When it comes to high performance driving, stability control, Quattro all-wheel drive, and basic survival instinct can only take you so far. If you want to be able to hold your own on a road course, you'll need to learn the fundamentals and build up from there. And in an era where 400, 500, and even 600 horsepower in production vehicles is par for the course, proper driver training is more crucial than ever, as these machines can build up some serious pace in short order.
It's for that reason Audi of America offers the Audi Driving Experience, a collection of high performance driver training programs tailored to various experience levels and the drivers' desired areas of focus. Previously held at Sonoma Raceway in northern California, the company recently relocated the program to the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, and expanded the program offerings in turn.
While we were at CoTA putting Audi's latest iteration of the R8 through its paces, we had a chance to sample some of program's key components first-hand and glean some insight from Eric Paradis, VP Business Development at CoTA and the head of the Audi Driving Experience, about the scope of the different regimens and how they train enthusiasts to be faster and safer on track.
THE NEW VENUE
After more than a decade of running the program at Sonoma, Audi had reached a point where they had the opportunity to reassess the program. "When the time came up for the company to renew its agreement with Sonoma, they took a step back to consider their options—they'd been running the program on the West Coast for a number of years, and they wanted to make it easier for folks the in central and eastern parts of America to participate," Paradis explained. "At the same time we were looking to host a permanent driving experience at our facility, and the location just made it a natural choice for the program."
It doesn't hurt that Circuit of the Americas is also a world-class racetrack. While Sonoma is a fantastic road course in its own right, one could argue that CoTA is operating on an entirely different level. "There's only a handful of Grade One facilities currently in North America," Paradis noted. "And CoTA is one of them."
That Grade One denotation comes from the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) sanctioning body, and denotes CoTA as being one of the 39 road courses worldwide that is eligible to host Formula One-level racing (vehicles with a power-to-weight ratio greater than one horsepower per kilogram). A number of different elements play into that designation, like road surface quality and course layout, but safety is undoubtedly the biggest factor.
"One of the changes versus a track like Sonoma is the potential for higher speeds," Paradis said. "But it's also potentially safer because the run-off areas are much more generous. So the perspective from our end is that people will feel more comfortable learning in this kind of environment."
Along with an autocross course and figure-8 skid pad, the programs utilize three configurations of the track: The 1.1-mile Club circuit, the 2.3-mile National circuit, and the twenty turn, 3.4-mile Grand Prix circuit, the latter of which can see an R8 approaching 160 mph before scrubbing off speed for the following corner, as we discovered.
BUILDING A FOUNDATION
Of course you have to learn how to walk before you can run, so the training programs ensure that students have the fundamentals nailed down before they venture well into triple digit territory.
The Audi Sport Dynamic Experience ($595) is the first level in the program's four available regimens. The half-day session focuses on practicing key principles of performance driving behind the wheel of the Audi RS 3 and the TT RS in various dynamic exercise paddocks.
After a classroom session, students hop in the driver's seat and put these performance machines through slalom and emergency braking courses before moving up to the handling course and low-friction skid pad, the latter of which provides students with firsthand experience in how to react in understeer and oversteer situations.
"This one is about building the basic skills needed to drive on track while also making our students safer drivers out on public roads," Paradis points out. "We also end that half-day program with a few lead-follow laps of the main course, which is sort of a teaser for the second level program and gives the students a taste of what it's like to drive on track."
Once the basics of car control and dynamic handling have been established, drivers can step up to what Audi refers to as the Audi Sport Track Initiation Experience ($995). While this half-day second tier program has a greater emphasis on track time, Audi doesn't simply send folks out on course like Circuit of the Americas behind the wheel of an R8 V10 Plus and hope for the best.
"Instead of just putting people out there without knowing the environment and the fundamentals of driving on track, we break it down into sectors," Paradis explained. "So for instance you'll drive from Turn 1 to Turn 5, and we focus on the specific driving skills that are needed to tackle that sector of the track before moving on. That way we're not overloading our students with information—it simplifies the learning process."
The full course is segmented into four distinct sections in this format, and once drivers are comfortable with each sector, the program ties them together for a full course session.
GOING FULL TILT
The Audi Sport R8 Track Initiation Experience ($2,195) is the third tier on the totem pole, a full day program that not only includes more track time, but a stronger focus on more advanced driving techniques. "Here we're working on consistency, vision, and some of the technical aspects of track driving using the Club, National, and Grand Prix course configurations."
Paradis also noted that the R8 plays a larger role as well. "Along with the lead-follow track sessions, the R8 is used alongside the TT-RS and RS 3 for the skid control exercises."
Another benefit of the R8 Track Initiation Experience is that graduates are eligible for the Audi Sport R8 Pro Track Experience ($4,995). This advanced program provides students with two full days of training behind the wheel of the R8 and focuses on finding—and sometimes exceeding—its limits.
"Now you're going into more advanced dynamic exercises like the Scandinavian Flick—it's more about oversteer and skid control at higher speeds. From there we go into high speed sector training before transitioning directly into lapping sessions on the Grand Prix circuit."
BEHIND THE WHEEL
During our half-day at CoTA, we spent the majority of our time trading off between stints on the autocross/handling course in the TT RS and RS 3 and lapping the GP course in the R8.
With a light drizzle coating the track surface early in the morning but sunny skies predicted later on, we opted to try our hand at the autocross first. It's a great primer even for experienced drivers—although everything happens at a lower rate of speed versus the race track, most of the events transpire in much shorter succession, demanding smooth but fast and deliberate inputs along with all the same fundamentals of car control we'd need once we hopped behind the wheel of the R8.
It also gave us a chance to really put the Quattro system through its paces, as Audi installed a low-friction surface on a hairpin corner mid-way through the course and soaked it down with a hose for good measure. Even with AWD grip, impatience in either corner entry or corner exit will cost a driver a lot of time—when we neglected to scrub off enough speed before entering the corner, both the TT RS and RS 3 would simply push to the outer reaches of the corner, and getting on the throttle too early at corner exit would send the cars into a sweet (but ultimately slow) power slide.
"We wanted to have something that would be fun for folks who're pushing the envelope a little bit further," Paradis told us. "Here they can master their skills with the Quattro systems. Having that slightly unpredictable element helps drivers figure out what they need to do in different handling situations and correct bad habits if they're exhibited."
With orange cones being the only available objects to hit, the handling course was a great place to discover the limits of the car and our own abilities in an essentially risk-free environment. And it also gave the race track a chance to dry off.
"OK, we're going to need to brake pretty hard here," said our instructor over the radio from the R8 we were chasing down the back straight during our second session on the GP course. We dared a quick glance at the speedometer before standing on the big, six-piston stoppers—158 mph.
With 20 turns and several long straights, Circuit of the Americas' Grand Prix course can seem a bit intimidating initially. But once we'd gotten accustomed to the layout, it was easy to understand why this track is so well regarded, and our pace increased as we got used to the rhythm of the circuit.
There's an old adage among enthusiasts that it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. While that may be true, the pairing of an R8 with CoTA's GP course proves that, ultimately, fast car fast is really still the most preferable combination.