Ah, the life of a supercar. Take a look around high-roller enclaves like Miami Beach or Malibu and you’ll surely see plenty of brightly colored mid-engine lust buckets idling their way through traffic en route to the restaurant valet stand. It’s a shame, but the cars most capable of astounding feats of speed are the ones most likely to spend their days in traffic purgatory, 95 percent of their performance left in the envelope. I like to sneak the keys to cars like that and break them out of jail, put them to the glorious use that their engineers intended.
And that’s how I find myself sliding sideways up an unplowed mountain road in an Audi R8 V10 Spyder. We are at the O’Neil Rally School in New Hampshire, home to a 600-acre driving playground, a fleet of rally cars and no valets.
O’Neil uses Audi 4000s for its all-wheel-drive classes, which is why the hills are alive with the singular reverberation of 15 cylinders at work — 10 in the R8 and another five under the hood of the 1984 4000 Quattro that’s chasing me up the hill. That car’s driven by O’Neil director of special projects Wyatt Knox, who’s having no problem keeping up with me despite the fact that I have 525 horsepower and he’s driving an angular little 30-year-old tank. Driving skills aside, snow-covered gravel is a great equalizer. And those old Audis are actually pretty amazing little cars.
“They’re really overbuilt, in terms of axles, diffs, CV joints,” Knox says. “They’re good learner cars because they have factory locking diffs in the center and rear.” Thus, you have to practice good rally techniques to get them to turn. “With these things, you’d better be sliding before you even get to the corner,” he says.
The R8, on the other hand, is happy to camouflage my shortcomings with its abundance of power and tail-wagging 70 percent nominal rear torque bias. Knox demonstrates the correct way to link turns through the slalom, squeezing the brake before turning in so that the front tires bite to help set up the turn. He gracefully dances the R8 down through the cones, going so fast that the wind buffets me through the side window. The windshield doesn’t help much when you’re doing 45 mph sideways.
When it’s my turn, I try to employ the correct rally method but soon revert to the hillbilly throttle-steer antics that I learned each winter while piloting a rear-wheel-drive pickup to high school in Maine. Knox calls me out, in a nice way. “You know, this thing is so rear-biased that I’ll bet you could just kick the rear end out with throttle alone,” he says. I admit that yes, that’s what I’m doing. I’m driving a $184,000 Audi like it’s the General Lee. And that is exactly as much fun as it sounds.
This car is a 2014 model, shod with Pirelli snow tires. (Fun trivia fact: the R8 skipped from the 2012 to 2014 model years, which means that the 2013 R8 joins the 1983 Corvette and 1996 Wrangler on the list of cars that never existed.) There are many small changes for 2014, along with one big one — the balky single-clutch sequential manual gearbox is gone, replaced by a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
I love manual transmissions, particularly the metal-gated one in the R8, but the new S Tronic dual-clutch is certainly a defensible choice. In the case of the V10 Spyder, the dual-clutch car is significantly quicker, with 0-60 mph dropping from 4.0 seconds to 3.6. I do wish, though, that the shift paddles were fixed to the steering column rather than the wheel, since the shift paddles end up in opposite locations if the wheel’s upside down. In which case, you can still shift with the big console lever, but I never miss an opportunity to promote column paddles. Knox points out that the R8’s squared-off steering wheel is better than a top-dead-center mark because you can tell by feel where the wheel is oriented — maybe not a big deal on a road course, but quite a bonus here in the woods.
We spend most of our time tracking up the fresh snow in a wide-open area, but by the end of the day Knox is satisfied that my car control is adequate for a dirt road stage. That’s when we blaze up the route that takes us up the hill, the R8 and its 30-year-older sibling singing in unison. It’s quite an amazing moment. “How many supercars would even make it up that hill?” Knox asks. Top down, no less.
By the time I reluctantly leave the O’Neil compound, the R8 is grimy but otherwise unscathed. I daresay it enjoyed the workout. As for the fleet of 4000s, Knox says that pretty soon they’ll be looking for replacements—not because the cars are failing, but simply because O’Neil has already scavenged just about every Audi 4000 in the northeast and the supply of wear-and-tear spare parts is running thin. And after the 4000s are used up, the replacement is anyone’s guess. Audi 80s or 90s? Subaru Imprezas?
I’d like to think that 30 years from now, there might be a car up here reserved for really special occasions. It would be dinged up, gutted and caged, maybe picked up at a salvage auction at the bottom of its depreciation cycle. The R8 might not look like a rally car, but it proved today that the glory days of Group B haven’t yet vanished in its rearview mirror.