Rent-a-R8cer

Itís the pinnacle of Audiís driver training school, and laps Phillip Island four seconds faster than a V8 Supercar. Sounds like a class Michael Stahl wonít want to skip

@MichaelStahl44 PHOTOS CHRIS BENNY

HINK you know about speed? Yeah, I used to think I knew something about it, too. Then my whole idea of speed Ė at least the core program of sensations in my brain and body and butt Ė suddenly required recalibrating. And I was desperately slow to reboot.

Let me tell you about speed. A V8 Supercar, with about 485kW and weighing 1350kg, tops 280km/h at Phillip Island and completes a lap in 1min 31sec. An Audi R8 LMS, with letís say 410kW Ė it depends on the air restrictor size, under prevailing GT3 racing rules Ė only gets to about 265km/h on Gardner Straight.

But the Audi is faster by four seconds per lap.

Those four seconds mainly come down to one word: aerodynamics. And itís something that even pros like Audi racers Luke Youlden and Daniel Gaunt take a while to get their heads around.

ďThis is the fastest race car you can hire in this country,Ē explains Audi Race Experience instructor Steve Pizzati as I stand nervously in pitlane, impeccably overdressed in Audi Motor Sport racewear. ďThe weight

is one thing, itís got a bigger, softer tyre, but itís predominantly aero.

ďAero cars can be finicky; you donít want to stall wings or you end up with unloading and all sorts of stuff. Thatís gonna be the big thing for you guys. Youíve driven a million fast road cars, but youíve never driven anything thatís got proper aero. And thatís the thing that takes longest to get used to.Ē

Decidedly rusty in terms of recent racetrack experience, Iím wholly intimidated as I climb into the Recaro race capsule. For all its touted road car relationship, it sure looks like a racing car in here, with its digital monitor, carbonfibre everywhere, six-point harness and quick-release steering wheel.

Regarding the steering, Pizzati helpfully explains: ďThey run toe-out, which means theyíre darty Ö down the straight they will be a bit wobbly. But thereís this double-whammy; itíll amplify your inputs. And the rack is also quicker, so be really mindful about making your inputs ultra-smooth, or the aero gets really spoiled.Ē

And, uhh, Iíll end up unloading something or other.

Phillip Island is cloudy and cold, but thankfully dry. I flip through the three-switch operation to start the thing, the V10 vibrating through the cabin with a basso rumble and sounding vastly more mean and gravelly than the roadgoing R8ís V10. The clutch pedal feels normal and reassuring, but you only get to use it leaving and returning to the pits.

A couple of times on my out lap I misshift the paddles, probably thanks to trembling fingers, and notice thereís much less of the whining differential and gravelly gearbox and drivetrain chorus one associates with racing cars.

For reasons buried deep in my neurones, I drive the LMS as if itís someone elseís expensive road car on a wet track. Itís pretty intense. The steering isnít especially wandery, just quick and deliciously direct, demanding inputs that are tight, firm and deliberate.

Once or twice, most memorably after cresting the small rise just before Stoner Corner Ė which I loft over at 195km/h Ė a shiver runs through the chassis as the steering sniffs about. But it might have been me.

The throttle, too, is concentrated and firm, with all of perhaps 40mm travel. And Iíd been cautioned that, despite the traction control and mind-menacing aero, injudicious application would still spin it.

But I experience fine, familiar sensations, like pinning the throttle onto Gardner Straight, and short, firm squirts held for anxious seconds before the next corner, flicking up the cogs with those bulletproof paddles. Likewise at the end of that long straight, lifting off at 250km/h and rolling onto the brake, flicking back to fifth, smiling at the engineís guttural blip on the downshift.

But rolling out of the throttle, brushing onto the brake, taking cautious late apexes isnít what you do when youíre dialled into a racing car Ė much less, I learn, in an aero car.

A GT3 race car is the most impressive example of the aerodynamic art that you or I can experience, short of landing a drive in a Formula One car. But then this FIA production-based formula, backbone of several national GT championships (including Australia) and the legendary 24-hour races at Spa and Nurburgring, is all about accessibility.

The GT3 category provides a punterís portal to the hallowed competition departments at Ingolstadt, Maranello, Weissach and such. Audi embraced the category in 2009 with the R8 LMS, known internally as R16. Through a couple of structural and aero upgrades, it has remained the most successful GT3 contender, with 26 national championships and more than 130 examples built since 2009. Itís just won its third Nurburgring 24 Hour in four years. And this from a machine that Audi says shares 50 percent of its components with the road car.

Speed demons

AUDI developed the R8 LMS to be not just quick in the hands of a skilled professional, but adequately easy for an amateur.

Thatís because a notable element of GT3 racing is its pro-am driver pairings, wherein a graded professional shares stints with a Ďgentleman driverí, often the carís owner.

And itís the amateurs who win or lose races.

As Kiwi pro Daniel Gaunt, currently sharing an R8 with transport company boss (and twice GT Sports champ) Mark Griffith, explains: ďThe pros are all within two seconds of each other, but you can have an amateur whoís five seconds off the pace. A pro will never make that up against another pro.Ē

For all its touted road car relationship, it sure looks like a race car in here

Audi Race Experience

ONLY in Germany or Australia can the average punter take advantage of the Audi Race Experience, where you get to drive the R8 LMS race car in six, five-lap sessions, with oneon- one instruction from Audiís pro GT3 racers. It costs $6500 for the day, though first you must complete Audiís first three levels Ė Advanced Driving ($950), Performance Driving ($1290) and Sportscar Experience ($3300).

A GT3 race car is the best example of aero this side of Formula One

DRIVERíS-EYE CAM

Use the free viewa app to scan this page and ride shotgun with Stahly at Phillip Island

Much of the performance is explained by the homologated weight of just 1250kg, some 345kg less than the ultimate R8 roadie, the V10 Plus, which itself is 50kg lighter than the regular V10 coupe.

Out on the track, I was pinning the thing where I felt confident, like flat-out down the straight. And my backside was telling me Iíd been doing adequately well around the corners. But my innocence was revealed by the lap data and on-board video that make for a fascinating (and humbling) souvenir of Audiís Race Experience package.

I was doing 250km/h on the straight. When instructor Daniel Gaunt hopped behind the wheel, with me in the passenger seat, he was 15km/h faster. And through the daunting first turn (Doohan), I dropped to 160km/h.

Daniel was doing 195.

That crest before Stoner, where Iíd been doing 195?

I had a big lift immediately after, turning into the long left-hander, my slowest point being 180 before firmly squirting the throttle up to Honda Corner. Daniel was doing 205 over the crest. But he was flat all the way after, accelerating through 220 at the point where Iíd just begun feeding in the gas.

Iíd just had no concept of what the aerodynamics could do, how much grip was available, how early and sharply it could turn in.

We had done an exercise in pit lane to sense how much force was needed to generate the desired 80 bar of pedal pressure for the (unboosted) brakes. I never generated more than 1g in deceleration. Daniel was hitting 1.3g, even into the quick Southern Loop.

In the corners, my internal gutless-ometer seemed to be set at one lateral g, about the cornering limit of a high-performance road car. Iíd blip at 1.2g, usually in the slower corners. With Daniel, it was 1.6g through Doohan (at 200km/h), 1.5 through Stoner, 1.7 through Hayshed and over Lukey Heights, then again through Turn 12, at 190km/h.

Iíve ridden with many racing drivers before. Whatís almost always remarkable is the drivers, the torrent and speed of their responses, the constant catching of the wheel and massaging of the throttle as they balance the car along the very rim of adhesion through a corner.

With the R8 LMS Ė and this takes nothing away from the driver Ė it was all about the car. In a lap that was quicker than a V8 Supercar qualifier, I didnít once see Gaunt grabbing correction, fox-trotting over the pedals, or looking at all flustered. Meanwhile, the Audi just built its g-loadings, went in harder under brakes, rotated in mid-corner, all far more aggressively than my mind could allow.

I wished like hell theyíd taken us for our hot laps at the start of the day, not at the end. But it didnít take much imagination to work out why they donít. Now Iím gagging to get back and have another go.

Which recalls Pizzatiís most heartfelt warning of all: ďAero is addictive.Ē

Variety the key

THE GT3 race category was devised in 2005 by French former racer and promoter Stephane Ratel to lure more manufacturers and their mainstream GT models into the FIA GT Championship.

A key initiative was the Balance of Performance, a power-to-weight formula that levels the playing field for furiously revving Ferraris, big-cube Corvettes, turbo Nissans, atmo V10 Audis and thumping Bentleys. Consider the results of this yearís Bathurst 12-Hour: seven different GT3 marques filled the top seven places, five of them finishing on the same lap.