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