We're attending the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Audi and we figured we'd make the world's biggest endurance race even more interesting by driving from Munich to Le Mans in an R8. We've also had a brief chat with Audi driver Allan McNish, and if you haven't already, check out all the multimedia ways to enjoy the next four days from the Circuit de la Sarthe, then read on.
This car is the master link between what Audi does on the race track and sells on the road.
The R8 we've been driving – a white, 430-horsepower V8 coupe with the S-tronic seven-speed gearbox – is a bag of tricks when it comes to making a road trip, some of those tricks sublime. The obvious reason to want to do a road trip to Le Mans in an R8 is because, ahem, it's a road trip on occasionally unrestricted Autobahn in an R8. The next most obvious reason is that this car is, for the moment, the master link between what Audi does on the race track and sells on the road.
In truth, however, tied at number one is that we wanted to see if we could find a way to love the R8. Not appreciate it, not respect it, but love it – to want to rearrange our loins such that every meal passes through a long intestine shaped like The Four Rings and a short intestine that spells "R8." We drove the V10 Spyder and considered it Supercars for Dummies, so farcically easy to drive fast that it destroys the grading curve for supercar driving ability and, as an aside, supercar thrills. Since you can apparently teach a python to open doors, as soon as they teach one how to drive it will be able to podium in SCCA races if it's in an R8.
We'd been told the V8 was better balanced than the V10, yet it was more than balance we sought – we wanted soul. Ten days and 1,500 kilometers in (with another 770 kilometers to go before Le Mans), we're still looking for it.
But what we can say is this: This car is so [insert expletive] good that we can't honestly consider it a car.
It is, more accurately, tender violence.
The R8 does everything you want a supercar to do, but it does it – by supercar standards – mildly.
- The R8 does everything you want a supercar to do, but it does it – by supercar standards – mildly. That is the tender violence; other than in the design of its bodywork, it does not have a single hard edge. Not one. Even when you put it in Sport and get faster, harder upshifts and growling downshifts, it's like the coupe has only removed two of the five layers of inch-thick velvet between you and its machinations. But boy, can it take a beating.
- The new seven-speed S-Tronic twin-clutch gearbox is fine and an improvement over the old six-speed R-Tronic. We'd still prefer the manual.
It isn't that the R8 could be a daily driver, the R8 is a daily driver.
- It isn't that the R8 could be a daily driver, the R8 is a daily driver. If it weren't for the fact that we sit six inches off the ground, there's no back seat and everyone stares at us, we could be in an A4. It's that comfortable, that well-mannered, that sedate when you're not beating it up.
- You hardly see any of them, which doesn't surprise us, and their origins are mysterious to the uninitiated even in its homeland. We have seen more C5 Corvettes and just as many Mustangs as we have R8s. While in Munich we saw more Porsche 911 Turbos on a single day, before breakfast, than we've seen R8s in ten days. We've had two Germans ask us if it was based on the same platform as the Audi TT. None of the random locals we've met had any idea what Le Mans was.
- If you take one on a road trip, pack soft-sided luggage. And not a lot of it.
QUICK IMPRESSIONS FROM THE R18 DRIVER
We got 20 minutes on the phone with Allan McNish, the Scotsman teamed with Dane Tom Kristensen and Frenchman Loïc Duval for this year's race. They're already setting the pace for the entire field in practice and qualifying. Here are some snippets from the conversation:
On the technology of the LMP1 cars: Le Mans is probably one of the toughest tests of man and machine, with victory now defined by tenths of a second over a distance from New York to Los Angeles at an average speed of 130 mph, with 210 mph being the top speed.
The R18 e-tron quattro is probably the most advanced racing car in the world today
We have an open rule book – our engineers are free to play with their minds, and the R18 e-tron quattro is probably the most advanced racing car in the world today with the carbon gearbox, hybrid quattro system, chassis handling and dynamics. The GT cars are the slowest on the track and they're the supercars for regular people.
On the most difficult parts of the track to get right and on having to relearn the track every year: The Porsche curves, then Karting and Maison Blanche – it's hugely quick, quite narrow and it doesn't allow any, any error. If you're an inch off line you're an inch too close to the barriers.
The first stretch through the Dunlop Curve and Tertre Rouge sets up the lap – it's got a nondescript braking area and you've just got to figure it out. It's a difference of yards, but when you're going 180 mph a yard goes by in a flash.
[This year the] chicanes at Hunaudieres were retarmacked as well, and behind the apex, so grip is significantly higher – you just have to build yourself up for it. You're used to kind of sliding around, but you don't have that anymore.
On the differences between the R18 e-tron quattro and the R18 Ultra: What we've found when testing the e-tron quattro vs the Ultra is that there are benefits for both. In qualifying at Silverstone, for instance, the difference is a hundredth of a second between the two, but in races that extra bit of hybrid boost counts for more. [Loïc, driving the e-tron quattro at Silverstone] could get by cars because he had that little bit of acceleration that I didn't, and getting stuck behind a car before a series of corners could mean I'd be there a little longer.
And that was the early [e-tron quattro] – it's been developed, we've improved the power. We also found that if you have to save fuel it's easier to do with the hybrid because of the brake regeneration – you can lift off and you're saving fuel but you're also recharging the batteries for more power and boost later on.
If you want to win Le Mans as a manufacturer you've got to beat Audi. That's the benchmark.
On the state of the cars for this year's race: We're quick in the wet, quick in intermediate conditions, quick in the dry. All the drivers felt good in all the cars in all conditions. [At the time of writing, Duval beat last year's pole lap in qualifying by 1.5 seconds - ed.]
On whether it's accurate to say Audi has any competition, or whether they're just racing themselves: You race against the competition you have. Toyota's huge, they want to get to the top, they're fighting on and off the track to make changes to the regulations, and hey, there's nothing wrong with that – but it would probably be accurate to say that if you want to win Le Mans as a manufacturer you've got to beat Audi. That's the benchmark.
On whether Toyota's endurance racing program, which hasn't posted the best results this year, is suffering from the same issues as its F1 program [McNish drove for Toyota's F1 team]: It's very different to their F1 situation. The F1 program was very management heavy, there was a lot of influence from people that was not conducive to motorsports success. This one is being run by TMG out of Cologne and there's not so much 'overhead,' shall we say.
On how he and his co-drivers get the car ready for the race and deciding when to drive: There are definitely different driving styles. It's a bit early to say with Loïc and Tom because we're all quite fresh [McNish has been paired with Kristensen and Dindo Capello the past three years - ed]. Both Tom and I are good at car development. Dindo felt things in the braking zone that weren't important to me; he would talk to the engineers about that, but something high-speed related, that would be more me.
I quite enjoy doing the first stint and that sets the tone of the race, so I often get allocated to do it. When it comes to racing at night, and there's bits hanging off the car because you've been through it for a few hours, I don't think there's anyone better than Tom.
On the winning strategy: Stay on track. Pete [Mike Peters, the Champion Porsche dealer who calls strategy for Audi during US World Endurance Championship races - ed.] won a few races for Dindo and I in America even when we thought he was insane. I remember in Houston I came in for a pit stop six laps after I got the car, but it got us out into a gap that put us in the lead.
Don't ever bet your last million on Le Mans.
Le Mans is too long. There are three safety cars, for instance, so if you pit you have to wait until the next safety car comes around and that could be two minutes. With an average speed of 140 mph in the dry that's a lot of race distance.
On whether we should bet a million on him to win: If you've got $200 million, bet a million. Don't ever bet your last million on Le Mans.