What does it take a car maker to be acknowledged as a charter member of the blue riband sports car class? A class of car where it is as much about technology as it is about style, it is as much about power and torque as it is about how this is put to use, it is as much about aura and prestige as it is about race track success and a few more intangible bits.
Those who have dominated the senses are marques like Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Aston Martin, et al with a few others but then these are the uber sports car makers which have continued the dominance of the mind even though some of them might not have had active sports car racing programmes underway and that also includes perhaps Ferrari when it comes to outright LMP1 category machines.
One of the newest car makers to get into the sports car category with offerings across the range, read that as entry level as well as in the Ferrari-matching world, has been Audi and while the Audi TT has been its, for want of a better word, entry level offering, it has been its R8 mid-engined sports car with which it has gone Ferrari-hunting and Porsche-bashing! Ever since it burst on the scene, the R8 has been defined in the very role the 911 plays for Porsche – a versatile machine that can do the daily all round commute yet has the firepower and the essence to induce its pilot to take the long way back home every day.
While this usability factor lies at the heart of the R8’s success, it was also evident that as the rest of the rarefied pack at the top of the sportscar pecking order were adding firepower in their arsenal, they were also adding quick acting tech to get this power to fire at the earliest hint from the pilot at the helm. It was all about getting the 8, 10, 12 or 16 cylinders to ignite and unleash the torque so that the gut wrenching force was not just sent to the driving wheels, it was utilised completely so that the quickest off the blocks could work to the well begun is half the job done missive.
Thanks to its outright success not just at the Le Mans 24 Hours but also in the World Endurance Championship, Audi right now has eclipsed such greats as Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Bentley and Jaguar in the list of those who have stamped their authority at Le Mans and it lies just behind Porsche who has the maximum number of outright wins at the Sarthe circuit. The idea of using racing success and the technology therein to filter down to everyday use is a time-tested avenue but in the case of Audi, it has done much more in a period when no one thought motor racing could yet deliver meaningful lessons.
From the 4.2-litre V8 engine which got the R8 off the ground to the newest 5.2-litre FSI motor, both these are automotive powerhouses born and sharpened in the heat of competition, just like Ferrari and Jaguar did with their V12s and in-line sixes respectively but somehow somewhere one felt that while the R8s were good, they yet needed that extra tweak to transcend into greatness.
The good thing about this was that the engineers at Ingolstadt themselves were in the forefront of asking the tough questions and working to provide answers. The quest to shave off acceleration times, getting the in-gear roll-on times even lower and delivering silken punches en route remains the quintessential aspects of a big engine sports car as one goes through the gearbox.
Combine this with a near fanatical zeal to shed more weight, from an already lean package, alternative thinking on suspension and engine mapping plus many more tricks learnt on the race track have all been disseminated threadbare and the best of these learnings incorporated into the latest R8.
And as if to read our minds, Audi organised a drive session of the latest R8 versions on road and track to see how much its flagship has matured and gained clout where it matters, on road and track again! Based at the Misano circuit in the Rimini region of Italy, the drive was all about the latest V10-engined R8 cabrio and a hot new version of the similar engined R8 coupe but with the ‘PLUS’ moniker. Let’s take both these cars and what constitutes the major change on them both is an all-new dual-clutch 7-speed S-tronic transmission, one which replaces the former 6-speed, single-clutch actuated R-tronic.
Of course, like Ferrari, Audi also offers to those who like to stay in control, an exquisitely gated manual shift gearbox (even till today over 30 per cent of new R8 buyers specify this piece of kit) but there’s no denying that the new dual-clutch transmission was needed. In fact, it brings so much to the table and not just quick shifts as we experienced in the course of putting the V10 Plus over track and street.
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