It’s hard to see signs of the historic east-west divide in Berlin anymore but you do get a sense of what the Eastern Bloc must have been at Gross Dolln, an ex-Soviet airbase deep in the German forest near the Polish border. Gross Dolln, which once saw Russian Tupolevs and MiGs take off from its 3km-long runway, is now disused and crumbling. But this expansive, secluded setting now works well as a driver training centre and I am here to have a go in the Audi R8 V10 without any speed limits and traffic to worry about.
After a quick introduction with our instructor over coffee in the immaculate Audi hangar, which contrasts starkly with the dilapidated barracks, it was time to get acquainted with the R8 in a slalom exercise.
This second-gear wiggle through a set of cones was more educational than exciting. It gave the first feel of the R8’s accurate but low-geared steering, which meant a fair amount of arm twirling. This frantic left-right-left pull of the helm also highlighted how quickly the R8 changes direction and the amazing agility typical of a mind-engined car. With each run, confidence grew into over-confidence, more so when I knew I had the safety net of a gamut of electronic aids (Audi tweaked the circuitry so the ESP couldn’t be disengaged) to keep me pointing in the right direction.
The next exercise, to test the effectiveness of the ABS, was a bit of a non-event. That’s because the R8 felt so utterly rock-steady while braking hard and simultaneously changing lanes. There was no tail-wagging or locked wheels but that’s to be expected from any car with a sophisticated stability control programme. In fact, all these exercise were more of a warm-up for the real thing – a near flat-out drive on the small but very interesting 2km circuit right in the middle of Gross Dolln.
We were paced by an instructor who started off slowly to familiarise us with the ideal lines, before he picked up the pace. It took only a couple of laps to get comfortable because, unlike many other mid-engined cars which can scare the hell out of you, the R8 is actually flattering to drive.
The 5.2-litre FSI V10, which is quite similar to the Lamborghini Gallardo’s motor, is the best bit of the R8. It’s not a peaky, high-strung motor but has lots of low-down torque which plays to the track novice in me. If you’re a gear too high, in or out of a corner, you don’t lose too much time and the staggering acceleration (0-100kph in a claimed 4.1 second) accompanied by a superb soundtrack urges you to shift only at the heady 8500rpm redline. The paddle-shift auto ‘box isn’t particularly quick and the downshifts take an age but that’s to be expected on a track from a gearbox that’s designed to work smoothly on the road.
Into the second of the five-lap stints, I felt more in control. I was familiar with the blind crests, turn-in, apex and braking points on this undulating circuit with its tricky off-chamber and tightening radius corners. But despite all the electronic nannies taking care of me, my driving was far from perfect and I did have a few the moments on the damp tarmac where the R8 wasn’t always pointing quite so straight. You can’t escape the big lump of a V10 sitting behind you and hence delicate steering and throttle movements count for a lot. In fact, if the ESP was switched off, I am sure I would have ended up doing a couple of 360deg pirouettes.
To show us how it’s properly done the day ended with a passenger ride with Marco Werner in the race-prepared Audi R8 LMS. This racer in the GT3 class produces ‘only’ 500bhp because of the air restrictors specified by the class regs. However, it’s much lighter, comes with rear-wheel drive only and has been honed purely for racing, which makes it a different animal altogether. I clambered over the LMS’s cage and into the heavily bolstered seat, got strapped in with a six-point harness and was set for a very special joy ride.
Compared to the regular road-going R8, the LMS was much more agile and quicker. It would dart into corners, stop like it would dart into corners, stop like it had hit a concrete wall and pull enough g-forces to make my neck ache within two laps. Making the biggest difference was Marco of course, who made it all look so easy.
Race car drivers are a truly special breed, the automotive equivalent of fighter pilots, the kind who made several sorties from this very piece of tarmac, before the Wall came down.