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km : Grand Touring

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8 July 2010

“If the TTS can do it, the R8 can too.” At least that’s what Ken Dobson, chief instructor of the Audi Sportscar Experience in Sonoma, California, tells me. It sounds like a painfully obvious statement, but when you’re behind the wheel of a monstrous R8 trying to follow Ken as he pilots a TTS so masterfully, you too will have to remind yourself of what he just said. Here, on the legendary pavement of Infineon Raceway, we were given the chance to prove — and improve — our high-performance driving skills at the wheel of Audi’s incredible sports car. But not before receiving a healthy dose of reality, courtesy of the pros.



We joined a session of the R8 One-Day Program, which teaches the fundamentals of car control, handling, and driving dynamics before setting students free to explore the limits of the R8 on the racetrack. The classroom session is fairly short, and after a brief chalk-talk to cover the track layout and the very basics of high-speed driving, we were out on the course, starting off in a TTS.

The class sizes are kept small to maximize both seat time and one-on-one instruction. Six of us shared three cars for the first exercise, a standard slalom course. As remedial as it sounds, it’s a great way to get in tune with proper throttle input to modulate turn-in. With a little encouragement and feedback from the instructors, we push faster with each run, and eventually reach the limit of the car and ourselves. After about twenty minutes of this exercise, driver and passenger switch seats and do it all over again, a practice that continues throughout the day.



With the slalom exercise complete, we trade up from the TTS to the main attraction, a V8-powered R8 coupe. Before going back onto the track though, we first learn what the instructors call the “technique of a curve.” In the back of the paddock, a cone course is set up with a slight decreasing-radius curve; we follow the instructor, who is also driving an R8 and guiding us over the radio, telling us when to brake, how to trail-brake once in the curve, where the apex is, and when to apply throttle on the exit of the curve. It takes a few runs to really understand this concept, but it provides a safe, worry-free environment in which to understand the specific dynamics of the R8.



The class began at 8:00 AM. At around 11:00, with the session already halfway over, we head back to the classroom for a debriefing and recap of the techniques that were just learned. Now that we’ve covered the basics, we grab our helmets, head back to the R8s, and proceed to the track for a quick lead/follow session with an instructor. This is our initiation to the full racetrack, and what a track it is, indeed.



Infineon Raceway — originally known as Sears Point Raceway after the farm on which it was built — is a 2.52-mile, twelve-turn course that is full of blind corners, a carousel, and extreme elevation changes. The highest point of the course at turn 3A is 160 feet above the lowest point at turn 10. It also happens to be a very technical course, a fact that compliments the characteristics of the R8 extremely well. We’re told that if we do everything right, we’ll be approaching 111 to 112 mph after turn 6, the max speed for the R8 on this track.



By 11:30 we make our way inside the Audi Forum for lunch and a bit of rest until 12:30. Mentally and physically refueled, we climb back into the R8s to start our three-hour afternoon track session. Much to our surprise, the instructors hop into two TTSs rather than R8s. When asked if we could pass them, one instructor replies “good luck!” It takes more than just raw horsepower to be fast around a track, and these guys know that better than we do.



The first session moves along at a fairly mild pace, with the instructors on the radio telling us to when to brake, turn in, modulate the throttle and accelerate. We have to wait until the later sessions to really get to experience our limits, and if we’re good enough, perhaps the ragged edge of the R8’s limits. For now, it’s just a matter of repeating the drill consistently, picking up just a bit of speed with each successive lap.



By 2:30 we head out for our last session, where we are all pushed to our limits. The adrenaline is flowing, and even with the air conditioning on in the car we can’t help but sweat. The in-car radio beeps and Ken utters his favorite phrase: “If the TTS can do it, the R8 can too.” Naturally, this pushes us to go faster. Coming out of the main straight and into turn 1, the speedometer shows 100 mph while entering an uphill, off-camber turn, and our heart skips a beat. We make our way around the course, connecting the corners mentally, always anticipating the next combination. We come out of the carousel and approaching turn 7; the speedometer indicates 112 MPH, the maximum that Ken said was possible in the R8 on this track, at least without ending up in a wall. For the first time passing the TTS seemed like an actual possibility. The instant that thought crosses our mind, though, our session is over, and there won’t be another lap to try to pull off that feat.



Dripping with sweat, heart beating at its own redline, and legs shaking from the extreme adrenaline rush, we figure the R8 school turns out to be a hell of a lot of fun, as well as an enlightening experience. This was just the basic one-day session ($1895), and we’re already contemplating the thrill of doing a second day, which includes a lot more time in the car (the two-day program runs $3495). Completion of the basic one-day course also grants us access to a future session in the Advanced one-day program ($2495), which involves a day of one-on-one time with an instructor doing advanced car control techniques; that alone may be reason enough to schedule a return trip to Sonoma. Regardless of which program is chosen, the Audi Sportscar Experience should be on the to-do list of every performance driving enthusiast.



Additional Information



Audi Sportscar Experience Microsite



Infineon Raceway Website



Other things to do in Sonoma County


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