This is going to sound completely and utterly ridiculous. I almost said no. No to driving the final Audi LMP1 prototype sports car. No to driving a car built by the team who’ve dominated endurance racing for the last 18 years. Possibly the fastest thing I might ever drive, certainly the most sophisticated, a car that professional racers would literally behead their own mother to get the chance to slide and wriggle behind the tiny little box of electronics that passes as a steering wheel. It seems ridiculous to me now, too. The R18 is waiting in the next room, tyres being baked in stacks of four to 62-degrees Celsius. It looks almost alien - a highly-evolved Coleoptera of carbonfibre, aluminium honeycomb, lithium ion and Zylon. With the tiny gullwing doors up, rear bodywork removed to allow engineers access to the 4.0-litre TDI V6, and bare wheel hubs, it barely looks like a car at all. But it might just be the coolest object on Earth. Did I mention that the R18 has 1000bhp or more and weighs just 875kg?
Beyond the armco barriers lining the pit lane is Audi Sport’s Neuburg test track. It’s tight, technical and the air temperature is barely above freezing, the mist is thick with moisture and hazy rain sometimes falls. I’ll get five laps. Five. That number and the prospect of splashing around in fog, rain and the smell of my own excrement at barely a tenth of the car’s potential is what initially made me waiver. That and past experience of these tests, which sound like a dream assignment but often turn into a nightmarish mix of frustration, panic and a pretty shoddy end product.
Let me explain: very often the race team don’t really want you bumbling around in their finely honed precision instrument, they object to photographs or video of ‘secret’ solutions and pretty much expect you to crash and present them with a massive headache before the next race. The result, generally speaking, is that the video or article ends up being hugely compromised. As DRIVETRIBE is still shiny, new and has inevitable growing pains that we’re addressing as fast as possible, I felt incredibly excited to get the invite but also worried that if we came away with neither a great story nor a compelling video, it might be the last invite we’d get from Audi for some time.
Of course, despite my almost noble intentions, I said yes. Maybe a polite ‘no’ would be more of an affront than a shoddy video. And pretty soon upon arriving at the incredibly impressive Motorsport Competence Centre near Munich, which opened in 2014, my worries start to ease. Five laps won’t be enough. How could it be? Fog rolls across the sodden track. But something about the atmosphere is more open and friendly than usual. On 26 October 2016 this team found out that there would be no more WEC, no more Le Mans, for Audi. It’s still incredibly raw. The next generation R18 is fully designed after a full test programme of CFD, wind tunnel modelling and simulator work. In this very building the components are in boxes or on shelves ready for assembly. The real test programme should be starting pretty much now.
But instead it’s all over. Quite unexpectedly, the board pulled the plug. Every man and woman involved is visibly hurting and this dreary day just outside Munich in December will be the last time the R18 runs in anger, the last time this extraordinarily talented and committed group work on this spaceship of a race car. And they’re proud. They really want us to drive the car. They want to impress upon us how special it is. More than once I’m told, ‘it is the fastest car we’ve built. Faster than the competition.’ Cruelly, it’s been killed before realising its true potential, although fittingly Audi Sport Team Joest scored an easy 1-2 in the final WEC round in Bahrain. The frustration is palpable. So I’m glad to be here with them, to understand the sheer effort put into this programme and to get even the briefest taste of what the drivers enjoy and endure in these meticulously developed, complex and surreally capable machines.
That’s assuming I can get in. The technique is simple enough but this is one tiny cockpit. Sit on the flat bodywork beside the tiny, featherweight gullwing door, now swing both legs into the footwell. It’s not really a footwell, but two slim tunnels either side of the steering column. As your legs squeeze against the carbonfibre structure you then lower your body from the outer bodywork and into the narrow, laid-back seat. I have to really push down to get my backside to make contact with the shell of the seat and then finally my feet reach the pedals. There are just two and you have to left foot brake. Snap on the detachable steering wheel and then breathe. And then… panic.
Everything feels so tight and so intimidating. You sit at an angle of about 35-degrees, knees bent and ankles way higher than your hip point. The windscreen is tiny and wraps around like a visor. A big sun shade sticker narrows the view still further and you can just about see the tyres through the cutaways in the tops of the front wings. There is a bank of controls above you mounted in the header rail plus a big rear-view screen. The steering wheel has another screen with gear readout and all sorts of other info, a strip of shift lights along its top, six paddles (three affixed each side), four rotary dials and seventeen buttons. The two lower paddles operate the hand clutch and you can use either but not both to operate it. The biggest paddles operate the six-speed ‘box, left for down, right for up. The left upper paddle operates the flash to let slower traffic know you’re approaching and the upper right paddle operates the menu system for the small display screen. The throttle has a tiny arc of travel and the big brake pedal needs insistent effort to push down but doesn’t feel absurdly physical.
This is the number 7 car, usually driven by Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler and Benoit Tréluyer and it’s still set up just as it was at Bahrain, where it finished second to the sister number 8 car. That means it actually has more power than the Le Mans-spec car and, of course, more downforce, too. At Le Mans, the ACO organising body will only allow the electrical system to deploy 408bhp, but the car is capable of delivering 476bhp. In all other WEC rounds that restriction is lifted so today we get the full experience.So that's at least 514bhp and over 627lb ft from the 4000cc, 120-degree V6 diesel engine running a single Garrett variable turbine geometry turbocharger that drives the rear axle, plus 476bhp from the Motor Generator Unit with integrated limit-slip differential mounted on the front axle. For 2016 Audi moved away from their highly successful flywheel energy storage system and now employs lithium-ion batteries, a necessity when stepping up to the 6 Megajoule class.
Justin Taylor usually acts as lead engineer for the number 8 car, but today he’s talking to me over the radio rather than Lucas di Grassi, Loïc Duval or Olly Jarvis. He sounds much calmer than I as the R18 and I are wheeled out of the pit garage and into pit lane. ‘Ok, please activate the DMS switch by pulling it back and down.’ I reach up to the little row of toggle switches mounted in the roof and do as he says. ‘Now start the engine.’ I decide the left hand clutch paddle feels more natural, so pull it back with three fingers and then reach my thumb to the little red starter button on the face of the ‘wheel. It’s hard to describe the noise because it’s an indistinct mix of flat, busy, thrashy engine and strange whirs and fizzes from the electrical systems. ‘Ok, whenever you’re ready… Go and have some fun.’
The R18 (mercifully) has anti-stall so I can’t fluff the start too badly. However, I’ve been told by Tréluyer (on hand, along with Duval, to offer some sage advice to my novice self) to give it plenty of revs, then find the biting point and let it gather a good amount of speed before fully releasing the clutch paddle. So I squeeze the throttle and try to discern engine revs. The general din makes that really difficult but I figure I must be in the right ballpark and then slowly let out the clutch. It bites quickly and I just go with it as the R18 rapidly starts to accelerate at the sort of pace you might expect of a 911 Turbo S using launch control. Better to leave in a blaze of glory than the stutter-stutter-stutter of anti-stall, I suppose. The R18 heads towards the pit exit at what feels like about 100mph.
Lap one is about sensations. The brakes are utterly amazing, a combination of the regen of the electric motors and the mechanical braking system itself but with a totally consistent feel through the pedal and in terms of the violent braking force. You can hit them very, very hard, which is a good thing as my left foot braking technique is nothing better than ‘acceptable’. And the harder you hit, the more you have to recalibrate what’s possible. It’s astonishing.
The steering is a hydraulic set-up, as when the R18 switched to battery technology this year so too the central nervous system of the car changed from electric to hydraulic. It’s actually no heavier than the system of, say, an R8 in its ‘sportiest’ set-up but conveys a lot more sensation. Mostly it’s saying you’re being too timid. Every little movement creates an instant and perfectly accurate reaction. The car is just so taut in the way it responds. But that responsiveness doesn’t trip over into edginess. My road car yardsticks seem pretty irrelevant but compared to something like the jumpy, nervous Ferrari F12 TDF, the R18 is way more intuitive. Despite the crazy aero, the alien organism aesthetic and the simply staggering technology packed within its 4650mm, this thing is recognisably a car in terms of the feedback it gives. And a car that you feel you can trust.
Now, the motor. The motors. Oh wow, this car accelerates. It helps that the sense of security allows you to get into the power nice and early, but the way it fires out of turns is unlike anything else I’ve driven. It’s uncomfortable because the rate of acceleration is off the scale and for the first second or so of full throttle your body genuinely panics. It’s like freefall but with the force of gravity ramped-up by a few hundred percent. But then you pull another gear, then another and that initial spike of unnatural power does seem to dissipate. It’s still punching well beyond the scope of the fastest hypercars, but either your brain is now up to speed or the electrical deployment is dropping off and so the acceleration feels manageable again.
Lap two is about carrying more speed, feeling the chassis exert its control and starting to glimpse at its abilities. The tyres are wets and the surface is still pretty damp in places but the braking and cornering forces are well beyond a GT3 racing car on slicks. Understeer? Oversteer? Erm, no. It just shrinks the track without any seeming effort, the tiny braking distances melding into the turn-in phase and then before you know it the engine is barking and the electric motors frantically whirring and you’re punched onto the next straight, scanning as best you can for the next braking point. It’s an intense and amazingly empowering feeling. I can only imagine what it must be like to find a rhythm in this car on a big, fast circuit and to have the ability to push to its limits. You must feel superhuman, or at least a part of something that doesn’t operate according to the usual laws of physics. It’s simply extraordinary.
The final couple of laps I just try to soak it all in. To remember where to grab a higher gear and carry even more speed, to try to dare myself to brake later and later and to ride that amazing acceleration whenever the track goes even mildly straight. I lock the brakes a couple of times, which is scary but also thrilling to think that I’m getting to the tyre’s limits at least in one direction. Soon enough Justin’s voice calmly tells me to box and my time is done. I roll into the pit lane, pull back the clutch and then press that innocuous little red button on the steering wheel again to kill the engine. The brakes are smoking, I’m elated and the team are grateful I haven’t blemished their bluest eyed baby. ‘Good job, man,’ says Justin, flatteringly. I’d like to say the same to each and every member of Audi Sport Team Joest. You guys kick-started a new golden era in sports car racing and created some extraordinary cars and memories for drivers and fans alike. You’ll be missed. I think Le Mans should keep a couple of pit boxes empty until you come back and join the fray once again.
Photography by Damian Blakemore and Audi Sport