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.
The R8 in V10 Plus version comes clothed only in coupe form and the one at Misano (on the renamed Marco Simoncelli circuit after the late MotoGP hero) also featured a striking matte surface treatment, Blue Sepang in Audi-speak. Gone are the magnetorheological dampers that are OE on the non-Plus V10 models giving the car that much needed raw edge with conventional hydraulic units and as if to acknowledge the increased power (550PS) and torque (540Nm) this R8 version comes equipped with carbon ceramic disc brakes all round. The essence of unsprung weight is very logically addressed thus and it shows in the way it lays its power on this tight and twisty MotoGP circuit.
It was amazing to think that this car with its ESP ‘Sports’ mode disabled (more an Audi safety issue considering a couple of Russian journos earlier in the day having written off one of these cars!) still had the zest and the nimble manners to tip-toe through the tight twisty bits of Misano and yet flow from corner to corner at an amazing rate of pace. Given its track to wheelbase set, the R8 is planted yet with so much carbon fibre now injected into the exceedingly stiff structure and massive savings in weight, all these ingredients along with the extra horses and twist force seemed to have made the R8 a better and easier to control machine out on the track.
Given that all R8s feature Audi’s patent all-wheel drive Quattro gear, that in the V10 Plus has now been programmed to deliver a minimum of 15 per cent torque to the front wheels in most conditions and should there be slippage, this figure doesn’t exceed 30 per cent, meaning those large long darkies from the Michelins were all about the rear end biting hard and following a controlled trajectory through every corner, especially the fast flowing sections on the at the back end of the Misano race track.
The new dual clutch ’box is a key ingredient and it delivers huge smiles all around. According to the Audi press info pack, the shifts are timed at 0.125 second to execute making cog swapping a most delightful operation which is of course accompanied by not just a good thump in the lower back as the V10 punches through but also there is the delightfully mellifluous exhaust audio, which has that manly tone as it rises in pitch and tempo.
Also there was something else which I couldn’t place a finger on till I had left the track and got into the hills around Rimini and that was the fact as to how civilised the R8 V10 Plus was on the track as well! It reminded me of the original NSX by Honda, the one car which came close to giving Ferrari a major fright!
This Audi then is the modern day offering closest in spirit to the NSX but with the firepower and the manners to play Jekyll and Hyde so very effectively. Even then the manner in which the rev needle bounced off the tacho on a couple of laps meant that the motor kept its quick spinning power delivery trait intact despite its civilised intent!
Hitting the hills we had to take the R8 V10 soft top and what was amazing to note was that the Spyder version has lost nearly a hundred kilos over its predecessor without sacrificing any of its legendary chassis stiffness! Even with 525PS and 530Nm of torque on call, this is truly one of the modern day classic sports cars one can buy.
In street guise the manner in which the cogs shift in the new 7-speed gearbox are silken and the whoomp whoomp exhaust notes are mesmerising in their delivery. It is best to experience this car with the soft top tucked out of the way and even on the hill roads, the wide low squat R8 was in its elements as a car one could use in any and every driving situation but with the ability to switch from nanny mode to wailing banshee in a split second.
The steering has a nicely weighted feel to it and when it is pedal to the metal, the tail squats and bites and from there on the car just rockets ahead with terrific grip which even if you have to make slight corrections in mid-corner, it doesn't upset the car’s handling balance – credit the chassis stiffness, suspension dynamics and of course quattro all-wheel drive! It is an amazingly well poised machine, and also beautifully crafted inside out, heightening the senses with its tactility and rich materials in the cockpit.
For the record, the R8 V10 Plus is a limited model offering so I am sure it will be rather rare in India but if I think that the R8 V10 in coupe and Spyder forms is just as potent and overwhelmingly so for use on our roads. With a top whack in the region of 312km/h and a zero to 100km/h time of a wisher under 3.6 seconds, this is a car with serious performance on hand. And as a brand shaper, the lord of the four rings couldn't have asked for anything better or more effective to take on the mind!
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