive, even for me, but the rest of the operating logic is extremely unfamiliar to me.” See, above, where Krähenbühl explains to Lotterer which button to press to activate the inflight movie, Terminator: Salvation.
“Obviously the sheer extent of the instruments and possibilities are fascinating,” said Lotterer, the Le Mans driver. “You can hardly compare a car, which moves in two dimensions, with an aircraft that moves in three dimensions. Perhaps people who already have a pilot’s license would be able to grasp the operating logic faster. I don’t have one, so a jet cockpit is something entirely new to me.”
Comparisons come naturally. At its optimum altitude, the Typhoon is capable of reaching Mach 2, or 1,550 miles per hour. At the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year, the R18 achieved 186mph. Under braking, it experiences up to 4 g in deceleration, but unlike Krähenbühl in the Typhoon, Lotterer does not need to wear anti-g pants. “The aerodynamics of a race car are entirely focused on ensuring it doesn’t take off, while, in flying, we want to get off the ground as quickly as possible,” said Krähenbühl.
What does it feel like to break through the sound barrier? Encounter asked.
“In a modern aircraft like the Eurofighter,” said Krähenbühl—who began his career flying Hawker Hunters in 1984—“it’s quite unspectacular.”
Europeans are rightly proud of their name-bearing Eurofighter, as this isn’t the first time the Typhoon has taken on its four-wheeled Transformer prop. In 2007, in one of the show’s most memorable films, Top Gear pitted a Eurofighter Typhoon against the Bugatti Veyron in a race to see who could cover two miles faster: on the ground or in the air.
With a thrust-to-weight ratio of over one, the Eurofighter is capable of accelerating vertically immediately after takeoff. “From brake release up to flight level 360 [36,000 feet] at Mach 1.3 to 1.4 takes just 90 seconds,” explained Krähenbühl. “It moves like a bat outa hell.”