Chance. Of. A. Life­time

We’re driv­ing this year’s Audi R18 LMP1 car. This shouldn’t be hap­pen­ing. No, re­ally...

Top Gear (Philippines) - - Contents - WORDS BY OL­LIE MAR­RIAGE PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROWAN HORNCASTLE

Be­fore Audi re­tires their phe­nom­e­nal R18 LMP1 car, we get to have fun with it on the track.

Let’s start with the e-mail, as I fell off my chair when I read it. “We’d like to of­fer you the op­por­tu­nity to drive the Audi R18 LMP1 car,” it said. Well, I didn’t ac­tu­ally fall off my chair, but I did ac­tu­ally spring to my feet as if elec­tro­cuted, clat­ter­ing my right knee against the desk leg and then stand­ing there, in the mid­dle of the of­fice, look­ing around splut­ter­ing and point­ing at my lap­top.

When I calmed down, I re­al­ized this must be some sort of pre-Christ­mas gag—a kids’ elec­tric R18 ride-on or some such non­sense. Be­cause mere mor­tals get­ting to drive LMP1 cars... Does. Not. Hap­pen. I know this be­cause about a year ear­lier I’d spent some time with Mark Web­ber, and asked him if he thought they’d ever let any­one out­side the team drive his Porsche 919 hy­brid. “Not a chance, mate. Not. A. Chance. It’ll never hap­pen. There’s just too much risk and the thing’s so com­pli­cated. Th­ese LMP1 cars are mon­sters now; we ac­cel­er­ate faster than F1 cars. They’re space­ships.” And yet here was an e-mail. But this is not a par­tic­u­larly happy story. There’s a rea­son Audi let me drive the R18 quat­tro. The car is dead.

Af­ter 18 years com­pe­ti­tion at the sharp end of the world en­durance cham­pi­onship, Audi pulled the plug on its LMP1 ef­fort at the end of Oc­to­ber. The of­fi­cial rea­son­ing is that the diesel-hy­brid tech­nol­ogy con­tained within the R18 no longer re­flects the di­rec­tion of Audi’s road cars. So in­stead they’re go­ing to fund an Audi Sport For­mula E ef­fort. Go fig­ure.

So whether this op­por­tu­nity was a waved mid­dle fin­ger to the man­age­ment, or just a chance to gain pub­lic­ity for their achieve­ments (I sus­pect both), the out­come isn’t go­ing to change. Audi’s run of 13 Le Mans vic­to­ries is over. The at­mos­phere at Audi Sport’s spank­ing new HQ in Neuburg, about 16 kilo­me­ters west of In­gol­stadt, is pe­cu­liar.

Here’s the truth about driv­ing a red-blooded racing car: It’s bloody ter­ri­fy­ing. All you want to do is not crash. That’s it. If you man­age to get through the day with­out trip­ping over an air hose or pulling a lead from a lap­top, so much the bet­ter. Let’s go back to the brief­ing, though, be­cause at some slightly in­dis­tinct point, the tone changes. Emo­tion creeps in. Eigh­teen years of en­durance racing, and today is the last time the cars will run in front of a pub­lic au­di­ence.

Next year’s car was 80% com­plete. Con­tracts had been signed with driv­ers, sup­pli­ers and spon­sors. They’d even booked time at test tracks and flights to get per­son­nel to them. So the story wasn’t just the car, be­cause with­out this sit­u­a­tion there would have been no drive.

The R18 is not a pretty thing. In the back there’s a 4.0-liter V6 mono-turbo diesel driv­ing the rear wheels. For­ward of the cock­pit is the KERS sys­tem—en­ergy har­vested un­der brak­ing, stored in a 70kg bat­tery pack along­side the driver and thumped back out through the front wheels via a sin­gle elec­tric mo­tor. No torque vec­tor­ing, as that’s banned, so con­ven­tional slippy diffs front and rear. Eight hun­dred and seventy-five ki­los is the min­i­mum weight, the diesel is rated at around 520hp, the elec­tric mo­tor at some­thing like 480hp, yield­ing a power to weight of around 1,150hp/ton.

I’m shown the steer­ing wheel. It has six pad­dles on the back and 19 but­tons, four ro­tary switches, two thumb­wheels and a screen on the front. I’m given a print-out to learn. Help. I have a seat fit­ting. My hips wedge be­fore my arse touches down. Then I have to raise it again so some poor me­chanic can wedge more foam

‘Mere mor­tals get­ting to drive LMP1 cars... Does. Not. Hap­pen’

un­der my back­side. I can only do this by lean­ing my head out of the door. The cock­pit is mi­nus­cule, the driv­ing po­si­tion fe­tal. You sit on your lower back, knees pressed back up to­ward your chest, body curved around a steer­ing wheel po­si­tioned above your navel.

My trem­bling fingers man­age not to fluff the start, and I’m off at sur­pris­ing speed to­ward the nar­row pit exit and cor­ners that come thick and fast from that point on. And I can’t see any of them. The viewfinder that passes for a wind­screen pro­vides no more than tun­nel vi­sion, which means the apices of slow cor­ners are com­pletely hid­den. But let’s leave aside the com­plex­i­ties of driv­ing the R18, and fo­cus on the per­for­mance. Be­cause it is stag­ger­ing.

So here’s what hap­pens when I nail the throt­tle out of the long se­cond-gear left that opens onto the main straight in a car that at that point would show an F1 car a clean pair of heels: I get body shock. I felt the air stop in my throat, my brain pucker. Ev­ery­thing closed in on me —no sen­sa­tion of noise, no sense of move­ment, just paral­y­sis. Half­way down the straight, I re­booted. Strangest feel­ing. Then, re­al­iz­ing the next cor­ner was com­ing fast, I nailed the brakes. And the same thing hap­pened again— brain un­able to process the forces act­ing on it. Af­ter a cou­ple of laps, the toxic shock of this per­for­mance has abated a bit, and I start to look for­ward to the lunges of ac­cel­er­a­tion.

This is not per­for­mance as you and I un­der­stand it. The split-se­cond you get back on the power, this mon­strous hit of elec­tric­ity zaps that car, mak­ing it leap the first 100, 200 me­ters down the track. Once that ini­tial blast phase is over, the car set­tles back, like it’s dropped out of hy­per­space—although you soon re­al­ize you’re still ac­cel­er­at­ing with ridicu­lous vigor. The brakes I’m not sure I’d ever get used to. They’re ut­terly sav­age. It’s the brak­ing I find most ad­dic­tive. The bite, power, and re­sponse are mag­i­cal. It’s ac­cu­rate, light and easy, in­tu­itive and ef­fort­less, and, just as the ra­dio crack­les to tell me my time is up, I start to bond with the R18, feel it flow with a wil­lowy, flex­i­ble pre­ci­sion. I rum­ble back into the pits, the pri­mary sen­sa­tion one of re­lief that I’m hand­ing it back in one piece.

I grin stupidly when the team ask me what it was like—my main emo­tion is guilt that they’ve poured life and soul into the R18 and never had the op­por­tu­nity to do what I’ve just done. It made me re­al­ize how up­set they must be that this is over. The R18 is a mon­u­men­tal thing. Audi had high hopes for it. This very car won its last-ever race in Bahrain. I guess you could say that’s Audi Sport fin­ish­ing on a high. But I’m not sure they’d agree.

Only tough­est equip­ment sup­pli­ers need ap­ply If of­fices looked like this, then we’d even work for free. Dream job! There’s so much put into R&D to make cars faster and more ef­fi­cient

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