For a man who has at his disposal a team of engineers and mechanics to make his 650hp, 1,600lb racecar do what he wants – to make it handle to his ideal – to say a road car is perfectly balanced, communicates everything and wants for nothing is high praise indeed.
The car is the Audi R8 5.2 FSI Quattro – the 5.2 translates to the new V10 engine, as opposed to the 4.2-liter V8 that is standard – and the man is Oriol Servia, who has spent the last 10 years driving Champ Cars and IndyCar Series cars, most recently with Newman/Haas Racing. His best series finish was in the 2005 Champ Car World Series, when he was runner-up in the championship and won the race at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.
Yes, Oriol is an open-wheel guy. You'll have to dig pretty deep into his history to find any evidence of him in a production-based racecar. Asking what business he has in evaluating road cars is only natural. Best to let him explain.
“That's how I evaluate a car – just as a racecar driver,” says the Catalan native who moved from Miami and is now making his home in California. “That means I enjoy cars. So don't ask me about the gas mileage, don't ask me about the weight. I just go with what I like, what the car gives me.” Oriol's an enthusiast. He just happens to be an enthusiast who knows exactly what a car should feel like, what it should communicate to the driver and how it should behave.
Given his experience driving cars that accelerate, brake and pull more sideways load than any road car could, it might be easy to assume that there's nothing about a road car that would inspire him. But those cars beat a driver up. A good road car doesn't.
“I know how rough and unpredictable a real racecar is. But that's how you get the performance,” he explains. “What impresses me is how car companies are able to put as much as they can of the performance – not just the acceleration, but the handling as well – and still make it an acceptable everyday car, and predictable. That's what impresses me – how close they can get to that balance.”
Oriol is talking about cars in general, but it's quite clear that what he's saying is heavily influenced by the gleaming white mid-engine wonder with the prominent carbon fiber side blades that he's driving down Pacific Coast Highway at that moment. It's the holy grail of sports car development – a car that provides all of the enjoyment of great performance without being uncivilized and uncomfortable. It's the target that all shoot for, but few hit.
“I had huge disappointments with cars that were supposed to be very racy on the street. I wasn't disappointed in the performance, but what they give you back. Some cars, they're not able to give you anything from the road back to your hands. This car definitely gives you that.
“It's quite complicated when a car that has the amount of sophistication this car has, the electronics and all-wheel drive and all this stuff. Sometimes those things are just filters between you and the tire. But this car somehow manages to give you feedback. You're driving and you go into the corner and you know, already before it happens, if the front end or rear end are going to go. It just really tells you. To get to that point, though, you really have to push it hard. It really is glued. But when it goes, it's not like all of a sudden it catches you out. This car definitely talks to you.”
Oriol took the car up to Mulholland Drive, a winding mountain road that meanders from the Hollywood Hills to Encino, a little driving oasis in the middle of Los Angeles gridlock. It's a favorite place for automotive testers to evaluate cars and celebrities to crash them. Charlie Sheen's cars, for example, seem to leap off the road here all by themselves. Servia reports he had no such problems in the R8.
“I think it is a very efficient car,” he relates. “I find that the front end of the car is pointy, but in a good way; it's very responsive. It goes with no delay at all.
“But, a little bit on the faster corners, the moment you step on the throttle the front wants to float just a little, which gives you a weird feeling. It's only for a split second. I think it's the nature of the car with the engine in the back,” he says, referring to the car's 44/56 front-rear weight distribution.
It's one of the few criticisms – if you can call it that – he has of the car. He loves the fact that all the electronic nannies (Electronic Stabilization Program in Audi parlance) can be switched off when it's time to, um…fry some ring-shaped dough. It's a feature he feels is important in a sports car – to let the driver be able to purposely get it out of shape. But turn the ESP back on (and Oriol notes that it's not so aggressive that the driver can't have some fun with it activated), switch the Audi Magnetic Ride dampers from “Sport” to “Normal” and it's a perfectly fine daily driver.
“I find it very comfortable,” he says. “It's all-wheel drive, it has all the electronic aids you can dream of, which makes it super safe and a car anyone can drive, even on a rainy day.”
As Oriol describes the supercar's suitability as an everyday ride, the R8 reinforces the point. With eyes closed, only the slightest rumble from behind belies the fact the letter designation on the automobile's rump is an “R” and not an “A”, the designation for the company's sedans and sport coupes. But mash the accelerator and, in the famous words of Dr. Seuss's Grinch: “Oh, the noise. Oh, the noise, noise, noise, noise!” Although the Mean One was ruing the din of the Who children, here it's pure aural nirvana, and it is one of Oriol's favorite things about the R8 5.2.
The sound (if one were inclined to seek deeper meaning, one might make reference here to the Latin translation of Audi – “listen”) is generated by the 525hp, 391lb-ft V10 with direct injection that accelerates the R8 from zero to 60mph in 3.7sec and all the way up to 196mph, according to Audi. It's perfectly docile around town, “but then when you step on it, it just wakes up. It doesn't matter what rpm – it's got great torque, great power. The 525hp, they are really all there,” Oriol says.
The pure performance and the sound are two of his first observations about the R8 5.2, along with the metal-gated shifter. That little feature, which he remembers as a child peering through the windows of Ferraris just to glimpse, signifies the purposefulness of the car, it's near-readiness for competition.
Build a car like this and someone will race it. Audi is one step ahead, building the R8 LMS, a car ready for FIA GT3 right out of the box. It's full circle for a car named for and inspired by one of the Ingolstadt-based company's most successful racecars, which won the Le Mans 24 Hours five times from 2000-'05 (interrupted only by the R8-based Bentley Speed 8 in 2003) and the American Le Mans Series Championship each of the years in that period. The engineers didn't stop paying homage to their Le Mans success with the name, either – there are 24 LEDs in the headlights and 24 engine vents flanking the transparent engine cover.
The LMS version is built on an aluminum R8 chassis taken right off the production line, and has only the usual changes to make it race ready, including safety items, a sequential 6-speed gearbox based on a production unit and some uprated components (see sidebar). But then, it doesn't need much more.
“I find it very well balanced already,” says Oriol. “The basics of the car start very well – the distribution, the balance. I'm sure the race version is lighter. There's not much more I think it needs.”
Oriol's got the experience to make that assessment. It's a calculated analysis, but there's obviously some emotion underneath.
“Everything works. It's an overachieved car in every way,” he says. “I find that, all of a sudden, I'm in love with this machine!”
- Engine: Normally aspirated 5.2-liter, 90-degree V10 with dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder; FSI direct fuel injection; 12.5:1 compression ratio; aluminum with silicon crystals block; dry sump lubrication
- Transmission: 6-speed manual or 6-speed R-tronic with paddle shifters
- Drive: quattro all-wheel drive; front wheels can received 10-35 percent
- Suspension: Double aluminum wishbone with Audi Magnetic Ride
- Brakes, front/rear: 8-piston calipers, 14.4in. disc / 4-piston calipers, 14in. discs
- Wheels, f/r: 8.5x19in. / 11x19in.
- Tires, f/r: 235/35 91Y / 295/30 100Y
- Weight: 3,715lb. (manual)
Weight distribution, f/r: 44/56
- (all figures supplied by Audi)
- 0-60mph: 3.7sec
- Top speed: 196mph
- Lateral acceleration: 1.2G
WELL SUITED FOR THE TASK
As Oriol Servia relates, the Audi R8 is a road car that feels like a racecar – so you'd think transforming it into a GT racer would be fairly simple. In fact, the R8 LMS includes some significant additions – and a key deletion.
Apart from its enormous rear wing, the R8 LMS GT3 car looks almost identical to the production R8, but it sits 2.2in. lower and is clothed in carbon fiber rather than aluminum (with the exception of the doors and roof panel, which remain production parts). The mandated steel rollcage is bolted to the production aluminum chassis, while the 5.2-liter V10 race engine, too, is derived from a production unit. Mounted longitudinally in front of the rear axle, it utilizes a direct fuel injection system originally developed for the R8 Le Mans prototype. The pneumatic gearshift also is borrowed from prototypes, in this case the R10 TDI, while race-going suspension components and CV joints are fitted. Finally, a rapid refueling system from Staubli ensures splash-free refills. However, another of Audi's prized safety features – the standard production all-wheel-drive Quattro system – is prohibited by the regulations.
It's a winning package, reckons United Autosports' Mark Blundell.
“It is a great car and is very ‘user friendly' – one of those cars that you can get in and wring its neck and it's very rewarding,” he says. “I feel there is definitely more potential in the R8 LMS to come, more development that can be applied, but I think Audi has done a tremendous job.”