Audi on the Porsche curves. Nice parking boys...
It is amazing the difference that a 6-inch sticker can make to one's mood. The initial excitement at being handed the keys to an Audi R8 for our team trip to the 2009 24 Heures du Mans was tempered somewhat by the revelation that this car, unlike the others, was not to be stickered in the way traditional for any self-respecting PHer making the pilgrimage to Le Mans.
It meant that my role in the pre-Le Mans PH car stickering party was limited to choosing where to put a GB sticker and then hanging around like the dateless kid at the school disco while Garlick attempted to completely re-skin a Focus in Smiley stickers, Riggers elevated his Morgan to genuinely cool status with an all-white scheme, Pete gave his M5 that touring car look with driver names on both passenger windows and Chris-R, well, demonstrated how not to apply stickers to a DB9. But that was pretty much the only downside in what turned out to be an astonishing few days behind the wheel of Audi's flagship model. 'Our' R8 was the V8 version, in Daytona Metallic (dark metallic grey to you and me) and contrasting silver side blade. Oh, and it had Audi's R-Tronic sequential paddle shift gearbox, of which more later.
Before the off. R8 unstickered but beautiful
First impressions are of a car that feels much smaller than you'd imagine in the flesh. Comparisons are inevitable with the 911, and this car sits neatly within a similarly small footprint, but is also considerably (60mm) lower than the 997 and feels smaller all over. Our car arrived at the same time as Autocar's
V10 model, but any slight inadequacy at being two cylinders down on our sister title has since dissipated; Autocar's
road test found that the extra performance offered by the V10 fails to compensate for the impact on ride and handling of that extra weight, and they still favour the V8. I'd love to know what any V10-owning PHer thinks of that view.
Looks are an entirely subjective thing, but then this isn't a road test so I offer no apologies whatsoever when I say that I think that this is a staggeringly pretty car. Small, well proportioned and with flowing curves mated to Audi's legendary finish, it just feels special, inside and out. While the LED daytime running lights are an acquired taste, here they seem to work, although I wondered if also including them in the engine bay was slightly OTT. It also seems to work much better in the flesh than in images, and when the PH convoy was joined for a time on the M25 en route to Dover by an identical R8, the rare opportunity for us both to admire our cars from the outside and moving at speed was too much to resist. The R8 is a comparatively rare car both here and in France, and we attracted admiring glances from the off in spite of a dearth of vinyl.
The world's most powerful laptop battery
The R8 had a simple task to perform; transport yours truly and all my camping gear to Le Mans and back in relative comfort and at considerable speed. While my inability to travel without the proverbial kitchen sink perhaps makes the first task an unfair ask, particularly given the relatively meagre front boot space, the R8 was mostly superbly comfortable and considerably fast. On the road the car is easy and unintimidating to drive, and at no times gives any hint that having the engine between you and the rear axle might cause a 'moment.'
Much of our drive to Le Mans was on excellent and ribbon-smooth French autoroute, but no self-respecting PHer should make the trip without taking in the N138 from Rouen down to Le Mans itself. Here, the R8 excelled on long sections of single lane A-road, interspersed with roundabouts, short overtaking opportunities and regular truck convoys. The R8's neutral handling, compliant ride (we left it with the 'magnetic damper' settings on the whole time) and ready acceleration helped us set the pace.
Racing Pete keeps PH from falling over
It was during this stretch that I also took the opportunity to sample both the DB9 and the M5 and, while the BMW was an astonishingly capable car, I found the DB9 markedly heavy and harder to hustle around bends with speed than the R8, even if its V12 engine note was rather more special. As for the speed, well it hardly need be said that with a 414bhp V8, and a potential 186mph top speed available, the car was more than sufficient for our needs, particularly given the presence of Les Flics
at regular intervals between Calais and Le Mans. You'll have to forgive team PH for not losing its licence and Audi's press car in the interests of testing their claimed top speed, but suffice to say that, when a long section of autoroute without any apparent hidden cameras presented itself, the R8 proved adept at devouring it with minimal additional fuss beyond that V8 yowl.
But about that gearbox, the elephant in the room of the Audi R8. Offered as a £5090 premium over the manual car, it promises 'swift and seamless gear-changing for an incredibly sporty drive' but doesn't really deliver it. While it's true that under acceleration, and with sport mode engaged, the 'box does offer quick upshifts to match the car's astonishing acceleration, in most other respects it seems to offer rather ponderous and lurchy shifting, particularly on low-speed auto downshifts around town. We haven't tried the manual, but we've read that this also suffers from a slow shift due to the slightly contrived Ferrari-style open-gate shift. The gearbox does let the car down, and a comparison with Audi's own excellent twin-clutch system is unfair (it won't cope with the R8's torque, and is very heavy) but perhaps inevitable.
Small but perfectly formed
Despite the model having been around since 2007, our Audi R8 attracted a huge amount of positive attention once at La Sarthe, and this partly made up for my nagging annoyance at not being able to identify myself as part of the PH convoy. At the St Saturnin British Welcome event on Friday, the R8 (with Garlick at the wheel) was waved through into the reserved parking area, leaving me (in his sticker-plastered Focus RS) to have a 'discussion' with the man on the gate about why my car was also as special as the Audi. I'm not sure that he was convinced, but eventually waved me in with about as stereotypical a Gallic shrug as I saw all weekend. When it came to leave, I was the first to claim the R8 keys.
Elsewhere in Le Mans the overtly partisan approach of the French spectators to the race itself (the cheer when Alexandre Premat crashed his R15 Audi after one lap was suprising and, frankly, rather embarrassing) didn't seem to extend to the road car. Everywhere I went in the R8 I saw nothing but smiles, thumbs up signs and cheery exhortations to 'give it some right boot' in a variety of languages. It always seemed rude not to oblige...
Cars line up, drivers head for a 'comfort break'
Like so many good things however, our time in the R8 was short, and home and a proper bed (I keep trying, but I'm just not cut out for a life under canvas) beckoned. Chris-R and I left early and ahead of the rest of the team and were surprised to find an Autoroute empty of French police and largely free of other motorists. Racing back to the Ferry at speeds more often than not firmly in the Plus Grands Vitesses category was fun and let that controversial gearbox work at its absolute best.
My Le Mans odyssey ended when I hit Sunday evening rush hour traffic on the M25, and I'm still pining for large piles of empty bottles of French beer, meat between bread that might be beef but probably isn't, and an Audi R8 as transport. Until next year.