But shortly after passing the front gate at Road Atlanta, I hear a driver bang off three downshifts that crackle like high-velocity rifle shots. A sleek-but-chunky silver machine flashes into view between stands of pine trees on the downhill stretch toward Turn 12 and powers onto the front straight, leaving the wail of what sounds like a full-tilt V-10 race engine in its wake. And I suddenly understand why I’d been ordered to bring a firesuit and Nomex undies.
“This is a proper race car, not just a converted street car,” Jürgen Zürn, senior manager of Audi Sport customer racing, tells me after I reach the paddock and he briefs me on the nuances of a steering wheel and center console bristling with more buttons, dials, paddles, and video screens than a flight simulator.
The R8 LMS is among the first of a new batch of cars that several manufacturers are building to new global GT3 specifications that — it’s hoped — will inspire a renaissance in production-based sports car racing. Which is why the pits are full not only of engineers and mechanics from Audi’s customer racing programs in Germany and the United States but also about a dozen drivers who competed the previous day in the year-ending Petit Le Mans endurance race. Each of them is running a couple of laps in the new car to evaluate it for potential purchase for 2016, and the early reviews are glowing.
“This thing is mind-blowing,” says Guy Cosmo, who raced the previous R8 at Petit. “It feels more like a prototype than a GT car. The balance is inspiring, the braking is phenomenal and the electronics are really well sorted. Honestly, this is what we’ve been missing with [GT3] cars for all these years.”
Sports car racing has been an unholy mess since, well, just about forever. The FIA unveiled GT3 regulations a decade ago to create an affordable class for production-based cars that weren’t as outrageously complicated and appallingly expensive as the purpose-built thoroughbreds racing in GT1, GT2, and what’s now known as GTLM. For a variety of reasons that make sense (or matter) only to GT racing insiders, the class wasn’t universally adopted. To this day, for example, GT3 cars aren’t eligible to race at Le Mans.
Suspension wishbones and pickup points are unique to the LMS. (Because the pushrods are mounted to the base of the dampers, ride height can be adjusted without affecting spring pre-load or toe and camber settings.) But the street car and race car share a shape designed to optimize on-track performance. “The designers understood much better the aerodynamic needs of the race car,” Liebchen explains. The low-drag carbon-fiber body is so slick that the new LMS needs 100 fewer horsepower to achieve the same speed as the old one.
The engine is essentially straight out of the street car, which is why Audi provides a warranty for 20,000 kilometers (12,427 miles) between rebuilds. The only differences are upgraded crankshaft bearings, a deleted flapper in the emission-control system, and an excised shaft for four-wheel drive. (The race car is rear drive only.) In production-car form, the 5.2-liter V-10 makes 540 horsepower, or 610 horsepower in the super-duper Plus version. For racing, the engines will be fitted with air restrictors mandated by various sanctioning bodies and top out at closer to 500 horsepower.
The gearbox is a bespoke six-speed electrohydraulic sequential that requires the driver to operate the steering wheel-mounted clutch only when engaging first or reverse. Unlike the street car, the LMS is equipped with a race-spec Bosch ECU that dials out the electronic kludgery found in the first-gen LMS and underpins the magically seamless transmission, traction control, and anti-lock braking systems. Besides translating into radically improved performance, this also creates a package that’s more palatable to well-heeled customers.
So-called gentlemen drivers pay many, and in some cases most, of the bills in sports car racing, and they’re not always talented enough to control cars that are prone to vices such as snap oversteer and brake lockup. “If they’re not having fun, they’re not going to race,” Liebchen says. “So we wanted a car that was easier for gentlemen drivers to drive, and that meant improved traction control and ABS.”
The drivers who’ve tested the car tell me that it’s remarkably easy to drive, so I feel relatively relaxed when I squirm inside the LMS. In keeping with the keep-the-customer-happy approach, the cockpit is an ergonomic masterpiece. Visibility out of the gigantic windshield is panoramic. Although the seat is fixed, the steering wheel and pedals are adjustable. Pure genius.
After the car drops off the air jacks, I punch the start button, and the engine barks to life. I pull back on the clutch paddle and select first gear. Anti-stall technology takes all of the drama out of the operation, and the car trundles out of the pits like a Coupe de Ville oozing away from a stoplight. By the time I reach the back straight, I’m already confident enough to lay into the throttle.
Predictably, I’m pinned back in my seat. Between the prodigious torque and virtually instantaneous upshifts, the car seems to gain speed exponentially, and I keep getting caught by surprise as the rev-counter light winks red, signaling 8,600 rpm. On the downhill rush to Turn 10A, doing about 165 mph, I nail the brakes. Pedal pressure is high, but that’s fine because the protocol is to get into the ABS early and often and let the computer take care of stopping the car.
The steering is surprisingly light, though I suspect it would load up big time if I’d carried anything close to a race pace into high-speed corners where the car generates serious amounts of downforce thanks to the front splitter, integral diffusers, and massive rear wing. I also weenie out instead of using the technique recommended by Audi factory driver Christopher Haase, who says he simply mats the throttle as soon as it’s time to put the power down and relies on the traction control — there are 12 settings, adjusted via a dial on the steering wheel — to sort things out.
Audi, which already supports 130 existing GT3 cars, plans to build 45 newbies by March. Five are committed to the States, where the price is $491,650. Not cheap, obviously, but the car comes with trackside support — provided only by Audi and Porsche — and a reputation for moose-like robustness. “I think the engines loosen up when they’ve got a few thousand miles on them,” says Brad Kettler, director of technical operations for the American Audi Sport customer racing program.
The car I drove at Road Atlanta had already done 24-hour races at the Nordschleife and Spa, as well as two shorter enduros at the Nürburgring. Yet several drivers turned laps faster than the practice times during Petit Le Mans. No wonder Kettler was beaming at the end of the day.
“This is a target-rich environment, and there are a lot of people on the fence [about which GT3 car to buy],” he said. “But you can tell just looking at the LMS: It’s a bullet.”
Maybe a silver bullet for the new GT3 class.
2016 Audi R8 LMS Specifications
|Engine:||5.2L DOHC 40-valve V-10/495 hp (est, with mandated air restrictor)|
|Transmission:||6-speed sequential manual|
|Layout:||2-door, 1-seat, mid-engine, RWD coupe|
|L x W x H:||180.3 x N/A x 46.1 in|
|Weight:||2,701 lb (FIA homologation)|