On this overcast Sunday in Mumbai, I’m not Nikhil Bhatia, the motoring journalist, but I am Nikhil Bhatia, the Uber driver. We’ve teamed up with the good folk at Uber who’ve made me and my car ‘visible’ on the app for a few hours. And ‘my’ car is not something you’d expect to show up when you book an Uber. It’s a 2017 Audi R8 V10 Plus! 610hp of certified German madness. This should be fun.
BANDRA BANDSTAND TO MARINE DRIVE
Bandra is where I choose to start my work day. Phone holder in place and charging cable plugged in, I swipe ‘Online’ on the Uber Driver app and I’m good to go. Within a minute, I get my first trip request. Though close to the pick-up point, I decide to call the passenger to be doubly sure of the location; I don’t want to bungle up on the first day of the job! I cruise to the rider as stealthily as I can in the scarlet red R8, lower the window and ask: “Ma’am, had you called for an Uber?” After a moment’s pause, the reply is a suspect “Yes.…” I smile back and say, “Well, this is it.” The retort is a loud “No way!” A few more moments of disbelief, a lot of laughs and multiple Kodak moments later (candid camera, Autocar style), my first passenger Diva Garg is ready for her ride. “This is sweeeeet!” she exclaims as we get going. Over the conversation that follows, I learn Diva had just returned from Pune a few hours before. “You guys should have picked me up from Pune in the morning. The roads were empty.”
Gautam needs some convincing this is indeed his Uber.
Unfortunately, the roads on our route aren’t, but every now and then, I get a chance to press down hard on the R8’s throttle. The first time I do so, there’s a stunned silence from the passenger seat followed by a huge laugh. “I hadn’t slept all night. But THAT woke me up!” I nod in agreement. The wail of a V10 does do the job better than any espresso. The journey also turns out to be somewhat of a sightseeing tour for Diva who mentions she rarely gets out of Bandra. So, just as we are turning off from the Sea Link, I draw Diva’s attention towards a group of DSLR- and camera-phone-armed car enthusiasts positioned at one of the spots frequented by Mumbai’s supercar owners on their Sunday joyrides. “I didn’t know there was a car culture like that,” Diva says, while dutifully waving out to the gathering. And you know what? The photos made it to Instagram! There’s more talk of the car and we make it to the drop location in time. Just before Diva exits the car, I remind her to give me a 5-star rating on the app. She laughs and says, “I’ll give you 7 stars!”
NCPA TO NSCI
The second trip request comes from the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), just down the road. I make contact and try the stealth approach once again. I see a young lady looking in the direction of the car and her face lights up as I get closer. The app tells her this is her Uber. “This is so cool,” Ritika Mishra says gleefully. This is her first time in an Audi, let alone an Audi supercar, so the grin isn’t expected to fade anytime soon. Her drop address is not too far away, but, unfortunately, the route until there includes the perennially jammed Pedder Road. “Why is it crowded? It’s a Sunday!” Ritika vents. I ask her if she wished she had chosen a different route. “The Eastern Freeway may have been a better experience, but this is good too!”
Ritika wishes she opted for a longer route.
Progress, sadly, remains slow. I’m beginning to get a bit frustrated because, as a petrolhead, I feel it’s my moral obligation to give Ritika at least a small glimpse of the R8’s potential, but she doesn’t seem to be as bothered. I guess supercars mean different things to different people. “I’ve been smiling so much, my cheeks hurt!” she says after a good while in the R8. Still, when the traffic does thin out, I give in and open the R8 up. She bursts into laughter and says, “I don’t want the trip to end.” But as they say, all good things must come to an end. Drop 2 of the day done. I think I’m getting good at this.
WORLI TO BANDRA RECLAMATION
Passenger three for the day is Gautam Kalia. He sees the R8, does a double take at his phone and then gives the car a thorough once-over. I figure he’s checking if the registration number was the same. “The app said Audi R8, and it really is an R8!” Gautam says excitedly. His drop to nearby Bandra shouldn’t take much time. Gautam jokes in the R8 we’re sure to reach before time anyway. He seems sold on the car and tells me he loves the way it sounds. I think that makes him the perfect candidate to hear the R8 sing with the Sport Exhaust option engaged. I press the button with the icon of the pipes on the steering and he erupts into laughter asking, “Is that a loud mode?” It should just be called that. During the course of the conversation, he tells me, “When I saw the car, I didn’t know how the doors would open – would they open upwards or would they open sideways?” Just as I learn Gautam is a finance professional, out comes the question ‘Kitna deti hai (How much does it give)?’ I try to keep a straight face and tell him, ‘Zyaada nahi’ (Not much)!’. The price of the car itself gets him laughing out loud. Visibly happy with the surprise ride, Gautam quips, “You can tell Uber they had me at Uber Go” – his version of the legendary line from the Tom Cruise classic, Jerry Maguire.
Alok repeatedly asks if he could be my Uber driver for the day.
I decide to dial things up a bit as we get to the lone open stretch en route. I accelerate hard and all my rider says is, “Oh, oh…oh sh*t. This is crazy... my heart is in my mouth!” One more bootful of throttle has Gautam tell me he’s changed his plans, all for another round in the R8, and would like an express return: “I don’t want to go to Bandra. I need to go back.” I take his request with a pinch of salt because I know supercars can make people say the darnedest things. Audi, please enrol Gautam in the R8 fan club.
BKC TO MOUNT MARY
A break for lunch later and I’m back on the road. The Uber Driver app buzzes with the latest trip request coming from Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC). Today being a Sunday, the wide roads within the commercial hub are empty and are a welcome respite from the unexpectedly crowded roads elsewhere. But no time for fun and frolic, I have a job to do. The map leads me to the pick-up point, where I’m greeted by a very animated Alok Jaykar. He can’t quite believe an R8 is his ride. “This is not a joke, right?” he checks one last time before he gets into the bucket seats. Before we get going, I reconfirm his drop venue. “Can I change the destination to Khandala or Goa now?” Alok is quick to reply.
Minutes into the drive, we come across an absolutely empty stretch of road in a deserted part of the area. I give Alok a heads-up and go for it. The R8 launches like a missile and the howl of the engine is almost matched by the volume of some unprintable choice words Alok uses to describe what he’s feeling. As we slow down, he asks for a second round and exclaims, “That’s the first time I’ve ever felt these G forces!” He also asks if “that was 9,000rpm?” I think I have with me a bona fide car nut. He enquires how the R8 is to drive and if you need a lot of experience to drive one. The answer is no, because this really is one of the easiest supercars to drive. It’s docile when you need it to be, and forgiving when you are really gunning it. Heck, even visibility is better than some everyday cars. But before Alok coyly leads in to the next question, I tell him firmly he can’t drive this R8. While we’re chatting, my mobile loses GPS signal. “Do we take the next right?” I ask. “Don’t ask me, man. I’ll tell you the wrong way on purpose!” he jokes. He does guide me back to the main road, and though our speeds on these roads come down, Alok wants to know about the car’s top speed. “332kph,” I reply while giving him a background of the Indian Top Speed Record Autocar India set last year in the R8 V10 Plus.
Public transport has come a long way.
As we turn off the Western Express Highway and enter Bandra, Alok remarks, “I’m surprised it’s not touched anywhere. My Honda City feels lower than this. Even the suspension isn’t that hard.” We’re within sight of his drop location when he tells me, “Let’s make this a weekly scene, man. Pick me up every Sunday. I’ll book an Uber from the same place!”
BUSINESS HOURS ARE OVER
With Alok’s drop, I decide to call it a day. I swipe ‘Offline’ on the app and am really happy to see my four passengers have rated me highly. I end the day with a 5-star rating and with not one, but two badges for ‘6-star service’! I think I’ve found my backup career. But for now, I’m happy going back to being Nikhil Bhatia, the motoring journalist.