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We ride shotgun with Le Mans star Allan McNish

We ride shotgun with Le Mans star Allan McNish We ride shotgun with Le Mans star Allan McNish We ride shotgun with Le Mans star Allan McNish We ride shotgun with Le Mans star Allan McNish We ride shotgun with Le Mans star Allan McNish We ride shotgun with Le Mans star Allan McNish We ride shotgun with Le Mans star Allan McNish
 

Words: Graeme Lambert - @graeme_lambert

Published on: May 31, 2012

Words: Graeme Lambert - @graeme_lambert

Published on: May 31, 2012

We ride shotgun with Le Mans star Allan McNish

A track day special this is not; the Audi R8 LMS is a purpose-built race car ready for customer use. It features exotic materials, an exotic engine and in this case a Scottish driver - seems like the perfect combination to us.

Key Facts

Model tested: Audi R8 LMS
Engine: 5.2-litre V10 petrol
Transmission: six-speed sequential, rear-wheel drive
Body style: two-door coupé (race configuration)
Brakes: steel discs front and rear
Suspension: Eibach springs, adjustable Bilstein dampers and anti-roll bars
Wheels: 18-inch front and rear
Weight: 1,290kg
Power: 489- to 552hp (dependant on restrictor size)
Torque: Over 500Nm

In the Metal

This Audi R8 LMS looks rather unfinished, almost like it was stolen from the factory before the final touches were applied. In some ways that hits the nail on the head - the chassis do indeed get cherry-picked from the production line before the car is completed, then tweaked by Audi Sport and quattro GmbH to customer race specifications. So though it bears a close resemblance to the production supercar it only takes a few seconds more to realise this is no ordinary footballer's Ferrari rival.

Devoid of the road-regulated front number plate the full-length Audi grille is allowed to shine complete, and even when flanked by the standard car's headlamps it's without doubt the meanest mother in the family. Front wheelarches finish abruptly behind heavily cambered 18-inch front wheels and the deep side skirts and aggressive splitter bring the car closer to the tarmac, both at rest and speed. Oh and there's the obligatory rear wing so big that someone's bound to compare it to a picnic table...

There's no room for eating inside though, and fatties will have a job folding themselves past the tight roll cage and into the uncompromising race seat. Five-point harness tightened, I'm suddenly glad I missed dessert at lunch, and then I'm struck by the layout of the cabin. Closely following that of the road car the dash top even retains the stitching where the passenger airbag would normally be, while the familiar centre console shape is devoid of any normal switchgear save for a circular air vent. Of course there's all manner of other controls here, including ones that definitely shouldn't be touched by mere passengers. There's also a small Scottish man behind the squared-off suede steering wheel who goes by the name of Allan McNish.

On Track

We've been winding each other up all day, him suggesting I wait until after the passenger ride for lunch and me asking whether he really is that fast. It all seemed like gentle banter, with Allan even encouraging me to keep my foot down in the R8 GT while driving past the pit wall earlier in the day. My stolen quote (I can't remember where from) of "you can sleep in your car, but can't race your house" does seem - to me at least - rather appease matters but I've been wrong before...

There's not much talk as we gently roll down the pit lane, not because of any ill feeling, but without sound deadening the engine roars behind our heads and stones rattle against the car's underside. You could say that this takes aural priority, and for the next ten minutes conversation will clearly be kept to sign language - I even manage to refrain from swearing with my fingers.

Second gear engaged and the exit of the pit lane in sight Allan squeezes the throttle and already the cold tyres give up the fight, the rear end squirming under load before he twists the ASR (traction control) dial to get things back under control. No sooner has he done this and he's straight back on the power. We're barely 300 yards into the circuit and the speeds - and accelerative forces - are scarcely believable. So it's not long before he's hard on the brakes and getting ready to gently pitch the R8 into the first left-hander.

My body is thrown forward in the harnesses and the weight of my rather ungainly helmet is suddenly apparent, my neck straining against the rapidly slowing cabin around me. Just as I think I've got my limbs into the same control as Allan has the car, my head clatters against the steel roll cage - not because of any rash movement from Allan of course; it's just this car wasn't really designed with passengers in mind.

It's the grip that's done it you see; for though this car always seems to feel on its limits, or more accurately ever so slightly past them, it's a point that is incredibly high. Certainly not something I've ever experienced in a road car. From my seat there is little evidence of understeer, the limited slip differential, rear wheel-drive chassis and slick tyres putting paid to that. Allan's judicious use of throttle, one which sees the rear end swing out to tighten the nose, probably helps.

Down the straight the LMS reaches well into three figures, and carries it through the chicane too. And though the road-car's R-tronic gearbox might be smoother (itself not exactly a paragon of shift refinement), the sequential box on this R8 is lightning quick, Allan rapidly ascending and descending the cogs ready for his next move. Lightweight, powerful, full of grip and in the right hands (i.e. Allan's not mine) this is one seriously impressive motor. Having not so much as had to squirm, never mind scream, in the passenger seat it would appear I was right: what was friendly banter before remained just that. Which is good, as in McNish's hands I'm confident this über impressive motor could have been the one to scare my lunch back out.

What you get for your Money

If you want to know the price of the R8 LMS then you're already likely to be short of the required. Though it uses a conventional aluminium space frame chassis, it's matched to carbon fibre and composite body panels as well as the aforementioned race sequential gearbox. There's also the option of a race clutch and Stäubli race refuelling system. In short, if you're looking to use this as an expensive track toy you'd best look elsewhere, as it's simply too sophisticated for that. And if you're a serious racer at club or semi-pro level? Best get talking to your sponsors.

Worth Noting

Despite an impressive set of figures and on-track performance, including winning over 100 races and 13 championship titles, Audi has already set about improving the car. For the 2012 season customer teams will be able to campaign the new R8 LMS 'ultra', which has already placed first and second in the 2012 Nürburgring 24-hour race.

Summary

While the Audi R8 GT Coupé and Spyder, driven earlier in the day, are undoubtedly impressive tools, the LMS version takes it to another (much much higher) level. The road cars can't hold a candle to the ability of this race car on the track, and despite the obvious similarities, in the right hands this R8 LMS really does shine brighter than anything else I've ever had the pleasure to experience.