|June 26, 2007
Hockenheim Audi R8 Racetrack Experience
Recently members of Audi Club North America Ė seven lucky people in total Ė had the opportunity to drive the new Audi R8 at the historic Hockenheimring in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany. The Hockenheim Audi R8 Racetrack Experience officially started on June 5th with our check in at the Hotel WalkersHof in Reilingen, just a few miles from the Hockenheimring. The hotel served as the headquarters for the Audi driving experience and coordinated very well with Audi to provide just the right atmosphere for the event.
That evening we gathered in the hotel bar to formally meet each other and the event staff, and of course to fill out all the obligatory paperwork. Once everybody arrived we decided to sit outside for dinner since the weather was so nice. Our four course meal plus dessert was excellent, but the best part was that our driving instructors ate with us. With the action-packed next day ahead it was a luxury to be able to talk at length with Rob Kunst, Sepp Haider, and Harald Büttner the night before.
June 6th started bright and early with complimentary breakfast before being shuttled to the track at 8:15. Our arrival at Hockenheim was an event in and of itself given the history of the place. Behind the garages on pit road Audi had a race transporter truck set up with a tent attached to the side which would serve as our base of operations for the day. We could see the R8s parked out on pit road, but we were ushered into the tent before we had too much time to contemplate driving. Inside we found nice tables and a catering service, as well as a big plasma TV with Bang & Olufsen sound for classroom instruction.
We were soon comfortably seated and our instructors started to cover various features of the R8 with the help of videos. Harald gave the talk in German for the participants from Germany, and Rob repeated in English for the benefit of the North American drivers. Itís surprising how little translation is needed, however. As anybody who has attended a driving school knows some of the most important instruction comes in the form of hand gestures.
Since the cars used for the Audi Racetrack experience were equipped with the R-Tronic transmission, the instructors systematically talked through the four operation modes (automatic or manual mode, each with regular or sport shifting) and the various controls. They then gave a few pointers on how to correct understeer or oversteer, how to pick a good braking point, how to manage the throttle through a corner, etc. There were also a few tips on how to avoid hurting ourselves or the cars. Basically keep all four tires on the pavement at all times, stay away from the gravel traps, donít pound the curbs too hard and donít bounce off the rev limiter any more than necessary. Lastly, if all that fails then try to go off in a straight line and wait for help to arrive.
Starting early on and continuing throughout the event we were pleased that the instructors kept a good balance between technical content and making sure the focus of the event was on fun. We were encouraged to drive for our own enjoyment and at our own pace, not necessarily to keep up with the car ahead or to outrun anybody. Stepping back to think about it, Audi must be extremely confident in the R8ís capabilities if they are willing to let anybody drive it at full speed on a Formula 1 track after only 30 minutes of instruction! Itís clear from listening to the instructors and other Audi representatives that they are very proud of the car.
Finally it was time to get behind the wheel! Walking up to the cars, any questions about the styling disappear. In photographs the car can look a bit odd from certain angles, but in person every crease and bulge makes sense, and every fine detail on the car contributes to an overall stance that is extremely impressive. Even standing still or rolling around the pits at a walking pace, the car looks extremely racy and tough. The R8ís styling is so fresh and unique that it makes more traditional cars such as Ferrari or Porsche seem a bit plain and dated in comparison. One thing is sure: if an R8 appears in your rear-view mirror it will definitely get your attention.
At this point we got a quick tutorial on finding a good seating position and a last once-over of the controls. After getting in we found the tube-frame R8 supercar to have much more headroom than our sedan-based Coupe quattro 20V! So much for supercars being impractical. That said it is advisable to watch your head on the way in; the door frame is a bit low.
Between the big cockpit and the multi-adjustable seat and steering wheel, finding a good seating position was easy except for one problem: the headrests on the U.S.-spec seats stick forward so far that it is uncomfortable with a helmet. We found it necessary to recline the seatback a little more than normal in deference to this problem. We see this as a serious problem for a car that is going to see a lot of helmet use, but this design is the result of U.S. crash test laws and is (unfortunately) a common trait among most new vehicles today.
Other than that problem the seats were great, although not as good as the European seats which are similar to those in the European RS 4. U.S. airbag laws make it impossible to offer those seats in the States. The ďmonopostoĒ cockpit design really caters to the driver and makes you feel in command. On this note, the driverís door handle looks really odd when the door is open, but with the door closed it integrates perfectly with the hoop surrounding the driver.
We recommend to anybody buying this car that they order the piano black or carbon fiber interior package. The standard grey plastic monoposto is decidedly plain-looking and is not on par with the other interior materials, which are all perfect. The gauges are very well-organized and easy to read and the R-Tronic lever has a notable size and feel to it. Itís also perfectly located for shifting, although with the steering wheel paddles thereís no need to touch it once drive is engaged.
Vision out of the car is great. The A-pillars are a bit thick, but certainly not as bad as some U.S. cars. Rear view is exceptionally good considering how little room there is to see out the back due to the carís architecture. We honestly didnít look at much else in the interior. When at a racetrack with an R8, things like stereos and navigation systems just donít attract attention. All in all, the feeling inside the R8 is not that different from any other new Audi. Everything is where it should be, and one can just get in and drive without having to spend a lot of time getting familiar with the controls.
The sound of the engine on startup is magic Ė just the right mix of rowdy V8 and German precision. We also appreciate the restraint Audi showed by using a conventional key start rather than a trendy pushbutton.
Smoothly putting this car into motion from a full stop requires an extremely delicate touch on the throttle. Move it more than a millimeter and the car lurches forward quickly. Rob pointed out that the Driving Experience cars are all pre-production cars which may or may not have slightly different tuning than the final cars. The participants at these events are running test miles for Audi, which will later tear the cars down looking for any problems or ways of improving the production vehicles.
As has been true of Audis for many years, the driver can greatly vary the sound of the engine with the throttle. With only slight throttle, the car purrs extremely quietly and very polite for putting around town. Hold the throttle wide open, though, and the car really gains volume and attitude. It is remarkable how quiet the cockpit is considering the incredibly powerful engine located directly behind the seats.
The format for the driving school was an instructor in an RS 4 Avant leading four student R8s. There was constant radio communication between the instructor and student cars so we could receive tips as we drove. Each R8 had two participants who took turns driving. After each exercise the lead R8 would pull aside and let the others pass, so each driver got a chance to attack the course right behind the instructor.
We started out with a couple of low speed laps just to familiarize ourselves with the circuit and the R8. We were encouraged to try all the shifting modes and generally play around with the car on these laps to get comfortable with it. We started in automatic mode just to see what it was like, but very quickly changed to manual mode after only a few corners. The automatic mode is disconcerting because you canít always predict when a shift will occur. An unexpected downshift exiting a corner can upset the car slightly, as can an upshift while the steering wheel is turned significantly accelerating out of a corner. With R-Tronic, ďmanualĒ shifting is so easy there is really no excuse for not doing it yourself. And with this much torque on tap we wanted to be sure we were the one deciding when shifts occurred.
With the car in Manual mode, upshifts are harsh. In Manual Sport mode they are brutal. Every upshift feels like a minor rear-end collision. Keep in mind that the R-Tronic is a single-clutch transmission unlike Audiís dual-clutch S-Tronic system. Thus, when the R8 upshifts, drive to the wheels is briefly interrupted, throwing your body forward in the car, and then full power suddenly resumes in the next gear, slamming you back in the seat. On a racetrack this is great fun and gives the feeling of a true racing sequential gearbox. It also gives the driver a good means of bouncing his passengerís head off the headrest! Candidly, it may be a bit much for the street, although once again we canít help but wonder if this harshness may be a pre-production issue that can be addressed in software.
In contrast, downshifts are absolutely perfect. There is no jarring whatsoever, just seamless deceleration. The throttle automatically blips so the revs are matched precisely for the next gear, and the sound produced by this process is just beautiful. Going hard on the brakes and clicking the left paddle a few times entering a slow corner is pure fantasy land for any driving enthusiast.
After a couple laps for each driver to get his or her bearings the track was divided into three sectors, essentially the timing sectors you would see during an F1 or DTM race. We would now be learning the track at high speed one sector at a time before attempting a full hot lap.
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