It’s early on a Thursday morning, and although the sun is just beginning to crest the horizon, I’m already wide awake. While commuters are heading off to the daily slog, Vortex Media Group’s Head of Sales John Acton and I are heading north on California’s Route 101. We’re on our way to the Audi sportscar experience in Sonoma, California for two days of R8 bliss under clear skies. It’s the stuff of dreams, really.
The agenda for our first day on site at the Sonoma circuit is pretty straightforward. Show up, pay attention, don’t crash. If you can manage to knock out those three requirements, you’ll be lapping Sonoma Raceway (or Sears Point, or Infineon Raceway depending on your age) in an R8 V8 by the end of the day. It is a car that, while not quite as fast or expensive as its V10 counterpart, is considered to be more balanced on track according to Tom Kristensen- a 9-time LeMans winner who clearly knows what he’s talking about.
While the overall program is quite simple in theory, the reality couldn’t be more different. You see, on track there are no lanes and no posted limits- just reference points and instinct. The instructors are quick to remind us that speed will come naturally as we progress through the day and hit our marks, but before we’re let loose on track, we’ve got quite a bit to learn.
Around 8:30am, all of the students gather near a trio of couches that Lead Instructor Jeff Sacowicz calls the “circle of trust.” This will quickly become the spot to brief and debrief before and after each session in the cars, discussing what we’ve learned and what we need to work on, as well as the time for questions. After some quick introductions, general rules and a brief lesson, we head out to the parking lot behind the main grandstand to begin the R8 Introduction course.
Our first order of business is working on turning and getting comfortable in the cars, or “working on our swing” as Jeff puts it. This portion comes by way of a cornering exercise behind the wheel of an RS 5 and slalom course work in the TTS coupé. During these exercises, the instructors encourage us to push the cars while still staying in control. Instructions are communicated via a one-way radio, much like a voice inside your head giving gentile corrections. It’s in this coaching that the instructors demonstrate just how good they are.
As this is a single day course, speed picks up quickly in both exercises and, with just a few runs completed, you start to feel the car’s weight shifting underneath you. Before long, students get their first taste of driving on a thoroughly heated tire. Instructions come clearly and concisely, with each one-way radio transmission giving constructive criticism on how to be faster or smoother. It may not seem like a lot, but you can feel yourself getting quicker as a direct result.
Back in the classroom, Jeff clues us in on what we were really doing- driving specifically designed courses to emulate the trickier parts of the track. As he begins to debrief, we realize that the slalom is actually the fast line through turns 7, 8 and 9. The cornering exercise closely emulates the radius of turn two. Working on your swing, indeed.
For our next exercise, we head out onto the track for lead-follow laps in an RS 5, with our assigned instructor in a TTS. John and I are paired with an instructor named Tony- who pulls double duty as a professional drifter and Hollywood stunt driver, appearing in films like Need for Speed and Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift. He’s got a last name too, but I can’t pronounce it.
It seems that chasing down Tony’s TTS in a car with nearly 200 extra horsepower should be an easy task, but after each corner, the little TTS simply pulls away. Most of that can be chalked up to experience, which Tony’s got in spades. He could probably drive the track blindfolded at this point, but he also happens to be a big fan of the TTS. “It’s like a go-kart,” he tells us as he drives one-handed, noting that while our RS 5 has a clear power advantage, his TT weighs 800 lbs less.
After a break for lunch, we head back to the circle of trust for some notes. Jeff tells us that tires are coming to temp and that we are getting more familiar with the course, so speeds will increase at our instructor’s discretion. This is good news for us, because Tony isn’t afraid to take an extremely inside line through turn 11 to keep us in front of slower students.
Our next session takes place on track in the RS 5 for one last rip before moving to something mid-engined. Having already had a solid amount of laps under my belt in the RS, I decide to take Tony up on his offer to ride shotgun in the TTS. Being belted into the lead car allows for much better visibility, but it also allows you to get a feel for when to get on the brakes, the amount of steering input needed, and just how easy a competent driver makes everything seem.
Now that we’ve gotten somewhat comfortable with the track and its intricacies, it’s finally time to get in an R8. We aren’t the only ones due for an upgrade though- Tony will be swapping his TTS for our old RS 5. Jeff gives us a few more pointers back in the classroom, and we’re back on track for the first of two thirty-minute sessions with the R8. Naturally, we chose the Samoa Orange one.
With the seatbelts fastened, helmets buckled and sport mode activated, we make our way out of the pits and on to the race surface. The first thing you notice after jumping from an RS 5 to the R8 (apart from the exhaust note) is just how stiff the R8’s chassis really is. The car simply feels much more solid as it turns in more sharply and rolls less through the bends. Since we’ve been on track for the better part of the day, speeds are at about 80-85% of qualifying pace and the continuous load begins to put a strain on our bodies. The R8’s tires are beginning to get greasy as well.
Fortunately for me, it’s John who is feeling the effects of worn rubber. The car begins to slide ever so slightly where it previously hadn’t, and he has to do more throttle and steering work to correct. Tony is quick to notice as our time expires, and we head into the pits. It was a successful first day on track, and we are eager to turn in and prepare for day two.
Walking back to the classroom for our final debriefs and completion certificates, Tony asks if we’re ready for the R8 Intermediate course. “Can’t wait”, I respond. “But tomorrow, we’re going to make you keep both hands on that steering wheel.”
Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for part two of this feature. Next week, Will Barber reports on the R8 Intermediate course and all it entails.