Lawrence Ulrich Drives the Audi R8 to 180 mph at Daytona

Finally, a proper venue to wring out a supercar.

Audi R8 Daytona
Audi

A note from Daytona International Speedway: Avoid whacking things at 180 mph. Especially in an Audi R8 V10 Plus, from which I punted an orange cone into the next county, determined to set a sub-two-minute lap.

One conundrum of mega-powered cars is how their vaunted top speeds are wasted, not on the young, but on the rich. Face it. Your typical supercar owner will never see 150 mph, let alone 200, whether on a public road or a too-short racetrack. It takes a real big-boy circuit to flirt with that pace. Speeds like that quickly remind you of real risks – especially in a showroom supercar with no roll cage, no fire suppression, no spine-saving HANS device.

For Audi’s tremendous new 2017 R8, Daytona Speedway is more than a grandstanding venue for a car that can reach 205 mph. The Florida circuit, with its axis-tilting banked oval, is where the R8 LMS, the production-based racing version, won its GTD class in January's Rolex 24 at Daytona. It’s the exact course we Walter Mittys will be driving today, one part legendary NASCAR oval, one part snaking infield road course.

Audi

When car companies try and smooth-talk you into believing their racecar is just like their street car, an eye-roll and deaf ear is usually the proper response. But this Audi is the real deal, co-developed with the LMS racer, rolling off the same Ingolstadt assembly line and sharing 50 percent of its parts. That includes a mid-engine V10 so durable that that Audi expects privateer LMS customers to run an entire racing season without a major rebuild, even as most competitors tear down engines after every race. The production model's 610 horsepower actually exceeds the racer by about 35 horses.

After a few reconnaissance laps behind Dion von Molkte, Audi’s 25-year-old Daytona winner, I’m ready for my first high-speed blasts past the Daytona grandstands. I shoot from the pits onto the track, the Quattro AWD quelling wheelspin, as the R8 shows me what a $191,150 Audi can do. Plenty, it turns out.

Both V10 and V10 Plus models have shed weight, sharpened reflexes and smoothed aerodynamics. Audi’s familiar space frame provides the aluminum bones. The 5.2-liter engine is a husky-voiced, natural-breathing beauty, scaling 8,500-rpm heights that no turbocharged rival can touch. Audi claims a 3.2 second catapult to 60 mph, but they’re being modest: Motor Trend clocked the R8 Plus at a gobsmacking 2.6 seconds. That's two-tenths quicker than its sister car, the Lamborghini Huracán, making it the fastest naturally aspirated car in the magazine’s history.

Audi

But screw 60 mph. Banging the paddles of the dual-clutch seven-speed automatic, I hang an uphill left onto the Daytona tri-oval as the Virtual Cockpit’s animated shift lights flash green-yellow-red. At 31 degrees, Daytona’s banked corners look as steep and tall as a North Shore wave. And they’re doing their job, letting the Audi go balls-out with no sideways slip. (Talledega leads the NASCAR circuit with 33-degree banked corners, with Indianapolis tilted just nine degrees). I feel the massive g-forces run down rather than sideways, through my body, feet and the bottom of the car. Some drivers go woozy from the effect. Daytona can twist and destroy the suspension and even the chassis of a typical family sedan.

My Audi laps are being recorded with Race-Keeper software that lets drivers and teams analyze every parameter of performance, in granular detail. Reviewing my laps onscreen, a Race-Keeper executive and pro driving coach offers a pep talk, telling me I’m losing precious time on the oval. Pointing to a line graph, he shows where I’m “chickening out” on the grandstand straight. I’m unconsciously easing off throttle before it’s really time to mash the carbon ceramic brakes. It's hardly a surprise, considering my nerve-testing need to decelerate from 180 mph to about 80 for the left-hander at the end of the NASCAR banking. I protest that I was easing off throttle to stabilize the car, but he tells me there’s no need at this velocity: Traveling three miles per minute, simply lifting off the gas is creating .7 g’s of braking force via drag alone.

Audi

Physics lesson in hand, I jump back into the R8. This cabin makes the new Acura NSX seem like a gussied-up Honda, and the McLaren 570S like a kit car. The Lamborghini and Ferrari 488 reach similar interior heights. Both cost, charitably, $60,000 more. I also register the Audi’s one remaining flaw. This newly fiery R8 forges a stronger emotional bond with its driver, its notorious understeer mostly quelled; but the steering feel isn’t as pure and connected as a Ferrari Italia or 488 GTB, or pretty much any Porsche.

Audi

It hardly matters, whether on track or the previous day’s run through the Blue Ridge Mountains from Asheville, N.C. to Virginia. This might be my first and last chance to lap Daytona, and I need to make every second count. I storm through the road course, aim the car up the banking, and turn it loose. The speedometer shows me 173 mph on the back straight, before a hard decel for the “bus stop” chicane. Then back onto the spectacular oval, the Audi howling through gears, the multi-hued grandstand blurring at the corners of my vision. I wait until the last possible millisecond to nail the brakes, this time nipping 181 mph. (Thanks, coach). And then, the explosion: The Audi blasts an orange cone set out to mark a safe braking zone. A coolant warning flashes. I return to the pits, and see the R8 spitting radiator fluid from the left front corner. Audi executives give me a good-natured ribbing, rather than a reaming (thank God). But Audi's Mark Dahncke immediately pulls the plug on more timed laps, sensing correctly that the adrenaline and competitiveness is getting out of hand. I fairly sprint to the tent in the pits, Race-Keeper memory stick in hand. Moments later, I have my results: 2:00.16. Just 16 one-hundredths short of my goal, but two seconds off my previous best. Not bad at all, in a production sports car running on Michelin Cup street tires. That's two minutes around Daytona in an Audi that you could drive from home to Dairy Queen to the track and back again.

Audi

That combo of 200-mph performance and daily driveability is something that separates the R8 from the finicky supercar herd. It’s not sexy, but it is significant. And though the previous R8 was sometimes criticized for beingtoo practical and rational, its civilizing influence kicked off a trend now mimicked by not only its corporate partner Lamborghini, but by Ferrari, McLaren and everyone else this side of Pagani.

One more thing: With the base, $164,150 R8 V10 bumped to 540 horsepower – just 10 shy of the previous-gen Plus model – there's no urgent need to spend an extra $27,000 to corral 70 more horses in the 2017 Plus. Unless, perhaps, an owner demands the ultimate R8 for his own on-track adventure. The standard R8's 0-60 sprint does take a shake longe, at 3.5 seconds. Again, that’s conservative, so figure closer to three seconds flat. But in heightened contrast with the previous R8 starter model with its supercar-suspect 420-hp V-8, the V10's 540 horses are more than ample. That straight-up R8 V10 is also priced right atop Acura's twin-turbo V6 hybrid NSX, and just $10,000 beyond a 520-horsepower Porsche 911 Turbo.

Audi

The V10 Plus trims 77 pounds via those standard ceramic brakes and big dose of carbon fiber, including a front lip spoiler, fixed rear wing and diffuser, and racing shell seats. But unless you swear by the fiber diet, all you’ll lose with the standard V10 is theoretical bragging rights. The R8 Plus can reach 205 mph. The basic R8 can only do 199. But as Daytona Speedway proved, you’ll only recite those numbers in barrooms, and see them in your dreams.