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Sponsored feature: Audi track to track

28th Oct 2014 6:10 pm

Sponsored feature: Setting hot laps on race tracks in fast cars is one thing, but what if they're driven 3700km across India, from circuit to circuit?

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NH46, 11:30pm

There’s a steady flow of traffic on the dark highway to Coimbatore. Our three-car convoy is cantering along coolly, remaining stoically calm even as car after car slow down, their sleepy occupants peering incredulously at us and eventually zipping away as the trio remains impervious to any bait to race down the highway. I can’t blame them. Running into a menacing 553bhp Audi RS7, a subtle yet potent 420bhp Audi S6 and the timeless sportscar, the Audi TT, bunched together on an open highway, begs disbelief. This must be some kind of race, right? Nah, but we do have a date with the Kari Motor Speedway (KMS) early next morning. And to think, this intrepid trio will have tucked into 500km of public roads after the morning’s hammering at the Madras Motor Race track (MMRT). And this is just the beginning.

Earlier that day: MMRT, 7:55am

Fast and fragile. It is common wisdom that the faster a car, the more fragile it is. If so, how fragile would Audi’s frisky TT, svelte S6 and the wicked RS7 be? We are about to find out in excruciating detail as we embark on the ambitious Tri-Circuit Challenge. As if setting hot laps at three of India’s race tracks isn’t brutal enough, on the Tri-Circuit Challenge, the same three cars will be driven over 3700km of public roads to get to the three race tracks. The Audi India engineers and our planning team at Autocar India knew that it was a bit of a gamble. I am partial to the machines and feel that their reputation for being dainty is more because of overly protective and unadventurous owners rather than mechanical frailty.

I am yanked out of my thoughts as Aditya Patel walks into the pits. He’s early. Over the last four years, the Audi-backed driver has clearly inculcated a Germanic streak as he cut his teeth racing the VW Polo Cup, the VW Scirocco R Cup and the hyper-competitive ADAC GT Masters series in Europe. His young but seasoned hands are going to put the three cars through their paces at each track. After a quick hello, I show him out to the main straight, where the three hotties are posing for a photo shoot.

While we wrap up a few shots, Aditya and I chat about the running order, and discuss how these three Audis will stack up at the end of the day. The manic RS7 is the obvious favourite. I secretly hold a hope that the discreet S6 surprises us. Despite it having adequate horsepower, I am certain its soft suspension setup will undoubtedly hamper it on the track. The TT is a bit of a dark horse — it is the least powerful but its small dimensions, tight suspension and massive rear wing could spring a surprise.

The TT’s stiff, race-track-oriented suspension catches me by surprise as we head out on the warm-up lap. In the driver’s seat, Aditya is completely at home, having raced a TT and won at the 24 Hours Nürburgring in 2012. “On a race track, it is beautiful. The cornering speeds are something else. See, you barely have to slow down,” he says, as we rocket through C6. The TT seems to switch direction without any intermediate transition phase. Bam. Bam. Bam. The only give-away is the squeal of tyres and a seatbelt that’s threatening to squish me as I get tossed around by the G forces.

Aditya is expertly using the TT’s power and agility and every millimetre of the track. The kerbs give me a ferocious massage every now and then as Aditya builds up to speed and heads into the flying lap. “This is like a big go-kart,” he quips as he attacks the chicane. “It’s so easy, I don’t have to put in any effort as long as I slow it down in time.” I expect the TT to be a bit understeer-y, necessitating a point-and-shoot style of driving. While it has a slight hint of understeer, the TT is surprisingly neat and adjustable in its track-attack mode. The first flying lap yields a 2min04sec time, close to Aditya’s estimates. A second and final attempt slices the time down into the high 2min03.7sec. The TT may be as fast as expected, but its composure is beyond my wildest expectations.

Next, it’s the turn of the Autobahn express, the S6. Despite selecting the Dynamic mode on the Audi Drive Select, we can barely feel it when we whack the kerbs! However, Aditya has bumped up rear tyre pressures and dropped front tyre pressures to be able to get the rear to step out and mitigate the softly sprung, nose-heavy sedan’s tendency to understeer. “It’ll hopefully help me line up the car before the apex, so that I can just drive it out,” explains Aditya. On the warm-up lap, Aditya and I seem to be on the same page — the S6, despite its power advantage, is unlikely to be faster than the TT.

On the hot lap, the S6 decides to show its hand. Aditya’s tweaking has improved turn-in; the V8’s torque is slammed into the tarmac by the quattro four-wheel-drive system. The longer and faster corners punish the S6 as the front pushes wide, taking a big toll on the tyres. “It’s not the easiest car to drive fast around a race track like this. But it’s doing well,” sums up Aditya. When we cross the finish line, the 2min0.05sec time means the S6 has proved both of us wrong, very wrong.

Oh. My. God. We’ve hit the track in the 553bhp RS7 and my brain has decided to take a giant pause. “When you hear 560-odd bhp, ESP off doesn’t sound like a good idea,” Aditya laughs, and chooses to keep the ESP partially engaged. Just to be careful, he insists. In the passenger seat, it sounds like a load of rubbish to me. The video cameras are rolling, but on the entire hot lap, I find myself incapable of coherent speech as the RS7 launches a frenzied, half-crazed attack on the MMRT. Two individual corners merge into one. Straight sections start to feel like corners. Distances shrink rapidly and the track feels a lot narrower. The RS7 is the most powerful car that Audi makes, more powerful than the R8 V10 Plus, and if you were expecting its part-luxury leanings to get in the way of being a car fit enough to wear the RS badge, think again.  

“Points into corners real quick! This thing really keeps you on your toes! It’s so much quicker than I imagined it to be!” interjects Aditya between corners. My brain clunks slowly back into operation as the smell of burning rubber seeps into the cabin. Speech slurring a little, I remind Aditya to nurse the tyres for our journey ahead. I can sense him holding back, and despite that, the RS7’s lap time is faster than the S6 by half a second!

Back in the pitlane, Aditya and I admit to have been pleasantly surprised by the S6. It may not be the quickest, but it is the biggest surprise for both of us. We say goodbye and promise to meet up the next morning in Coimbatore at the Kari Motor Speedway. Aditya will be flying down to Coimbatore, but Audi’s intrepid trio have to get there on their own steam.

NH4, 8:30pm

We’ve taken our own sweet time to get out of Chennai. Our safety net, which was a hard-to-find spare tyre, kept us hanging around all day. Eventually, when we hit the highway, it is choked with slow trucks, psychotic jeeps and, to complicate matters further, there’s torrential rain. In the RS7, I am trying to be careful about what the wheels are driving over, but I might as well have been doing this blindfolded. The rain is falling thick and heavy, and the spray from the vehicles adds a fine mist, so that even LED headlamps show nothing but a shifty white haze. The deluge has turned the highway into a wading pool of sorts and spotting potholes is next to impossible. I am following the S6 and that isn’t helping matters either; a few potholes thud through, but we make it over them unscathed. Phew. After an hour or so of white-knuckled driving, the rain finally lets up and visibility improves.

Finally, it’s time to stretch the RS7’s legs a bit. Once again, I am bowled over by how potent this engine really is. This time, it’s because of how effortless it is. Only the lightest pressure on the throttle will zap away that truck up ahead. At the same time, in top gear with the engine ticking over at a leisurely 1800rpm, you will be gobbling kilometres rapidly. In Comfort mode, the RS7 genuinely feels a happy place to cover the 500km to Coimbatore in. Although, if you intend to drive with a certain urgency, you’d be better off in the Automatic mode as it offers better body control without compromising much on comfort.

NH7, 2:30am

Travelling in a convoy has its benefits, but it also means that wading through traffic takes longer. A coffee stop is the need of the hour and we pull into one of the milk parlours along the highway. We have about a 100km to Coimbatore. Over cups of coffee, Rahul and Santosh, my co-conspirators on the journey, and I decide to skip the hotel and head straight to the race track.

Kari Motor Speedway, 4:30am

The RS7, S6 and TT have made it safely to the track. The RS7 has surprised me in many unexpected ways. I tell Rahul and Santosh that it has given just under 9kpl on our drive to Coimbatore! Its cylinder deactivation technology and abundance of torque mean it sips fuel very lightly. As we check the trip computers on the S6 and TT, it turns out they have fared pretty well too. While the cars are catching a much-deserved rest in the pitlane, I decide to catch a quick nap too. I rustle up a bed of floor mats from the RS7, and pass out in the cool morning breeze. Rejuvenated by my 40 winks, it’s time to get back to work. We need to get the cars cleaned up before we start work in earnest.

Kari Motor Speedway, 6:00am

Once again, Aditya arrives bang on time. The RS7, S6 and TT are clean, fuelled and ready to go. This time, Aditya and I are counting on the TT to do the honours. However, since it’s the champion of the last track challenge, we hop into the RS7 to lay down the benchmark. Having raced here in many different series, Aditya knows the Coimbatore track very well. However, I am a bit taken aback as he chooses to drive the RS7 with the suspension in its softest setting. On the hot lap, I learn why. As the RS7 hammers through the sharp right and left C4-C5, we hit a hidden bump. The impact is such that I am certain we were airborne (we weren’t). As the thought of damaged rims creeps into my head, the kerbs start to look very threatening too. “I think the soft setting is fine. It’s a bumpy track — imagine bouncing around all over the place in the stiffer setting,” explains Aditya.

I’m mesmerised by the RS7’s adaptability. I’d expected the XXL-sized go-kart track to highlight the excess of the RS7. Too big, too heavy, too fast. Nonsense. The RS7 shows us that it can be pointy and light-footed on a tight track too. The beastly engine ends up giving the RS7 an added edge, sending it bounding out of every tight corner, double quick! And it’s positively blistering-quick down the long straight, clocking 196.8kph there! Its lap time of 1min12.55sec is well deserved.

For its hot lap, the S6 is once again set to full Dynamic mode. But it still feels too soft. The tyre pressures, though, are helping Aditya get the best out of it. “Did you notice the tail coming out mid-corner? It’s helping me get the power down earlier,” he points out. The S6’s 4-litre V8 is also doing a fine job of rocketing it out of corners. Its result is a 1min13.90sec lap, just 1.35 seconds down on the RS7.

Next, it’s the TT’s turn. “Could this be the ace here?” I wonder. “Let’s see. It could be. It’s just that the acceleration, compared to the RS7…” Aditya trails off. “But we could make up some time in the corners.” We agree that the TT should manage to give the S6 a proper scare and set off on the hot lap. The four-pot motor is no slouch, hitting over 170kph on the straight. It runs flat and clean where its elder siblings grapple for poise. “Through the corners, it is so much quicker. It’s so flat!” exclaims Aditya.

We are optimistic as we head back to the pitlane to get the lap time. But this time, the news is a bit disappointing. The TT is slower than the S6 by three-tenths of a second. Once again, we part ways with Aditya, and promise to meet him in a few days’ time at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida.

NH7, 9:00am

We’re back on the road, and aimed for Bangalore. I’ve chosen to be at the wheel of the TT for the 360km drive. On the highway, this car is a rambunctious companion. Its suspension is lively, but far from uncomfortable, even on a long drive like this. I’ll admit that around late afternoon, I start to stare longingly at the S6, wanting to wallow in its sofa-like comfort. As we stop for photography, I sneak into the S6 and melt at the soothing comfort of its cabin. But strangely enough, I soon find myself longing for the TT, its relative weightlessness, its forthright steering and the wonderful cohesion of its turn-in. So, at the next stop, I quickly sneak back into the TT and stay put for the day.

Somewhere near Electronic City, 7:30pm

I used to think that Mumbai rush hour was Hell on Earth. After experiencing Bangalore’s traffic at rush hour, I stand corrected. Our endeavour to get to our hotel this millennium is being sabotaged by stop lights, traffic queues, unfathomable flyovers; and finally, when we get onto the service lane, there are speed breakers the size of gas cylinders (I exaggerate slightly). We crab over the bumps with utmost care. I can see that the S6 up ahead has plenty of clearance to just drive over, and the TT makes it cleanly over them as well. The RS7’s long wheelbase requires some extra care, though. At the hotel, as I step out of the TT, I am a bit sore, but surprised that the TT has actually grown on me, and that despite its sporty setup, it is so much more liveable than I would have expected.

Nelamangala Toll Plaza, 8:00am

Tricked by Google, we meander through the heart of Bangalore to get to our escape route — the superb four-lane highway to Mumbai. The sign says we’ve got 1000km ahead, but the smooth four-lane toll road promises to make it hassle-free. By and large, the traffic is light and the road surface is fantastic. It’s smooth going all the way to Mumbai, which is where I sign off and hand over my slot to Nikhil.

NH8, 9:00am

Following some days off for R-and-R, we start on the third and final leg of the Tri-Circuit Challenge that will take us to the magnificent Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida. Thankfully, the route out of Mumbai includes roads I’m very familiar with. We drive past the glorious Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, turn on to the sea link and exit the metropolis on NH8. Short and surprisingly traffic-free as the ice-breaking drive has been, it’s helped me reacquaint myself with the TT’s compactness, the S6’s pace and the RS7’s all-round brutality. Quickly enough, I’m at home in the cars.

It’s at our halt for breakfast for the famed Parsi dish akuri on the outskirts of Mumbai that we democratically decide who drives what for the day’s journey to Udaipur. In a break from the norm, no one’s complaining! We do, after all, have three rather fine Audis with us. I’ve got the S6 and I know the 700-odd-km drive ahead is going to be great fun.

NE1, 2:30pm

Given that we’ve routinely stopped for photography enroute, we’ve made good progress since day break. The roads are largely good, allowing us to maintain a good clip throughout. Silly banter keeps us entertained on the less special sections of the highway. But as we turn on to the NE1 at Vadodara, there’s complete radio silence! I’m guessing, like me, Rahul and Santosh are tempted to put pedal to the metal and blast off towards the horizon. You see, this road actually looks like a 100km-long drag strip. It’s perfectly surfaced, arrow straight and, at least today, not very busy. But better sense prevails and we take it easy. We will, after all, have the trio of Audis all to ourselves in the safe confines of the Buddh International Circuit in two days. The thought keeps us on our best behaviour. And it shows. We’ve got remarkable fuel economy since the morning. The TT has returned 11.2kpl, the S6 10.1kpl and the RS7 9.4 kpl! I no longer doubt the rest of the crew’s tales of the cars’ relative frugality on the earlier legs.

The journey from Ahmedabad to Udaipur has been a mix of good and bad. First, the bad bit. In sharp contrast to the roads that lead us into Ahmedabad, the way out is a big disappointment. It’s a dual carriageway with lots of cars, bikes, tractors and tempos fighting for space with the overloaded trucks that seemingly reign supreme here. Luckily for us, it takes just a small prod on the Audis’ respective throttle pedals to fill in the gaps and keep up the pace.

But 100km out of Udaipur, things take a turn for the better, quite literally. The smooth road transforms into a delightful mix of twists and sweeping corners. It’s on this stretch that I realise that the S6 may be the Incredible Hulk in a business suit, but it can do the tango rather well too! Amazing. But while we’re revelling at the wheel, the weather gods decide to spoil our party with some heavy rain. I think they’ve forgotten these cars have quattro all-wheel drive. If anything, the rain only adds to the excitement during the last bit of the day’s driving.

NH79, 3:00pm

I’ll be honest, I’ve had my reservations about the TT, particularly so after my day long stint in the comfy S6. The TT’s stiffly sprung and not quite as powerful as the other two here. But surprise of surprises, I hardly find much to complain about. Sure, the ride is on the stiffer side but the suspension and tyres seem adept at handling the worst NH79 has to offer. I’m also quite taken by the directness of the steering and the willing engine that help sneak past traffic at every possible opportunity. And of course, the view of the spoiler makes for a very special sight in the mirror, particularly on the drive that we’re on. I’m not alone in my appreciation of the TT though. The TT is the object of admiration for camera toting passers-by at our chai stop to celebrate rejoining NH8. I can barely wait for the new TT to come out.

Greater Noida, 2:00am

Following our stop, I hop into the RS7. My plan of saving the ‘beast for last’ works out! The 553bhp under my right foot and the promise of good roads has me rather chuffed. The stint starts well too. But post Jaipur, driving conditions get progressively worse. We spend more time stuck in jams than we do in motion. And to think, this road leads to the National Capital. Over these halts, I do, however, make the most of the RS7’s brilliant Bang and Olufsen audio system. But despite the Eagles telling me to ‘take it easy’, I can’t. Nightfall has reduced visibility and with every passing kilometre, the road is deteriorating to abysmal levels. The wavy road surface has the car tramline at places and if that wasn’t enough, there’s a minefield of potholes to avoid. Unfortunately, the front left wheel of the RS7 falls prey to one of the craters on the road. The rim has bent and, though the onboard tyre pressure monitor suggests all is fine, we decide to use the spare we have with us. Note, if you intend to travel cross-country in your RS7, stick to the standard 20-inch rims. As good as the 21-inchers are on the track and to look at, they are simply not built to taking the beating meted out by Indian highways.

Shaken, not stirred, we brave the midnight traffic jams, the unmarked diversions and the haphazard traffic on towards Delhi. If there’s a positive of the slow progress on the highway, it’s that we’ve missed Gurgaon’s notorious rush hour and managed to cruise into Noida with ease. The cars have done the toughest bit of the journey. Only one test remains…

Buddh International Circuit, 8:00am

We may be short of the recommended eight hours of sleep, but call it the lure of the race track, we’re all up and ready to go really early. Luggage unloaded (you’d be surprised how much the Audis’ boots can hold), transponders fitted and VBOX attached, the cars are prepped for their final date with Aditya.

There’s almost no point asking him which would be the fastest car today. The BIC’s layout of long straights and fast sweeping turns favours brute force to lightweight agility, so we all know well in advance the order of the cars on the timing screens. Not that it matters to Aditya. He’s here to give each car his all, and he does.

We go out in the TT first. Sure, its 208bhp may not count for much on the BIC, but it still holds its own.

“The punchy engine and light weight really helps it come out of corners quickly,” Aditya says as he brakes for Turn 3 that leads to the long straight.

He also thinks the TT is the easiest through Turns 6 to 10: “It doesn’t get unsettled at the kerb and is generally a very forgiving car to drive. It’s very novice-friendly.”

Aditya and the TT manage a brisk 2min33.6sec lap, which is not bad at all for a junior sportscar.
Next up is the S6. Straight out of the pitlane, it feels significantly faster than the TT. And thanks to the V8, it sounds it too. Aditya’s set the car to dynamic but from the passenger’s seat, it still feels a tad soft.

“You can tell it’s the most comfort-oriented here,” says Aditya. While he has to work harder to balance the car, he’s certainly not holding back because in the tighter bits of the track, I feel my innards being systematically rearranged. On his second flying lap, he brakes even later and carries more speed through every corner. The net result is a strong lap. 2min27sec dead.

Time for the grand finale in the RS7. Aditya, I and everyone have high hopes for the big, bad wolf. A sub-2min20sec lap is what Aditya is gunning for. Even from the passenger’s seat, I can tell braking is superb and acceleration is relentless. The suspension also seems to have just the right amount of give on the corners. “It’s more focussed than the S6 and you can feel the quattro at work in corners... it helps the car blast out.”

I can see Aditya enjoy himself at the wheel on his way to a shining 2min23.75sec lap. He’s happy but knows he could have gone faster had the track not been so dusty that day. We roll into the pitlane one last time to bring the session to a close, and us to the end of the Tri-Circuit Challenge.

Over the course of a few days, we’ve taken the trio of Audis outside their comfort zones. We’ve driven them on some of India’s best highways as well as some of the very worst. And that too, in the very worst of the monsoons. We’ve even had a professional racing driver drive these cars hard at three of India’s great race tracks. The thing is, each of these cars has surprised us with how well-rounded they are. Where the TT, the baby of the pack as it were, impressed us on the race tracks, the S6 proved that it’s more than just an executive express for the businessman in a hurry. Then we have the RS7. Mad as it is, it’s also deeply impressive in every which way. So should you buy any of these Audis, make sure to add a trip to each of these race tracks to your list of things to do. As our ambitious drive has proven, the cars are more than up for the challenge.

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