Reviews & Road Tests Driven: 2012 Audi R8 GT
By by: George Achorn, photos by author, Jim Fets and Lamborghini
Aug 13, 2011, 00:47
The radio crackles to life as I adjust my hand position on the carbon-fiber stemmed alloy shifter marked 000/333. A voice comes over the choppy speaker saying, “George, we’re going to do four laps where you follow Emanuele and then four more where you take the lead.”
“Emanuele” would be Emanuele Pirro. He’s been hanging about the track this morning and apparently he’s stepped into the run-of-the-mill Audi R8 instructor car here at the Audi Sportscar Experience at Infineon Raceway. The Le Mans driving legend will the guest pilot of the instructor chase car this time out.
For Pirro, a few laps around Infineon probably a walk in the park. He’s raced the LMP1 prototype from which the R8 got its name and he’s even done so at this very track. He’s won Le Mans outright five times, but his real stand out stat when it comes to La Sarthe and racecar driving in general is his consistency. From the moment Audi began its assault on Le Mans in 1999, there wasn’t a single year that Emanuele didn’t stand somewhere on that Rolex podium until 2007, nine years in a row and two years after the long-running Audi R8 racecar had been retired.
I do my best to quash any concerns about looking stupid in front or behind such a racing legend and remind myself that this might just be one of the best opportunities for driving instruction I’m likely to experience… and I’m not alone.
Actually, I’m with a group of other journalists who’ve been invited to Infineon to log some time in one of three European-spec R8 GTs that Audi’s American arm has shipped over from Europe, along with Emanuele Pirro. And lest I begin to let my head swell inside my helmet as I blip the throttle of the R8, I quickly remember we’re but a single and smallest wave of people who will get to do this.
Two more groups are currently on their way to do the exact same thing… only they’re not journalists. They’re owners. Rather, they’re soon-to-be-owners of their very own R8 GT. About sixty of the 90 buyers (all 90 US-spec cars are sold) accepted Audi’s invitation to come here and sample the car, as well as hang out with Pirro and what appears to be the entirety of the Audi of America senior executive team. Audi CMO Scott Keogh explained this to us earlier, emphasizing how important this part of the purchase process was for a car as exclusive as the R8 GT.
Audi has deemed that 333 of these limited cars will be built worldwide, a number Ingolstadt surprisingly picked out of thin air from what we’ve been told. Each car will have its production number marked on the alloy gearshift. The triple zero of the car in which I’m currently sitting denotes it is a preproduction prototype.
To the naked eye, the R8 GT isn’t radically different from its non-GT siblings. At the front are matte carbon fiber winglets that both harken to Audi’s Le Mans racers and also function by improving downforce at the front wheels. A matching matte carbon fiber fixed wing can be found at the rear, and there’s plenty more of the matte carbon on the trademark R8 sideblades, front and rear valances, as well as slick-looking carbon rearview mirrors sitting on aluminum perches.
There are a few other touches as well. A vent in the side of the rear bumpers helps improve brake cooling, and the exhaust tips are unique – round exits being one of the other most obvious cues. There’s a red “GT” emblem just behind the front wheel well and an optional new Y-design 5-spoker wheel (19x8.5 front, 19x11 rear) available in titanium or matte silver that pays homage to the original concept car alloys fitted to the R8 V12 TDI concept car.
From the factory, the R8 GT is available in just a few standard colors: Suzuka Grey, Samoa Orange, Ice Silver and Phantom Black Pearl. That’s not to say owners can’t deviate via Audi Exclusive for any color they may choose though, and the Matte Suzuka Grey of our tester seems to make thus abundantly clear.
In front of me, Pirro’s R8 sits waiting for another R8 GT and another lead/follow car to pass the pits. I take the opportunity to soak up the ambiance. Directly in front of my eyes are handsome white gauges adorned with the red R8 GT logo. Look just about anywhere else and you can’t miss the liberally placed matte black carbon fiber on the door trim, shifter stalk, center console and perhaps most handsomely on the monoposto dashboard segments and binnacle.
Where there isn’t carbon on the dashboard there’s leather. And where there’s not leather there’s Alcantara, including the steering wheel, headliner, knee pad, hand brake and two purposeful yet fairly uncomfortable racing seats. Double stitched red thread is everywhere you find stitching, though owners could also have opted for orange or grey stitching too.
Those European-spec racing seats feel like they’ve placed a vice-like grip on my body, which will be welcome out on track. So too might be the roll cage and the ashtray mounted engine kill switch should I prove a fair share less consistent than Pirro.
For the USA, don’t expect the roll bar, starter kill, the racing seats or even the less aggressive Recaro shell seats also fitted in European R8s. 10-way power heated front seats from the standard R8 carry over since a side airbag is mandated. Changes for America due to NHTSA regulations also include the usual additional reflectors on the front and rear fascias. The rear foglight on the rear valance disappears, as do the weight-saving polycarbonate rear window in favor of glass.
The R8 4.2 ahead of me begins to roll toward pit out and on up the grand sweeper past the Audi Forum Sonoma erected trackside several years ago. Eagerly, I throttle the R8 GT out into Pirro’s wake as we climb toward turn two and begin our warm-up lap.
Driving harder but not nearly on a flyer, I concentrate to see if I can feel the lighter weight of the R8 GT. If there’s a production Audi that most thoroughly embodies Ingolstadt’s new “ultra” buzzword for lightweight design, then the R8 GT is it.
Taking the already impressive aluminum Audi Space Frame (ASF) of the current R8, engineers pulled few punches as they dialed in the weight reduction. Whole body components were swapped for nearly identical copies made of carbon fiber including the rear hatch (12.8 lbs lighter), rear bumper and diffuser (17.6 lbs lighter thanks in part to lack of motorized wing) and hood (5.3 lbs lighter). Even the matte carbon side blades shed weight, 3.3 lbs lighter than carbon fiber blades from the standard V10.
Weight savings continues inside and underneath. Lightweight carpeting shed 17.4 lbs from the car. Use of a lightweight battery dropped 20.7 lbs, changes in the air intake took out 5 lbs more, and 8.8 lbs are saved in the case of cars fitted with the carbon ceramic brake option. Over all, the GT is180 lbs lighter than the standard R8 V10 coupe and tips the scales at a grand total of 3538 lbs. The net effect isn’t feather-weight like a Lotus Elise, but I feel the difference in the car’s mass as I round the hard right-hander of turn four on my out lap.
We rather lazily dance through turn’s five and on, then are harder on the throttle as we exit the carousel-like turn six. More into the throttle, the engine finally begins to snarl. The sound is more enraged than the already angry-sounding R8 V10, much of that probably due to a redesigned exhaust from the headers back on through a less restrictive set of mufflers. That there’s less sound insulation to muffle the noise only heightens the effect.
In the pits, the GT didn’t sound this angry. At start there was a louder growl that immediately grabs your attention, but it’s otherwise fairly subdued until you’re out on the road and heavy on the go pedal.
Pirro rounds turn seven and enters the fast sweepers of turns eight, nine and ten with a little more pace. I drop the GT’s R-tronic transmission down as I approach seven and quickly move back up a cog as I exit and give chase. On a track like Infineon, Audi’s single clutch sequential manumatic dubbed R-tronic is a useful tool. Quick flicks of the butterfly paddle shifters keep you right where you want to be. Still, we’re surprised this is the only transmission you can order an R8 GT.
No doubt, an R8 GT owner might be more likely to find his or her self on a closed course such as this, but the car is still primarily a road car. And on the road, we’ve always found the R-tronic to be a bit of an enigma. Drive it in manual mode where you know to feather the throttle as you would a manual, the transmission is rewarding to drive. It also boasts launch control if you feel the need.
Around town though and in automatic mode, the single clutch design results in much choppier shifts than you might experience in a DSG-based dual-clutch S-tronic Audi or a Porsche 911 fitted with PDK. Around town, this can be downright annoying. Letting the transmission shift on its own with a foot even partially planted still makes for a herky-jerky affair. On top of that, you lose that fantastic snikt, snikt, snikt of the manual.
Finally I’m through 11A and complete my first lap of the course. Pirro turns up the heat and the R8 GT is more than happy to give chase. Blasting past pit row, the V10 goes into full wail. Combined with the aforementioned exhaust changes and a more aggressive tune, the GT’s V10 shoves forth with an extra 35 hp. For those counting, the numbers are 560 hp at 8000 rpm and 398 lb-ft at 6500 rpm. Yes, that’s strikingly similar to the output of the R8’s VAG brand cousin Lamborghini LP60-4.
Audi claims a 0-60 in 3.6 seconds and a top speed of 198.84 mph. I’m nowhere near that number but well into Cheshire cat grin territory as I blast up through turn 1. Pirro doesn’t lift and neither do I.
Turn two at Infineon is a bit blind as it crests over a hill, but you can feel the firm planted stance of the R8 GT. These 333 specially built coupes get a 10mm lower suspension from Bilstein that is both firmer and manually adjustable. Paired with aggressive Pirelli PZero Corsas (235/35/19 front and 295/30/19 rear) and the additional downforce of the various wings and winglets, the grip the GT exhibits is impressive.
By the time we’re coming back out of turn six again, I’m beginning to get a better feel for the car on the edge. Throttle response is fantastic, and the already impressive balance of the R8 is that much more the better in the GT. With a 15/85 torque split of the GT’s quattro system, this R8 is willing to controllably drift even with the ESP still engaged. Like other R8s, it’s manageable and makes you likely more of a hero than you might otherwise be. It comes naturally, albeit at a higher threshold.
Three laps in, we’re equally impressed with the car’s brakes, a $9900 option for buyers in the US. Unlike earlier carbon ceramic systems from Audi that we’ve experienced, this latest generation is easier to modulate yet show zero fade after numerous laps. And while they may not be glowing orange from heat, the red anodized finish on the calipers probably look great photos shot as we perform another fly by up past the aluminum architecture of the Audi Forum.
For the first few laps the radio comes alive from time to time, instructing us on a better approach. By the end of the fourth time round, we’re told to make a pass as we head on up to turn one. Lapping behind Pirro and mimicking what he did was the easy part. Now out ahead of the Sportscar legend, it was time to show I’ve been paying attention.
Around three and 3A, I push harder now. Yes, I’m a bit sloppier but that’s my own doing. The car is still the well-honed weapon that it was before. Steering remains more direct and communicative than we remember in any previous R8, and there’s zero body roll. Still, the total package comes off as much more refined and less raw than say a Gallardo Superleggera or Porsche 911 GT3 RS.
For the next four laps, I keep having to remind myself to push. My conscience reminds me that sixty new R8 GT owners are en route to sample this car and not to do anything foolish that might jeopardize it. However, between the lightened package of the GT and the superiority of the carbon ceramics, I am tempted to go ahead and try to push Pirro to keep up.
On the eighth lap, I’m instructed to hit the pits so that I can hand over the car to someone else. My skills have been improved, but there was never any danger that Emanuele Pirro might have a problem keeping up. For the Le Mans podium nine-timer, this was likely a grocery run.
While my driving was limited to a few sessions at Infineon (“limited” indeed), Motor Trend Magazine was able to perform a more thorough test, managing the quarter mile in 11.5 seconds at 125 mph, which is right on top of their Corvette ZR-1 number of 11.5 seconds at 127 mph. The two cars also managed 0-60 in 3.5 seconds by the same publication. The Corvette does it with a supercharged 6.2-liter V8. The Audi does it with a normally-aspirated 5.2-liter V10. It’s also rated, in US trim, at 13 mpg city and 19 mpg highway.
For those that may find themselves interested, we hear all 90 US market cars have been spoken for… or at least ordered. That’s impressive given the cost of the R8 GT is in previously uncharted territory (by Audi). The base price is $196,800 plus a $1250 destination charge, $87,000 more than an R8 4.2 and $39,000 higher than the standard V10.
When Ingolstadt set out to build the R8 GT, you might say they went about it in a fashion so consistent and methodical that they certainly must have made a nine-straight podium winner like Emanuele Pirro proud. Even still, the GT is a car with a very high threshold but not a sharper edge than other track-oriented exotic car offerings with names like Superleggera or Scuderia. We suspect track day regulars who pride themselves on their ability to tame wild beasts (in particular ones that separate experts from noobs) may still critique, but in the end anyone appreciative of the Audi every day / every driver mantra will find it the ultimate Le Mans experience for the road. Audi Sport’s strategy to stay out of the pits, out of the marbles and out of the grass seems to be right in line with such an easily driven exotic like this one.
In the end, the R8 GT leaves us thoroughly enamored. There are a few points where we want just a little bit more. We’d like a manual transmission option and we’d like a sport seat option for the USA, but these are minor complaints. The only real serious shortfalls we see are these. There should be Hawaiian Tropic grid girls and a gaggle of photographers every time you start your commute and a pit team ready to top off your fuel as you pit into Dean and Deluca for a coffee. Someone should wave a checkered flag as you pull into your office complex. And maybe, just maybe, after an unmatched number of record-fast morning commutes, your co-workers should be required to call you “Mr. The-101 North”.
Given the R8 GT maps out formerly uncharted territory for the Audi brand and exhibits the highest performance thus far for Ingolstadt, armchair comparisons to its corporate cousin the Lamborghini Gallardo are to be expected. Recently, while at Lamborghini’s headquarters in Italy, we had a chance to take a quick spin in the Gallardo, and in particular the Gallardo Superleggera that represents Lambo’s own take on harder core.
Developed on a common platform, the Audi R8 and the Lamborghini Gallardo have never been accused of being a re-badge of the other. Every body panel, piece of glass or tuning parameter seems to be different between the two cars, in addition to the Gallardo’s lower roof line and shorter wheelbase. The only real hints of shared DNA that seem obvious upon quick inspection are the infotainment/navigation system and that new 560 hp number applied to the R8 GT. Actually, 560 hp is the number for the normal Gallardo LP560-4. The Superleggera still gets 10 more horsepower for what it’s worth.
Lamborghini being the brand in the Volkswagen Group portfolio known for having the hardest edge, the Gallardo’s slightly higher horsepower rating doesn’t come as a surprise. Frankly, the R8 GT’s number matching the LP560-4 seems more of the eyebrow raiser.
Separating the two supercar cousins even more is the weight savings. The Superleggera weighs in at 2954, some 584 lbs lighter than the R8 GT. A smaller body certainly helps the Gallardo, but so too does a more gratuitous use of carbon fiber such as full carbon door panels in the Lambo.
Climbing into the lightweight racing style seats of the Gallardo is more of an exercise in contortion than is the comparatively high-roofed Audi, even fitted with those European spec racing seats.
Those Lamborghini seats seem to be works of art, but other elements seem tacky such as the red and orange gauge face design. Italian exotics are known for quirkiness though and the quirk factor certainly doesn’t end here. Lamborghini’s e-gear controls qualify in spades. Yes, they’re likely lighter than the traditional knob-on-stalk transmission controls in the R8 GT but with just three buttons for Sport, Auto and neutral they can also be a head scratcher. If you want reverse, check the button to the left of the steering wheel that might be a headlight button in any lesser car. Who needs to back up anyway?
Unlike Audi who still maintains ergonomics as a priority the R8 GT, the Superleggera is contrastingly unencumbered with concerns about a driver’s on-road comfort. The Gallardo is a weapon, and the Superleggera the highest caliber in the Gallardo’s gun case. Were our car not fitted with navigation, even that space would simply be a panel of carbon fiber. Excluding switchgear, the components that aren’t made of carbon fiber are Alcantara. There seem to be no plastic panels here.
We turn the key of the Superleggera and find the V10 has even more of a bark than we’d experienced in the GT. How this car passes European sound restriction laws we do not know, but somehow it does so. There is a rumble in the car that is ever present, and doubtful there’s much-if-any sound deadening insulation.
Out on our quick police-escorted loop around Sant Agata, the Superleggera seems more raw than most any aftermarket tuned R8 we’ve driven. Shifts are more abrupt, as are launches. Making a spirited left hand turn across a two-lane highway, the matte orange Gallardo claws at the ground, inducing slight oversteer despite its less aggressive 30/70 standard torque split as compared to the R8 GT’s 15/85. Perhaps the difference is in the shifter programming or ESP logic. Like the R8 GT at Infineon, our test Superleggera has the ESP permanently engaged.
The roads around Lamborghini’s factory complex are in good shape, but the suspension of the Gallardo is still very hard. While you definitely are in more communication with the road, the net effect is much more harsh.
Passing streetside cafes, locals don’t even look up from their cappuccino when the Carabinieri close a nearby intersection and a small herd of growling Gallardos trample past. Perhaps like the locals, the Superleggera’s harsh ride, hard power delivery and quirky interior layout is all just business as usual for a Lamborghini owner. On a track, no doubt the Gallardo Superleggera is the more effective tool and, anywhere but Sant Agata Bolognese, an electric orange Gallardo is also the more effective magnet for attention.
In the world where most car enthusiasts live, the R8 GT is neither a sleeper nor soft-edged, but perhaps in Sant Agata Bolognese this is so. That said, our experience with the R8 GT lapping around Infineon still makes us think the term “soft-edged” might be unfair to the R8 GT. Perhaps “multi-functional” might be the more operative term. And, at $44,000 cheaper than the Gallardo Superleggera ($26,000 less than the standard LP560-4), in Santa Agata at least, the Audi R8 GT is also a bargain.
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