Baptism of fire - my first time at La Sarthe, a new R8, 180mph and no clue where the track goes

Our first taste of the brand new R8 proves to be unforgettable

I’m sitting behind a train of white RS3s in this brand new R8 V10+, making sure my microphone is plugged in properly and the GoPros are running. We’re queued up just beyond the pitlane exit, pointing up towards the famous Dunlop Bridge. I’ve never driven Circuit de la Sarthe before and, shamefully, I have no clue where the track goes. But it’s okay. I’ll just follow the car in front of me.

I’m nudging my seat this way and that, trying to get it where I want it to be, and as I look through the windscreen I see the RS3 ahead of me has buggered off. It’s halfway along to the bridge and I’m not even in gear! I hurriedly pull back on the lever, stand on the throttle pedal and mumble some largely incoherent drivel at the GoPro hanging from the windscreen.

The situation was this: I would have one lap of the track, just an hour and a half before the 24 Hours itself gets underway, in the second-generation R8. Only a handful of people outside of Audi will have driven it before me. Quarter of a million people would be lining the circuit, probably hoping to see some jammy sod prove his incompetence by stuffing a £140,000 supercar into the Armco.

Given that I have no idea what way the circuit goes and that the RS3 I’d been intending to shadow has abandoned me, it seems fairly likely that I will shortly be that incompetent, jammy sod. 

I thread the R8 under the bridge, over the crest and through what I now know to be the Esses. The car in front doesn’t seem to be falling back towards me, which is enough to set off alarm bells. Am I really being dropped by some bloke in a hatchback with roughly half the power of this thoroughbred supercar?

Before I know it we’re onto a straight piece of track. As the brain fog begins to lift I realise it must be the Mulsanne Straight. One of the most famous stretches of tarmac in the world. I wind the 603bhp V10 out through the gears, breathe a sigh of relief as the RS3 grows bigger in my windscreen, peak down at the speedo and babble something like ‘180mph! 180 on the Mulsanne!’

I’m so wrapped up in flying down this hallowed piece of track at such a rate that haven’t given much thought to not crashing into the first chicane. Blessedly, the car in front has and I stand on the carbon ceramic brakes in just enough time to slow the car.

Good lord, this thing gets into a corner well. The original R8 was always an impressive thing to drive quickly, but this new model feels unbelievably poised and agile on turn in. Such natural response to the direct, immediate steering; such precision and control in the chassis. Guiding the front axle in towards an apex is a totally intuitive thing to do because the steering input and chassis response feel like one single, cohesive motion rather than a distinct, cause and effect movement. It’s incredible.

Naturally, with four-wheel drive there is all the traction you could ever need and as the V10 begins to stretch its legs the car fires down the next straight like a stone from David’s sling. It really lights up as it closes in on 8850rpm, too, spinning away with the freedom and energy of a racing engine. The gearshift is a big step over the previous car – the twin-clutch DSG ‘box is now frantically quick in the way it returns both up and downshifts.

Through another chicane, into the fearsomely quick Mulsanne Kink and towards the tight right-hander. I get down to third gear, turn in hard and stand on the power. The previous car would have over rotated a little here as the rear tyres lost traction, but this new model just hooks up and leaps towards the next corner. Which could be a left, but, equally, might be a right. This car feels so locked down. It’s mighty impressive, but I hope it’s still adjustable and engaging when you really start working it hard. 

The RS3 ahead is starting to hold me up now, so I fall back to give myself a proper run through the corner sequence ahead – Indianapolis and Arnage. Once again, the precision on turn in and the flat-bodied response of the chassis are next level. For the following mile or two I try – mostly in vain – to describe what I’m feeling into the GoPro. Trees rush by, corners come and go. I don’t remember seeing a single person out there, but I know huge crowds must have been watching on.

The cars ahead of me are bunching up now and the lap is coming to an end. I slow down, back off a little and gear up for a one last shuffle through the tight corner sequence – the Ford Chicane – that leads onto the pit straight. Second gear, turn in, power on. Again the car hooks up and explodes away from the apex.

Having taken some time to gather my thoughts I reckon this new R8 could be something a bit special. The seating position is still just a touch too high for me and I wonder if it’s lost that wonderfully playful chassis balance of the original model, but in every other sense it’s no less than superb. We’ll drive it properly early next month.

What I can’t get over now is how distant and remote the whole experience seems. If there wasn’t any photographic evidence to prove it had happened for real I’d believe you if you said the whole thing was a dream. It was a total privilege. As I type this now I can hear the 24-hour race itself is well underway. With any luck the drivers will know which way the circuit goes.

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