Phillip Island is one of our favourite circuits and a stern test for any car. Is the new Audi R8 RWS up to the challenge?
While it’s true that the R8 RWS is Audi’s first rear-wheel-drive production car in forever, I’ve actually driven a rear-drive R8 before, and at this very circuit. Testing an R8 GT3 LMS race car remains one of the best days of my 20-year career, and I can’t help but mentally reference it as I snuggle down behind the wheel of the new R8 RWS.
Google Maps suggests that the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit is 1001km from the driveway of the evo Australia office. Despite this tyranny of distance, PI is very much our home circuit. In the five years of evo Australia’s existence, we’ve tested at the Island on at least 80 occasions. For perspective, Sydney Motorsport Park is just 35km from our door step and yet we’ve been there fewer than 10 times.
And despite the familiarity with Phillip Island, we never get tired of waiting for the light to go green so that we can glide through the access tunnel and into the inner sanctum of one of the best permanent racing circuits in the world. Like all of the great tracks, Phillip Island has difficult-to-judge double-apex corners, fast and flowing sections and the ups and downs of natural elevation changes. You can tell that the circuit builders simply draped the tarmac over the topography rather than bulldozing it into submission.
While we’ve tested all manner of cars at Phillip Island (from an anonymous 127kW Nissan Altima to an extroverted 544kW Lamborghini Aventador S), there’s little doubt that it’s a power circuit. Really quick stuff gets well beyond 200km/h three times per lap, with main-straight speeds exceeding 270km/h. And if you can trust the grip, there are two corners with apex speeds above 200km/h. Beyond the quickest corners, the run up through Hay Shed to Lukey Heights is one of the greatest ribbons of tarmac anywhere in the world. And it was here, in the Audi R8 LMS, that I had my perception of fast altered forever. I still recall with absolute clarity the hand-of-god downforce building as the most successful GT3 racer in history stormed through Hay Shed demanding another gear. Back one to fourth for the left-hander-over-crest at Lukey Heights where the data-logger later confirmed a speed of 172km/h.
Hot slicks and a full aero package made the R8 LMS unforgettable, but the howl of the naturally aspirated V10 engine and its friendly dynamic balance also reminded us of the R8 road car. Now, with the R8 RWS’ 5.2-litre V10 snarling away behind me and the pit exit framed through the windscreen ahead, I wonder how much race car DNA has been transferred back to Audi’s most-focused R8.
Once clear of the 40km/h pitlane limit, the R8 RWS leaps forward accompanied by an urgent howl from the V10 over my shoulder. The engine produces 397kW at 7800rpm and 540Nm at 6500rpm, making it more powerful than the circa 375kW race car engine (which is fitted with intake restrictors for balance-of-performance measures). Even with the pitlane start, the RWS is nudging 200km/h on the approach to turn one where it sniffs out the apex almost by instinct. The steering is fast without being hyperactive and the front end’s rate of response is natural and linear.
The tricky double-apex over crest at turn two is critical for a good run down towards the blindingly quick left hander that is Stoner Corner. It’s an easy corner to mess up with mid-corner understeer or exit oversteer. The RWS floats up and over the crest with a neutral set and absolutely goes feral down towards Stoner, ripping well beyond 200km/h. Later in the day I have a mighty stab of oversteer on the exit of turn two after getting cheeky with the throttle application post apex. The signals were clearly telegraphed that I’d asked too much and the steering and long wheelbase were strong allies in fixing the situation.
It might not have the reputation of The Chase at Mount Panorama or Eau Rouge at Spa, but Stoner Corner is a truly great corner and a serious test of car and driver. A fast and well-balanced car will apex on throttle at over 200km/h, then, as soon as the car is straight and settled, it’ll need to shed 130km/h for the right-handed Honda Hairpin. The RWS slices to the apex of Stoner well beyond 200km/h and with the eager engine hungrily ingesting air and fuel. Though the chassis is fully loaded with lateral forces that have to be nudging two G, the Audi’s stance remains remarkably flat. As the last of the steering lock is carefully unwound, the brakes cop a mighty hammering, but they cope heroically for lap after lap. The pedal is inspiringly firm and with consistent travel every time my left foot clamps down upon it.
In a powerful rear-drive car, Honda Hairpin is a corner of patience where you balance pre-apex understeer against exit oversteer. It’s the least dramatic corner on the circuit but a good lap demands that you get it right in order to set up a fast run to the double-apex left hander at Siberia. Like the Southern Loop (turn two), Siberia is approached from mid track for a late apex into the second phase of the corner. The exit is uphill and with favourable camber, so the R8 accepts full throttle without a hint of wheelspin or oversteer.
The left-right climb through Hay Shed on the way to Lukey Heights is filling the screen and the Audi compresses the distance, plucking gears on the run up through the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. The R8’s chassis is responsive and friendly and it encourages you to chase more and more speed through the challenging direction change.
Back a gear and up over Lukey Heights you can feel both ends go light, but there’s certainly a familiarity between the RWS and the LMS as you plunge down the other side for the hairpin at MG. It’s a big test of the brakes, but an even bigger one for the chassis. If you’re still unwinding left lock as you dive into the brakes for the tight, second-gear right hander, there’s a real fear that the front end could anchor and swing that big V10 around. But the RWS doesn’t blink at such requests and simply sheds speed and bites into the apex.
From here it’s a wide-open-throttle run up the gears and through two left handers – the first scythes past the pitlane entrance and the second onto the straight. Despite the dizzying speed down the straight, there’s time to reflect that Audi has created a unique version of the sublime R8. The RWS certainly shares DNA with the GT3 and GT4 racing variants, but it’s lost none of the civility that makes the R8 such an approachable supercar.