Dammed to heaven

Thereís only one road from Lake Dartmouth to Omeo and itís a diving, twisting ribbon made for keen drivers and an able car. We attack it in the 294kW Audi TT RS

WORDS DANIEL GARDNER PHOTOS ELLEN DEWAR

CAR V ROAD

Thereís only one road from Lake Dartmouth to Omeo and itís a diving, twisting ribbon made for keen drivers and an able car. We attack it in the 294kW Audi TT RS

DONíT ride motorbikes, and if you ever meet me thereís a very simple way to tell Ė if you look really closely, youíll notice that I still have all my arms and legs attached and I am not eating my lunch through a straw.

But if you assume I dislike bikes, you would be mistaken. I respect the engineering marvel that they are, fawn over their heat-coloured exhausts and dizzying power-to-weight ratios, and the opportunity to wear headto- toe leather without being reborn as a cow is genuinely appealing.

But every time I consider putting something in the garage that has more power than my first car but with only half the wheels, the idea is immediately dismissed by one of my greatest character traits Ė cowardice.

Why? The 20 years that have passed since someone decided it was okay to give me a driverís licence are punctuated by a handful of moments I will never forget. Iím not talking about the kind of pleasant times that usually involve sheepskin and caramel, but the ones that still cause me to wake suddenly in the night, dripping with sweat, my foot pressed into an imaginary brake pedal.

In every one of those incidents, I am certain that had I been on something with fewer than four wheels, the only place I would have got a byline published is in the obituaries segment of the Taunton Times. For me, itís four wheels or walking.

But where to exercise passion on four wheels without risking everything? The Black Spur used to be a hoot but its surrounding woodland is now overrun with men dressed in ghillie suits raising cash for the annual police gala, and the Great Alpine Roadís twisty lanes are probably still smoking from editor Inwoodís two-day extravaganza in an HSV GTSR W1, so letís hit the road less travelled.

Thereís a stretch of road I had heard spoken of with an almost mythical reverence that links the tiny country town of Mitta Mitta in Victoriaís north east to Omeo directly south. For a crow, the journey is 70km, but if youíre bound to bitumen, the section of Omeo Highway is closer to 110km and thereís barely a straight in sight.

The section is better known in motorcycling circles, but at this time of year, the perils of motorcycling are exacerbated. Which is why I was happy Audiís new TT RS was my ride for a two-day carve-fest.

Like an ironic preview to what would hopefully be an energetic and inspiring drive, the three-hour cruise out of Melbourne toward Albury via Beechworth is cripplingly dull. Yes, the scenery is pretty and the weather crisp, but the Audiís massive 20-inch wheels communicated the Hume Highwayís coarse-chipped surface through to the cabin with the efficiency of a stylus on vinyl.

The ride is also firm. Not firm like a VE Commodore on cut springs, but the RS wonít ever let you forget its sporting intent. A featureless road did allow time to get to know the TT RS cabin though, and to appreciate the quality finish and acres of glossy carbonfibre trim.

The TTís unmistakable exterior styling has resulted in an unusual driver layout with a distant windscreen and a steering wheel that needs extending all the way out for a taller pilot, but on the outside those aesthetics have just the right effect, drawing lots of admiring glances.

Time for a stopover in Beechworth and its famous bakery for a lunch with more calories than a Hungry Jacks grease trap, and a chance to relax. The gentle afternoon cruise took the route through spectacular

Victorian country, the initially unyielding RS seats gradually becoming familiar and more comfortable.

The tiny outposts of Tallandoon and Eskdale preceded my arrival at the town of Mitta Mitta, but not before a small detour to a symbolic start point of the puristís driving roads and the Dartmouth Dam. From here the immense rock wall towers over the stunning Mitta Valley and my digs for the night.

A final landmark before swinging into Mitta and the quiet unsealed local airstrip prompted a moment of quiet nostalgia for this author, who learned to drive on an abandoned airfield in an Audi quattro. Resisting the temptation to swing open the unchained gates and take the TT for a V-max blast just for old timeís sake was hard, but racing an unexpected Cessna on final approach would have looked bad in retrospect.

Onward then.

To describe the old gold mining town as small is like saying the Tirpitz had a problem with damp. The 2006 census credited Mitta Mitta with an official population of 32. Since then, that figure has increased with a handful of new residents including the owners of the Mitta Pub, Chris and Heather. Score a lock-in with the couple and they will ply you with good beer, food and historical tales of the surrounding area. Stay a little later and Heather will wait until you have nearly finished your last pint before telling you she used to be the navigator in an outback off-road racing series.

Perhaps she will finish the story next timeÖ A little dusty the next morning, I stock up on some essentials at the Mitta Store including one of the best brekkie rolls this side of the snow line and bump into local Rob.

Owner of an Audi A4 S Line (he likes the interior and says itís ďbetter than a BMWĒ), the retired national parks manager was drawn to the Daytona Grey TT RS that was an obvious stranger in these parts.

He knows these roads like the backs of his weathered hands and when he recounts a number of times he has peeled bikers from the road I am about to meet, I pat the TTís quattro badge in gratitude.

Then itís time to lash the saddle bags, select the Dynamic drive mode and hit the only road south out of town for the 100km plus adventure to Omeo. Except, it isnít, because just 30km later, the forecast range in the trip computer has plummeted from a predicted 180km and a half tank to 100km and at this rate Iíll be on the side of the road in near freezing temperatures, faced with a very long walk.

Until now, the TT had been consuming about 8.1 litres per 100km compared with the official 8.4L number, but that efficiency had just fallen off a cliff and was now closer to 14L/100km.

The Audi may have the grunt, grip and go to tear up this kind of remote road, but it is hobbled by its pitiful 55-litre tank.

Foggy start to the day

The Dartmouth Dam served as the green flag for our alpine blast and was completed the same year Audi introduced a five-cylinder Ė 1979. The 180-metre high wall holds back nearly seven times the volume of water filling Sydney harbour and provides irrigation and hydroelectric power for the surrounding areas.

Its chiselled flanks, vast lake and ability to actually influence the weather almost as you watch is captivating.

After an unscheduled return to town, Iím off for a second try with a tank brimmed with very expensive fuel.

Until now, the roads havenít encouraged the exploration of the RSís performance credentials, but as the way ahead turns increasingly winding, steep and remote, the hottest TT feels as if it could be emerging onto its home turf.

The sun has broken through the early fog and the road is largely dry, but the occasional tree-covered section Ė often on blind corners Ė is still perilously damp and it becomes clear why this road is popular with two-wheeled machines most of the year but deserted by them today.

For bikes and some high-powered rear-drivers, the sudden patches of lichen and moisture-covered asphalt could end your day Ė and possibly driving career Ė early, but Audiís quattro system cut its sprockets on surfaces like this and lends a level of traction, the limits of which require a considerable degree of fortitude to find, even on the seemingly numberless hairpins of the Omeo Highway.

But all quattro systems are not created equal, and while something like an R8 is predominantly rear-drive until something slides, the TTís system is front-biased. Endto- end balance is fairly neutral but a heavy nose means understeer rather than balletic powerslides is the norm; the sportiest ESC setting stepping in late but decisively.

Challenging roads nestled in beautiful scenery arenít uncommon in the high country, but the Omeo Highway has few rivals for the sheer relentlessness of its corners.

Itís only the Audiís efficiency at maintaining momentum

Sudden patches of lichen and moisture-covered asphalt could end your day early

Something old and something new

As Victoriaís first gazetted state highway, the C543 Omeo Highway is one of Australiaís oldest, but sealing the entire length was only completed in March 2014, which also makes it one of the newest. Given its recent completion, the surface is still largely perfect for low-profile tyres on big wheels like the Audiís. Mobile phone coverage is approximately the same as when the road was first mentioned in a publication in 1925 so make sure you take adequate fuel Ė or good shoes.

that negates the need for a rest and therein lies the appeal of the TT RS. For blasting asphalt, itís devastatingly effective, allowing you to jump on the power five cylinder fires the car to the next an anti-tank shell. Still, I wonder how far behind the RS one of its four-pot siblings would be. So why would you not save a sizeable slab of cash and opt for an entry-level TT or the very rapid TTS?

In a word Ė sound. Bang the bimodal exhaust to its most antisocial volume and the off-beat five-cylinder bark echoing from the eucalyptus canopy whisks me straight back to 1981 and Michele Mouton ripping the surface off Group B rally stages.

That cacophony puts a spark in the blood of any car lover and the next kilometres seem to flash by with increasing urgency. Turn, point, bury the throttle, punish the brakes, turn again, repeat. The Audi feasts on roads like this with an almost psychopathic efficiency.

Roadholding and grip, while abundant arenít matched by equally commendable feel. The steering is heavier and chatty with the drive mode set to Dynamic but the RS is almost too clinical in its demolition of distance and a little more tyre-talk would be welcome.

The engine encourages the throttle to be stabbed at every opportunity, with a wonderful turbo hiss and guttural wide-open warbling coupled with an addictive unapologetically turbocharged surge from just 2000rpm. nd through serpentine e, the quattro driveline r early as the 2.5-litre ext braking point like As the white lines turn to yellow and the navigation of more than 1300 metres, the RS through anything I can throw at it obedience. Yes, a Porsche Cayman would rewarding rear-drive experience but the TTís packaging, turbo punch, pretty design and surprisingly practical load spaces, deliver an almost unrivalled proposition.

A more pragmatic driver may argue that away from a racing circuit, the TT RS does not justify the extra outlay over its less shouty siblings. Yet think of it not as the flagship of the TT range and more as a baby Audi R8 and it makes more sense. Its identical steering wheel, trackfocused ride and what is essentially a pared back version of the supercarís V10 engine lend it far more R8 DNA than anything else.

Itís as I ponder this that the corners start to unwind into flowing byways and Omeoís lights signal an end to the unbelievable road Iíve left in the Audiís wake.

There are few cars in the RSís price bracket that can cover this manic stretch with the same unruffled speed and composure. I love the five-cylinder anthem thatís still ringing in my ears and this carís astonishing point-to-point pace. More importantly, had I tried to do the same on just two wheels, I am confident the only way I could tell you about it is not in these pages, but in a seance. The TT RS makes discretion feel a lot like valour. And you know what? Iím good with that. indicates an altitude o continues to blast throu with faultless obedience likely return a more rew

Famous fi ve

Since Audiís turbo five-cylinder engine blasted into the world rally scene in 1980, the potent unit has steadily evolved. Over the years, output has risen significantly, but the biggest change came for the latest generation, when the cast-iron block was replaced by alloy. A single turbo blows through an air-to-air intercooler with up to 1.35 bar boost, but the feisty engine feels like it has more to give.

Did someone say TT RS Plus?

The Audi feasts on roads like this with a psychopathic effi ciency

Lighter option

A must-have extra on the TT RS is the ($3000) advanced lighting package that brings organic LED tail lights, cool dynamic indicators at all corners and the Matrix LED headlights that have incredible intensity but can create a dimmed cone of light around other road users to avoid dazzling them. Perfect for spotting kangaroos on remote roads before they put an early end to your adventure.