Audi R8 Final Lap: Driving the Mid-Engine Legend Into the Sunset at Laguna Seca
There will never be another like it because there simply can’t be another like it.
Chances are, you remember the first time you saw an Audi R8. I know I do. With its futuristic front end, aggressive rear, and out-of-this-world side blades, it looked like it could eat Italian supercars for breakfast. It was such a departure from anything else on the road back in 2008 that it instantly became the de facto German supercar. Fifteen years, two generations, and various trims including convertibles and race cars later, the 2023 Audi R8 is hanging up the helmet and driving into the sunset.
Last weekend, Audi threw its senior supercar a big retirement party with some very special guests in attendance. The R8 stretched its legs on official company business one final time on Saturday, Aug. 19 at none other than Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca. It did so under the watchful eye of its designer Frank Lamberty, as well as endurance racing extraordinaire and nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen. Other company execs who have been involved with the car for the last decade and a half were also there to witness the closing of a chapter for the German automaker.
Oh, and then there was me. Certainly the person of least importance in attendance and most definitely the person with the least involvement in the R8's history, I actually played a very cool role in its going-away party. I got to lap Laguna Seca in a 2023 Audi R8 V10 as the sun literally set over the car one final time.
|2023 Audi R8 V10 Performance Coupe RWD Specs|
|Base Price (as tested)||$161,395 ($188,990)|
|Powertrain||5.2-liter V10 | 7-speed dual-clutch automatic | rear-wheel drive|
|Curb Weight||3,571 pounds|
|Cargo Volume||7.96 cubic feet behind front seats | 3.96 cubic feet in frunk|
|EPA Fuel Economy||14 mpg city | 23 highway | 17 combined|
|Quick Take||Take a good look at this spec sheet. There won't be another car like it again.|
There were actually two of them: A red R8 and a blue R8 parked next to each other on the street. Both of them had contrasting silver side blades. I couldn't believe I had managed to spot not just one, but two new R8s! This was 2008 so I took a photo of them with my iPhone 3G, which I later uploaded to a novelty digital photo portrait I had on my nightstand. From that day on, the first Audi R8 I ever saw lived in that never-ending slideshow.
Fifteen years later, I experienced a similar feeling as I caught a glimpse of two R8s parked at the Laguna Seca paddock. One was gray and the other was red. Both were V10 RWD Coupes, and both looked absolutely killer with their side blades in exposed carbon fiber. Even in the car's second generation, which saw the side blade toned down quite a bit, the R8 remained one of the most aggressive yet elegant supercars money could buy. As its creator, Lamberty told me, "It's the definition of a German supercar. Not Italian, not British, but German."
This time, however, my excitement was met with a pinch of nervousness, as I knew that later that day I was going to get behind the wheel of one of those R8s and drive it around a famously challenging track. Further exacerbating these feelings was the fact that Kristensen—yes, Mr. Le Mans himself—would be driving the car in front of me. I had to, uh, keep up with him.
In case you're not a racing nerd, Tom Kristensen is the winningest driver in the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Danish star has nine overall victories to his name—six of them consecutive—and the majority of them in Audi race cars, including all the iterations of the R8 LMP.
Driving Into the Sunset
At six feet tall, I'm never comfortable wearing a racing helmet in a sports car, and the R8 was no exception. That said, I was surprised at how much room there was in the cockpit, even for a big guy like me. With the helmet out of the picture, I could probably spend many hours behind the wheel of an R8. That didn't matter, of course, because I had just two laps in front of me, and wearing a helmet was obviously a requirement.
I made some quick adjustments to the seat and steering wheel before Kristensen came over the radio: "If ready to go, give a thumbs up." I felt like saluting him à la Top Gun: Maverick instead, but I'm not sure he would've found that funny. I raised my hand high enough so he could see it in his rearview mirror and gave him a thumbs up. He immediately blasted away in an Audi RS E-Tron GT. I tried to do the same but then I realized I hadn't even shifted out of park, so I just revved the engine like a complete idiot. F*CK! I got so caught up adjusting my driving position, dealing with my helmet, and making sure I was ready that I never shifted into drive.
After the embarrassment of the century, I was, at last, lapping Laguna Seca in an Audi R8. We entered the track ahead of the final corner instead of the pit lane exit, so I found myself doing 120 mph down the main straight right out of the gate. I had never driven Laguna Seca in real life but had racked up thousands of laps on Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport over the years. (Yeah, lemme tell ya. Those don't count.) I could hear Kristensen's voice over the radio giving some instructions, but he might as well have been the teacher from Charlie Brown because that's all I could hear over the loud roar of the V10. I was on my own.
The crest immediately after the finish line (technically Turn 1) was the first big moment of my drive, as the R8's suspension fully unloaded for a brief second at about 110 mph. I wasn't ready for this, of course, so I translated it as the track's own way of greeting me: "Welcome to Laguna Seca, where you just might die today." I saw the taillights in front glow red so I pressed on the brakes to cut some speed ahead of Turn 2. The R8 wasn't fully settled yet so there was a little shake at the rear from my upsetting of the car's balance. The car's 305/30 summer rear tires kept things under control, but it certainly made me perk up a bit. The brakes felt super strong and I quickly realized that I had braked way too early. "I'll get it next time," I told myself.
Turn 2 is a challenging corner named Andretti Hairpin. You start out wide at the entry and keep an open line until the very end where you touch on the inside curbing before careening wide again. The R8 felt balanced all the way through as the front tires begged for a break toward the exit. The hairpin spits you out as the tarmac straightens ahead of Turn 3, which can be taken with a bit of speed. It's here that I saw the traction control light turn on for the first time, as the computer sorted out how much of the 562 ponies to send to the rear wheels.
Turn 4 is sharper in real life than it seems in the virtual world, though with enough practice I would imagine can be taken quite fast. My first run through there was at about 55 mph, and about 60 mph the second time around. It was almost humiliating how much the car wasn't even breaking a sweat through there—or essentially all other corners.
That right-hander led to another straight where I once more touched 100 mph before braking hard for a 100-degree left-hander, arguably one of my two favorite corners of the track. The cambered Turn 5 allows you to throw the car into the apex quite aggressively without risking too much, as the corner unwinds and flattens at the exit. The R8's suspension ironed out all my jittery steering inputs as I debated where exactly to place the car throughout the corner. Kristensen's car was of some assistance, but following his line (and pace) wasn't exactly easy for this first-timer.
The run-up to my favorite corner, Turn 6, is exhilarating. You can't see anything but the bridge's enormous banner in front of you. It felt as if the 5.2-liter V10 rocketed me toward heaven at 110-plus mph. Then, before I knew it, surprise! The gnarly, left-handed kink forced me to change trajectory without any notice. Before I realized it, I was once again doing nearly 100 mph up the Rahal Straight and getting ready to tackle the infamous Corkscrew for my very first time.
Oddly enough, the Corkscrew itself was way less intimidating than I thought it would be. Yes, it's a blind, two-story drop-off, but somehow I felt more in control here than I did at the top of the hill near the finish line. It's the two corners following the Corkscrew, however, that had me praying for better driving skills in order to keep up with the leading E-Tron. If taken properly, Turns 9 and 10 should make you feel like you're about to fly off the track at 90-plus mph and meet your maker at the tire wall. How do I know? After my own laps, I rode shotgun with Kristensen just to see how the most successful endurance driver performs around Laguna. Let's just say that I was overcome by a mixture of fear and laughter for the entire ride.
Stay Golden, Pony Boy
Prior to last weekend, I had never driven an Audi R8, and I had never driven on Laguna Seca. Yet somehow I managed to check both of those boxes at the same time. More importantly, I was one of the last people to lap an Audi-owned R8 around a track. That's it, it's not happening again. No more. These two R8s from the event were headed back to Audi for some promo work before being officially decommissioned. Privately owned street and race cars will surely continue to inhabit city streets and road courses throughout the world, but this was truly it for official duty R8s.
In fact, the very last person to go out for a few laps was none other than the guy who started it all, Frank Lamberty, the daddy of the R8. It was during Lamberty's track outing that I actually rode as Kristensen's passenger in the lead car, so I was able to hear the kind words Mr. Le Mans had for Lamberty. After all, both of these larger-than-life characters owed much of their success to the R8 nameplate. Whether by the Le Mans-winning R8 LMP or the street-going R8, Lamberty and Kristensen's careers had been shaped by the performance icon.
With all the cars back on track, everyone from Audi took pictures and high-fived each other. To me, it was a cool day at the office, an opportunity to knock two major items off my bucket list, and most importantly, a very cool story to share with you. For those Audi guys, however, it was the culmination of more than two decades of work. While the R8 was on sale from 2007 (as a 2008 model) to 2023, the very first sketches for the project were drafted in early 2000. The project, codenamed F03 for Frankfurt 2003, saw many iterations before it became a reality. Heck, it even spawned a funky-looking twin that eventually became Will Smith's ride in the movie I, Robot.
There will never be another like the R8, because there simply can't be another like the R8. The never-ending quest for progress and performance simply won't allow it. Audi has retired its best-performing ICE supercar, and I had the chance to drive it into the sunset. What a ride.
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