Heartbeat. I’ve got the world’s tiniest steering wheel in my hands and millions of dollars of responsibility on my shoulders.
Heartbeat. I’m inside the Audi race car that won this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s headed to a museum next — assuming I don’t destroy it first. This is the opportunity of a lifetime: to drive the Audi R18 E-tron that won the world’s toughest race. I’m at a racetrack in Misano, Italy, and I’ve got exactly four laps.
(That steering wheel, incidentally, is made of carbon fibre, is about the size of a bread plate and has two handles and some 40 buttons and switches crammed onto it. It looks like something out of a video game and is utterly intimidating.)
Even many professional race drivers would be cowed to drive the Audi E-tron, one of the world’s most advanced race cars. It looks like a spacecraft and is powered by a futuristic hybrid powertrain combining a turbo diesel engine and a kinetic energy recovery system. Hell itself should have so much fury.
Nor is the top speed of 322 km/h hypothetical. I was at Le Mans, France’s famous endurance race, this past June and saw the beast in action. It cut by so quickly your eye could barely follow it.
No wonder my pulse is going thud-thud-thud. I’m in so far over my head that I might as well be breathing water.
“Jason, start your engine,” crackles a voice through my helmet’s com system. That’s Leena Gade, the first and only woman to win a Le Mans as a chief race engineer, which she’s now done three times with Audi Sport Team Joest.
Gade will be my spirit guide through the four laps I’ve been gifted with in the R18. Or, at least, the Audi engineer will be watching the computer telemetry that’s coming directly from the race car. Using the radio, she’ll talk me through the car’s complex operation.
Still, once I’m out there, I’ll be on my own. My fate, and that of the car, is very much in my own hands. Harper, what have you gotten yourself into this time?
Months earlier, I’d watched this exact Audi R18 finish first at the Circuit de la Sarthe in northwestern France during the 82nd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It was 13th win at Le Mans since 2000 for Audi, a unit of Wolfsburg, Germany-based Volkswagen AG.
The endurance race is the most grueling in all of motor sports. Its influence in racing is as important as the Super Bowl or the World Cup is to their sports.
Formula One’s Monaco race may be more glamorous, but a win at Le Mans gains the most respect. This year Audi overcame a strong effort by Porsche, a fellow Volkswagen unit, and Toyota Motor Corp. to come out ahead. The winning R18 completed 379 laps and pitted 29 times over 24 hours.
At the time I’d casually asked Audi’s public relations head whether it would be possible for an amateur driver like myself to pilot the R18. I’m not sure whether that comment set this into motion. I’d like to think so, because now I’m at the Misano World Circuit, one of only a handful of journalists worldwide ever given such a chance.
But really, credit the fact that Audi wants to show off its top-dog technology and illustrate the trickledown effect to consumer cars. For pete’s sake, the R18 has laser lights! It’s also equipped with all-wheel drive and traction control, derivations of which you can find in the street-legal R8 sports car. (Due to federal regulations, US drivers will have to wait for the laser lights; they actually will come to drivers in Europe.)
In the end, though, the R8 has full-size doors and seats that recline. The R18? Not so much.
To enter the R18 cockpit you step on one of the car’s aerodynamic wings, clamber through a tiny winglike door, and stand on the seat. Then you lower your body down into the coffin. My left foot rests directly on the brake, my right on the gas. My butt is about 10 centimetres off the ground. I’ll shift the gears using paddles located behind the steering wheel.
The R18 is a hybrid, but rather than using heavy batteries to store energy, it has a mechanical flywheel. The flywheel is a device that stores energy by rotating at high speed. Kinetic energy captured from the brakes is converted into electrical energy, and then transferred and stored to the flywheel.
The flywheel releases that energy on demand. That usually happens when a driver comes out of a corner and buries the gas. At that point the KERS system lends a short surge of extra power. Think of a rubber band that’s pulled back to its snapping point and then let loose.
The startup sequence to get the engine running and the car rolling is as complicated as any Boeing 747 airplane. I’ve been going over it mentally all morning. The team, including two of the Le Mans-winning drivers, Andre Lotterer and Marcel Fassler, is watching. It must be painful to have someone manhandle their glorious race car like this. Sorry, guys.
Considering that I’m half reclining in the seat, I can see out better than expected. I get the car moving without stalling and notice the stern visage of Wolfgang Ullrich in my peripheral vision. His arms are crossed.
Ullrich is Audi’s head of motor sports, and he is both godfather and four-star general to the team. Getting to meet him, Leena Gade and the winning drivers is akin to hanging out with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Greene during the Pittsburgh Steelers’ glory years. These are world-class professionals.
I zip out of the pits and past a high, treacherous wall. There won’t be anybody else on the track, so I’m only a danger to myself. I’ve driven many laps over many years in many different cars, so no novice am I — but how many scratch golfers would feel easy about playing a round with Tiger Woods at St. Andrews? Because you know who you don’t want to be? The guy who wrecked the car that won Le Mans.
Sobering fact: A race car like the R18 works well only when it’s going fast. The tires have to get heat and pressure into them for best traction, and the brakes need to be warm to work properly. The wing and aerodynamic flaps on the car act to keep the car planted to the ground, the inverse of a wing on an airplane — but also only when moving quickly. Puttering around the track is not a possibility.
The Audi is oddly quiet. The turbo-diesel V-6 that powers the rear wheels is virtually silent, producing more of a blowing and chugging sound than any noise you’d associate with a high- powered six-cylinder. During Le Mans, the Audi would blow by like a deadly wind.
Gade comes over the radio and calmly instructs me to turn on the KERS system. The car will be functioning in full race mode, good for some 395kW and 800Nm of torque. I cast my eyes down, find the switch to my left and flip it. The flywheel is right next to me, covered by a carbon casing, and I imagine it coming to life like a dervish.
Time to test this new-age system. I come to a corner and cram on the brakes, and the car comes to almost a complete stop. OK, I’ll brake later next time. Good to know. I exit the corner and get on the gas, and a wave of pressure builds — the flywheel powering the front wheels for just a moment, turning the car into an all-wheel drive. That’s the KERS system in action. This is going to be fun.
I complete my first lap. Three more to go. I don’t know the track, but it’s now or never. And my worries are fading. I’m concentrating on just driving. I speed up. The tiny steering wheel has a row of neon lights on its face. They light up green to red as the car’s rpms build. When they hit red, it’s time to shift to the next gear. I’m standing on the gas and they’re going green-to-red, green-to-red, almost faster than I can react. The track before me is blurring.
The next corner approaches in a split second. I slam on the brakes and the car slows magically. I negotiate the turn, get back on the gas and feel the full jolt from the system. The track streaks in front of me. I’m almost, but not quite, shifting quickly enough now. Gade has gone silent, a good sign, as she’d reel me in if I get too crazy.
I come into one corner offline and the traction control kicks in. The car is more forgiving than I’d imagined. I’d have spun in a Formula One car.
I put the mistake behind me. The track is spooling behind me more and more quickly. The car is incredible. Noise, concentration and reality-blurring speeds and then — it’s my last lap. Gade comes onto the radio, tells me to turn off the KERS system, releasing the extra pent-up energy. The car swells with extra power for one long moment, and then goes slack.
I head to the pits. I’m exuberant and the anxiety is gone. I haven’t crashed or embarrassed myself. I won’t make every automobile blog around the globe. I was almost anxious for this to be over. Now, of course, I want more.
I get out of the car and am greeted by Fassler, the winning Le Mans driver from Switzerland. He gives me a hearty handshake and then the not-so-stern Ullrich gives me a half hug. These guys love their car and their racing program and they’re excited when somebody else is as excited as they are. And, of course, I didn’t wreck their car.
It’s a good day, one of the best, actually. I’ll never get this chance again. For four laps, I got to drive the car that won Le Mans.
–Jason H. Harper