Audi R18 e-Tron Track Test
"What's that noise?" says video man Anthony Esposito. It's an industrial, thrashing, threshing, gnashing sound, not unlike the fiendish metal shredder that eats cars at a recycling plant. "Yikes, man, is that the R18?!" I say as the racket echoes off the walls of the nearly empty Misano Circuit on the Adriatic coast of Italy. Just hearing this technological wonder when not blurred by the cacophony of other racers is one of the many pleasures of this incredible experience. I'm going to test drive the very Audi R18 e-tron that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans just a couple months ago. It still wears the actual grime from that victory. I love when they show and store race cars with the battle scars intact.
My R18 No. 2 is headed straight to the Audi museum -- if we don't crash it first. A few lucky writers have been invited for a taste of one of the engineering wonders of the world, and we are lectured politely and pointedly about driving with respect. It's clear the corporate enthusiasts who push for racing need to do all they can to justify the expense, and I'm one of the blessed recipients of the result, thanks to Motor Trend and a few old friends from when I drove for Audi 10 years ago.
The Audi R18 was new, again, for 2014 and matches a four-liter V-6 single-turbo diesel churning the rear Michelin slicks with 540 horsepower and 600 lb-ft of twist to a flywheel accumulator and electric motor generator unit that sends another 228 horses and gobs more torque to the front O.Z. mag wheels (they really are magnesium). Do the math. Wow. It seems nearly all the world's fastest cars are hybrids now, race and street -- who'da thought? This contrapuntal, environmentally sensitive choice for a resource-romping race car is the result of the latest FIA regulations for the top-dog P1 prototype category that allow kinetic-energy recovery systems (KERS) to emphasize efficiency. While historically racers have been limited on power via engine size, revs, air restrictors, and such, these new rules control the energy per lap. Fascinating. Officials constantly monitor the energy used, and if a driver uses too much, there's a painful time penalty, and you only get three laps to average it out. That can lead to frustrating situations for drivers, who might be instructed to lift off the power early at the end of a straight, where it saves the most energy with the least loss of time. It's yet another strategy for keeping racing alive for those of us who love it while also creating some useful purpose for it.
What I love about these rules is that they open the door to creativity and the advance of technology. Designers have a lot of room to decide how to most efficiently generate speed. Audi Sport and its esteemed leader, Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, chose the diesel engine and a flywheel energy storage system. Rather than batteries, the R18 stores its braking energy in a spinning carbon-fiber flywheel, located in a box next to the driver, that turns nearly 150,000 rpm. That's the e-tron part of the equation. This momentum in a bottle is then delivered back to the front wheels in careful measure, limited by the rules, and at precisely chosen times on track -- I'm guessing the beginnings of the longest straights.
"The R18 goes otherwordly at speed as the aero antes up to godlike grip."
At dinner the night before, I sat next to Ullrich and was entertained and enlightened. I strained pitifully to ask worthy questions. Afterward, I was handed a 16-page booklet on how to start and drive the R18 with instructions to study it and then place it under my pillow, the better to encourage osmosis during sleep. It was, after all, already 10 p.m. I read it over and over with droopy eyes, not wanting to be the fool who stalls leaving the pit or punches the wrong button and causes a nuclear holocaust. The steering wheel alone bristles with 23 buttons and dials, plus shift lights and a small digital screen including lap time, tire pressures, energy used, and more. And that's just the front. The rear of the wheel adds another eight switches you cannot see, including shifters and the hand clutch. The dash to the left has 10 more, plus KERS lights, including red ones that warn that 170 kW want to zap you. If you must leave the car when the red lights are on, jump off. Do not step down and complete the circuit to ground.
Early next morning at Misano, I'm scheduled second in the R18. I watch as 2014 Le Mans winner Marcel Fassler warms it up, utterly at home. Then he takes me around in an Audi RS 4, and I smile as I hear myself in his words of guidance to his unknown passenger: Apex very late here, careful in this curving brake zone. Next I drive an A4 TDi with R8 'Ring 24 Hours winner Markus Winkelhock as co-pilot, doing an out lap, a hot lap, and back in. OK, three laps, ready, bring on the R18 e-tron. Now, was Turn 13 the flat-out kink, or was it 12? I barely know the track.
I step on the sidepod and slide into the cockpit. Their seat choice is perfect, securing me firmly from shoulders to thigh. The foot box is level with the seat bottom, high and small, bisected, all brake pedal left and all throttle right, left-foot brake only, hand clutch, no dead pedal. Leena Gade, the team engineer, is one of their secrets to success. She is all business, her English accent a comfort in my ear as the crew rolls me out of the garage. Main, on; radio, check; mode, four; ASR, 10 (full traction control); DMS (hybrid system), on; clutch, left finger; first gear, right finger; pit speed limiter, right finger; start, right thumb; full throttle (yep, full—the car knows). Thrashing, thresher engine racket; ease out clutch hand (just like my bikes -- I got this); nice, wide engagement; roll out; tall, tall first gear; pit exit; kill pit speed control; instant torque. Rev limiter! Shift limiter! Shift faster, all lights! Lordy, this thing goes through gears in the wink of an eye. Cue Wagner. Here we go.
The big pre-warmed Michelins stick, braking is strong and without much effort. The KERS is almost like a power assist. First corner slow, and decreasing, big push. Throttle on, not much happens. Straighten wheel, moon shot! ASR traction control is cranked up -- can't blame them for that. Gear, gear, gear, shifting almost as fast as I can flick a finger, with seamless acceleration, like a jet. The sound is homogeneous; it's hard to hear revs change, so I depend only on the lights -- there's no tach anyway. There is huge instant torque, and the car is planted, no squirm at all. Brake zones are the same, dead-on straight, with a minor vagueness I attribute to spinning up the flywheel. Up the back straight in fifth and sixth, shifts finally spread out, and we razor into the undulating 140-mph kink. Here the R18 is at its best, downforce fully engaged, stuck like all your handling hopes and dreams come true. Steering response is instant, yet confidence is high. I just know it's gonna hold.
I wish I knew the track a little better. Brake, brake, brake, pushing wide, the apex is over there, stupid. Grip is back to earth, pushing in, then snapping sideways in the $30 million museum piece, then the ASR kicks in and spoils the party -- or saves my career -- and as we unwind the wheel, we pound away, pinned back, pulling gears as the KERS does its payback thing, no squirm at all. Quattro, baby. The R18 is a normal, wonderful race car at low speed, stiff and a little hard to read at the limit, then goes otherworldly at speed as the aero antes up to godlike grip.
In sum: high tech, high torque, high downforce. Gade says, "Box this lap," and I cannot believe it's over already. Just a taste, a tease, a glimpse of the holy land. Go to mode 12 to discharge the hybrid system, then DMS off to disengage it, then pit speed, hand clutch, shift downdowndown, stop in pit box and turn it off with the start button. Like Windows, I chuckle. Chariot of the gods.
I left wanting more but oh so grateful for this mind-blowing shot at the current Le Mans-winning R18 e-tron. I came away impressed with the honesty of purpose at Audi for using race technology on the street. Or is it vice versa? TFSI (direct injection), TDi (diesel), VTG (variable turbine geometry), ultralight weight, e-tron Quattro (hybrid all-wheel drive), and Matrix LED lights are all found on both. Vorsprung durch Technik -- advancement through technology, indeed.
|2014 AUDI R18 E-TRON|
|BASE PRICE||$30 million (est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Mid-engine, AWD, 1-pass, 2-door race car|
|ENGINE||4.0L/540-hp/600-lb-ft* turbodiesel DOHC 24-valve V-6 plus 228-hp* front electric motor|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed sequential manual|
|CURB WEIGHT||1,918 lb (minumum allowable)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||183.1 x 74.8 x 41.3 in|
|2.6-MI ROAD COURSE LAP||94.29 sec|