The Audi S8, 2013 edition, moved around the track smoothly and efficiently, like a knife cutting into an oozing wedge of farm-fresh cheese. It steered without hitch, taking the turns with flawless deliberation. Inside the luxurious leather-stitched cabin, Audi’s unique sonic-reduction technology masked the skidding tires until they were nothing more than the delightful squealing of a litter of acorn-fed piglets. Outside, the Spanish sky was stark and cloudy, the hills around the track wheat-yellow. The car braked quickly and parked on a diagonal dime, with maximum grace.
I sat in a Munich hotel room wearing only my boxer briefs, watching the car do all this on a YouTube promotional video. In fewer than 24 hours, I was supposed to get into a similar Audi S8 in Spain for a “first drive” around the Circuito de Navarre, a Formula One racetrack that opened in 2010. I felt very nervous; I didn’t know how to drive on a racetrack. An Indy driver had just died in a fiery and horrific crash. Didn’t the Audi people see that footage? Shouldn’t caution rule the day? But maybe they hadn’t. Just look at their S8 on YouTube, going so fast and taking those turns so close, skidding to a stop like it’s finishing a victory lap. The car has 520 horsepower. No one uses that much horsepower, except for movie spies.
The newest version of the S8, which will likely cost around $115,000 when it appears in the U.S. in the summer of 2012, has an all-new twin-turbocharged V-8 engine. With a stiffer suspension than the A8, it’s extremely high performance, a real “driver’s car.” But it isn’t technically a racing vehicle. It’s an executive-class sedan designed for commuting and weekend drives. Audi decided to deploy it on a track, a company PR guy told me, “to show what it can do.”
German car executives often pick Spain for testing because there are open roads and a long sport-driving season. Spain brings to mind warmth and leisure and hot-shot driving. But the thought of Spain, which I’d always wanted to visit, suddenly filled me with terror.
That morning, I’d arrived in Munich and had immediately gone to a co-ed public bathhouse, on purpose and by design. I’d walked more than three miles to get there because I didn’t want to spend money on a cab. Then I’d gone to a public market and eaten weisswurst and a pretzel. I like to travel slowly and cheaply. These people were going to let me into their luxury car? Was I really the best man for the job? I’m qualified, possibly even over-qualified, to sit in an outdoor sauna with naked old German ladies. Driving an Audi around a racetrack, not so much.
I was going to do it anyway.
The next morning, Audi flew me and ten other automotive writers to Pamplona, via private charter jet. The corporation had transformed a significant corner of the Pamplona Airport into a private Audi hospitality suite, with beverages and petits-fours available at all times. Apparently, Audi hadn’t received the memo about the global recession. Their customer base isn’t the 99 percent.
We sat in high black-seated chairs at white plastic tables, like we were about to enjoy happy hour at a trendy bar, and received the briefest briefing in briefing history. “We are presenting Audi’s most high-end powerful sedan,” said the Audi employee, publicly reading in English for the first time since secondary school, “the ultimate in comfort, efficiency, and quality.” This 3rd-generation car used 23 percent less fuel than the previous generation. The twin turbo V-8 engine produced up to 650 Newton meters of torque, whatever that means [that’s 479 ft-lbs of torque, to American gearheads—Ed.]. Despite the massive power at our disposal, Audi advised us not to break any local traffic laws, because “the police are out and efficient,” ready to slap down a 100-Euro fine on the spot.
It was time to drive to the track, which was nearly an hour away.
Outside the airport, an Audi armada awaited us. As always with such missions, we traveled with partners. I ended up with a nice young man named Joe, from Kelley Blue Book, who let me drive. We spent 15 minutes in the roundabouts coming out of the airport, because we found the GPS instructions confusing.
“This is not good,” Joe said.
At last, we escaped. Joe had driven the Audi A8 on a separate trip to Spain. This was more or less the same car, he said, with the big exception being the 520 hp engine. Other than that, he said, the major difference was the sporty chrome décor in the S8 as opposed to the A8’s wood veneer. The Audi S8, Joe said, is “full of luxury-car things that wealthy people like.”
The car accelerated to 80 mph (140 km/h) very easily. Also, the windshield wipers, which I activated because it was raining, didn’t make a lot of noise. That seemed like a plus. My editor had told me to bring some music, because the car contains a $10,000 Bang & Olufsen stereo system. But it didn’t accept my first-generation iPod. Audi had programmed a couple albums into the system, which we ignored because they were just too terrible. The radio stations in Spain don’t offer much of interest unless you’re a hippie raver -- Bob Marley and the Pet Shop Boys were the best case -- but despite our inability to find anything worth listening to, the audio sounded clear and costly.
Joe and I were so busy trying out the sound system that we missed the turnoff for the racetrack. Soon after, the texts and calls started coming in; we’d delayed the proceedings. At 1:15 pm, we pulled up, and were met by several sleek, attractive Germans who were all “velcome, velcome, the press event is starting,” and then they ushered us into an upstairs room which had been decorated just like the hospitality suite at the airport, and I was wearing a headset tuned to channel 2 for the English translation. Two men in black suits were performing a skit in from of the S8’s gargantuan engine, saying things like,
“What Audi is putting on the road now is superior to all its predecessors in all ways.” They went on about “throttle response” and “a new and redesigned rear-end diffuser.”
Outside, the track loomed.
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“Have fun, don’t worry,” one of the seemingly endless horde of Audi employees was telling me. “The car is really fast. As fast as the R8.”
The R8, as car aficionados know, is Audi’s sleek, low-slung, two-seat, mid-engined sports car. Which meant the sedan was going to be fast. But did it need to be that fast? And why did the French journalists get to drive around the track before we did? Was it really a good idea to feed us artisanal sausage, deep-fried crab puffs, and homemade parfait before sending us to drive around a racetrack? These things were all going through my mind.
The big question was: Do I wear a helmet or not? It is optional, the Germans said. After all, the Audi S8 is perfectly safe under all circumstances. But the guy from Edmunds, who seemed sane, took one.
“I have kids,” he said. “I can’t afford any head injuries.”
I’m also a father, and I also wore the helmet.
Next, we received our safety briefing. Two “pillows” on the track, or cones, meant you’d reached a braking point. One cone up and one down meant “turn in,” the racing term for when you begin your turn. A green cone is the “Ausfahrt,” the hilarious German word for exit. Three of us would drive at a time, appropriately spaced, and we’d each get three turns around the track, plus two introductory laps led by a man driving an actual racecar.
“You all had the safety briefing?” asked our guide.
“Yeah,” I said. “But I don’t remember it.”
“I have short term memory problems.”
“For this,” he said, “we make the two introductory laps.”
The track drive began. My focus wasn’t quite as stiff as the S8’s suspension. I couldn’t determine how fast I was going, because I was just trying not to die around the turns, of which there were many. Sweat pooled under my helmet liner. In conversation later, the other drivers came to a group conclusion: The S8 had plenty of giddyap and flawless steering. The brakes worked well but seemed a little worn-out from all the track driving. It’s a $115,000 car. At that price, the flaws had best be minimal.
Halfway through the second test lap, I took a sharp turn too fast, or I misjudged the distance to the next turn. Either way, I went wide past the green paint, into the spinout area. It wasn’t my slickest moment. Every test, the other drivers told me, some shmo from somewhere drives a car into a wall or a barricade. I was determined not to be that guy. There are no heroes on press junket drives; there are only chumps. Perhaps that goes without saying.
For my solo laps, I took off my sweater and scarf because I was sweating like a beast in that helmet, which made me look like a technician on the Death Star. I now knew the course, and took it easy, never going past 180 km/h. I braked sufficiently and turned wittily. The car felt like it belonged out there on the track.
After about half an hour, I pulled into the finish, alive. Joe was waiting for me, looking like a kid who’s just driven around a racetrack. Actually, that’s exactly what he was.
“You see why people get into this,” he said.
“Sure,” I said.
There were chocolate foie gras lollipops sloshing around in my belly. Also, I hadn’t really slept in two days. I wanted immediate access to a toilet, followed by a bottle of sparkling water.
Afterward, Joe and I went for a bromance-drive in the country, where we encountered several evil-looking tractors and a Basque shepherd moving his flock down the road. This delayed us 15 minutes.
“Dude, we should turn around,” Joe said.
“Nah,” I said. “It’ll end.”
The sheep parted. We drove to our hotel, which was designed by Frank Gehry, in swooping purple steel, as a tribute to the Spanish wine industry. At the entrance, underneath a spotlight, sat a gleaming silver Audi S8, arrogantly assuming the local peasantry would never attempt a revolt.
Because I hadn’t been treated well enough, apparently, they gave me a 750-square-foot executive suite with a private balcony opening onto a vineyard. After an hour-long tub soak, I put on my sports coat and went to a “presentation,” where I ate ample quantities of Spanish ham. We went on a tour of the hotel’s private wine “cathedral,” which contained 180,000 bottles, some of them dating back to 1862. Then they ushered us upstairs to have a private dinner tailored to the palates of German auto executives.
I ended up at a somewhat wonky table with an Audi functionary and his translator, who described to us the ideal Audi customer — a wealthy American architect who likes something sporty but stylish — and the actual Audi customer — a rapacious Chinese businessman who wants his car to have the largest engine available even if the smaller engine is better-performing and more efficient.
Bow down before the one you serve.
“After today,” the executive said, “I’m sure you do not rue your choice of profession.”
It’s not my profession, I thought. And I didn’t choose it. But I was in no position to rue.