In his latest piece of pseudo journalism, deputy editor James takes in more than 400km of Germany and Austria with an Audi RS6 Avant, en-route to a round of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters at the Red Bull Ring.
You find me in the arrivals lounge of Munich airport, sitting on my suitcase, contemplative look on my mug. Although I am pretty busy swearing internally at my phone’s refusal to find Telekom’s WiFi hotspot, a recent German bartender’s ‘polite’ request that I naff off if I’m not going to buy anything, and the nine hours I have just spent in transit from Canada, I’m also thinking about the weekend’s racing activities to come. Namely round six of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters at the recently re-opened, re-jigged and renamed Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria.
While the former German Touring Championship offers only vague interest to the Middle East market (if that), for me this weekend is likely to be an emotional affair. Four years ago, as a lowly motorsport freelancer on the dole, one of my regular haunts was the Brands Hatch circuit, covering anything and everything from British GT, the British Touring Car Championship, historic racing, and – for my sins – the short-lived rebirth of Formula 2. In 2011, round seven of that year’s DTM season would be my last as a freelancer, and though the racing that weekend was hardly electric, it still holds a special place in my heart. For one thing, the enthusiasm of the British crowd – as it so often is at Brands – was phenomenal, with no trolley of used tyres or off duty group of grid girls was too much for their iPhone cameras and Canon D5s (nor for that matter were the hilariously over-priced diecast models in the paddock shop). For me though, the weekend’s highlight was a Mercedes interview with former Grand Prix winner David Coulthard (then in his second full season of DTM competition), during which DC was asked for his thoughts on a qualifying session that had gone less than swimmingly. “Well, all in all, it was pretty shit really.”A statement few could argue with, namely because they were too busy laughing. Three years later, it would feel good to once again be in the DTM paddock.
Back in Munich, the racing was just part of the weekend’s activities. Across a medically required espresso, a few bottles of still water and the occasional biscotti, my genial Audi Middle East hostesses explained that our border-hop from Munich to Spielberg would not be done by chartered plane, to which I breathed a sigh of relief. The last time I was on such a flight, our pilot mentioned ‘since one of the flaps isn’t working properly’, we’d have to find a longer runway. This kind of thing really puts you off getting on small planes.
Happily though, this left another, much better alternative: road trip. Even with the fog of jetlag and German cigarettes hanging in the air, this was going to be good.
Having been invited to drive both models on their respective international launches, crankandpiston.com is no stranger to either the RS6 Avant or the RS7. This however would be my first drive in either RS, bringing with it a few concerns. Yes, this being a German saloon/estate car, premium quality leathers, top notch trim and enough Bluetooth connectivity to leave my iPhone and iPad batteries weeping for mercy come as standard. Criticism though has been levied at Audi’s RS fleet in the past, many waxing lyrically on each car’s outrageous speed but the relative lack of excitement. Given that our journey would take in nearly six hours of driving, more than 400km and a arse-puckeringly expensive stop for fuel, it would be shame if myself and the RS didn’t see eye-to-eye.
Tempted as I was by the Sepang Blue RS7, most of our Middle Eastern troop had the same idea. And given that I had two suitcases (Toronto, remember) plus hand luggage to cart from venue to venue, boot space – and a gutload of it – were going to be required, and it wasn’t long before the Misano Red RS6 Avant’s rear suspension was sagging beneath the weight of Herr Gent’s luggage, plus that of my road trip co-driver, Carlin Gerbich of Car & Driver. Who had assured me that his iPod – on shuffle – would throw up a few ‘interesting’ songs. In Germany. A nation well known for its sense of humour. Ah…
With arguments over the RS7 now sorted and one of our genial hostesses left behind to await a journalist who’d missed his plane, our convoy pulled out of Munich airport’s multi-storey onto the first highway, our dependence on the SatNatv now primed for the next three days. While it’s tempting to wax lyrical at this stage on the comfort and practicalities of the RS6 Avant, I’m afraid we quickly forgot about both ‘the job’, with conversation soon turning to how knackering our respective flights were, why deadline week seems to be coming around more frequently these days, why Kayne West should just stop, and why Kevin Bloody Wilson had ‘had a real c**t of a day’. We listened twice to the latter to make sure we were up to speed on his reasoning.
Conversation, however, soon fell to the Bavarian landscape, something I’ve yet to experience. My previous experiences of Germany – namely airport waiting lounges mid-transit – included mainly grey walls and a lot of green plastic chairs as seen in a dentist’s waiting room. Fortunately the reality is much more impressive. Once off the initial burst of highway (no more than 15 minutes), we headed East onto the back roads, the lush green of the surrounding copses and fields putting me in mind of a Jerome K. Jerome quote on the same: “It was idyllic, poetical, and it inspired me. I felt good and noble. I felt I didn’t want to be sinful and wicked anymore. I would come and live here, and never do any more wrong, and lead a blameless, beautiful life, and have silver hair when I got old, and all that sort of thing.” That the English wordsmith noted ‘say two-thirds’ of Germany was uphill seemed appropriate too, given the climbs we began to come across.
It wasn’t long before our photographer on the journey though – charming man by the name of Christian – was similarly inspired, the RS7 on point pulling over when we reached a quiet stretch of only-slightly-more-than-single-lane-tarmac to grab some shots. Having picked his mark, and with me sliding into the driver’s seat, Christian asked me if I’d mind awfully, in a 552bhp Sportback that nails 0-100kph in less than 4 seconds, whether I’d mind running up the road a few times so he could get the right angle. “About 80kph should be fine…” Anything to help Christian…
Which brings me to the twin-turbo V8 breathing heavily under the bonnet. This I had intended to be fast: what fool looks at a car called ‘RennSport’ and thinks otherwise? The only slight problem was I didn’t appreciate just how fast this lunatic would be. Not until I pressed the loud pedal with enthusiasm. Cue a flurry of bassy mmmRAAAAHHHH, mmmmmRRRRAAAAAHHHHHs from the V8 and the scenery flashing by at high speed. Ye Gods, this thing can shift!
I’m through the first left-right-left flick flacks before either myself or Christian really notices, and soon I’m being lined up for another go: “speed was fine, but this time I’ll be ready for you,” assures Christian, taking position on his front by the grassy verge. Marion, our Audi Middle East chaperone for the weekend, probably couldn’t say the same thing, her cigarette now all but forgotten and her hands clasped together under her chin in prayer as I round the corner again at a healthy rate of knots. She assures me this is just coincidence, but I suspect otherwise. And, naturally, decide to have a little fun.
Slipping the eight-speed automatic into manual brings the (admittedly plastic) paddle shifters into play, and the redline a greater target for childish hooning. It’s the rate with which this animal picks up speed though that baffles: if I dare blink, I’ll probably see the Austrian border hurtling towards me. And that’s still a good 350km away. Naturally on this run speed pick-up is a little quicker, and I’m travelling a little faster than expected, putting the fear of God into both Marion and an oncoming, clapped out Peugeot 208 in the process. So, fast beyond question. But dramatic…? Well…
Back in the car and now on point, the roads wind beautifully around the picturesque landscape until we hit Altötting, a small hamlet known for its antiquated architecture and as the site of religious pilgrimages for more than 500 years. Regrettably our SatNav – bulletproof hitherto – decides this is the perfect place to miscalculate route, landing us right in the middle of the town square. Not that this seems to concern the children playing on the green a few yards away or the workers taking down an outdoor stage nearby. iPhone shots are so frequent that our photo-shoot is quickly abandoned, and given that our guts have started to groan and our eyelids have been getting steadily heavier, a spot of lunch is in order. Say what you like about the RS models, they are undeniably handsome brutes.
It’s over a club sandwich and a surprisingly good cappuccino that the subject of our DTM race weekend – and specifically the circuit itself – crops up, in-between quips concerning petrol prices in Europe and how much Schnapps could be loaded onto the Audi Middle East credit card without someone noticing. Back in 1997, the Formula 1 Austrian Grand Prix was one of the first motor races I ever watched, curious as I was to know why this sport caused both my elder brother and my father to leap off the sofa intermittently every other Sunday. That year, at the then A1-Ring, Jean Alesi and Eddie Irvine tripped over one another into the Remus turn, the former’s Benetton being launched into the air as a result. A young Jarno Trulli, in his first F1 season, nearly won the race for the diminutive Prost team. In 2002, a sizeable collision between Nick Heidfeld and Takuma Sato came dangerously close to costing the Japanese driver his life, but most remember “Rubens, let Michael through for the championship”.
Long had the A1-now-Red-Bull-Ring been off the motorsport radar before its triumphant return to the top level this year, and a rich racing pedigree that dates back to 1969 meant I was not alone in welcoming the venue back to racing. As we would find out just one day later, the circuit itself – despite the infusion of Red Bull euros (try to buy a Red Bull can in the surrounding area without Sebastian Vettel’s helmet on it…) – is not about to forget Austria’s illustrious motorsport heritage. A fitting tribute to Jochen Rindt, F1’s only posthumous World Champion courtesy of his ‘70 crown, lines the paddock gates, a small but touching nod to the great man. That one of our group though had to ask who this ‘Jock Rined’ fellow was didn’t particularly go down well…
Back in the passenger seat for our sprint to the border, jet lag began kicking in badly. Coupled with excellent head and legroom, and comfortable pseudo-bucket seats, the maxed out air conditioning was having trouble keeping my eyelids open. Inevitably, twenty minutes of my life disappeared in that run from Altotting across the Austrian border to Kremsmünster, but I was more than surprised to see that – upon awakening – that a downpour of epic proportions had blotted out most of the view through the windscreen. Since neither of our bank balances could withstand the dent of a new RS6 Avant, a fuel stop and a much needed bathroom break was in order. Cue Kevin Bloody Wilson again…
The next driver swap couldn’t have been timed more perfectly, the highway run now all but over and the next leg taking us through the mountain range at Kirchdorf an der Krems. Proper road trip terrain. The lead RS7, salivating at the sight of the mountain road ahead, quickly goes raving mad, belting ahead into the distance at a lick of knots barely comprehensible. With my brave trousers on though and the RS6’s V8 given a kick with the spurs, it’s not long before I’ve caught up, the speed of those twin-turbocharged 3993cc once again leaving me staggered. Here though, on this slick, twisting terrain – surrounded by mountains around which the fog and clouds have started to swirl magnificently – is where the Audi’s handling can really be put to the test. And I’ll admit, amidst the enthusiasm of hurling a 552bhp powerhouse at a mountain chicane and hoping it will stick, it’s easy for me to get carried away with my enthusiasm. All traces of jet lag disappear as I start pointing the nose of the RS6 to the corners.
Tradition dictates that, under these circumstances, the back end of any Quattro Audi will hang tight, cornering on its rails and feeding the driver’s ego beyond recognition. That it does, but fortunately there’s just enough slickness on the wet road to get the Avant style arse twitching through some of the tighter corners, requiring a few adjustments to the steering as we jump back on the throttle. I’ve no doubt that the enormous 20-inch twin-spoke wheels would be glued to the road in dry conditions, removing some of the joy. But here and now, it’s a fantastic driving experience. Audi’s speed sensitive steering I’ll admit I’ve taken issue with in the past, it being so light at low speeds and heavy at highway cruising speeds that it’s difficult to really find a connection. On this road though, in this car and in this weather, I don’t care. By the time our four-ringed hoonery has come to a close, the darkness has started to creep in, and we’re still a good hour from our final location in St Lorenzen, Knittelfeld. Christian though is adamant that we stop, as he’s just seen another beauty spot.
Standing near the summit of this magnificent mountainside, watching the clouds continue to roll in over the mountains in 10-degree temperatures, I’m struggling to think of anywhere else I’d rather be at this precise moment. It’s a similar feeling I get two days later, having clambered up the ridiculously steep hill to the turn one grandstand at the Red Bull Ring, watching the DTM cars roar down the main straight before braking hard into the tight right hander, some drivers clipping the inside kerb a little too aggressively and sending their racer momentarily wide and onto two wheels. From here – as it does on the DTM main starting grid a day later – my hay fever makes its triumphant return for the first time in five years, leading to much swearing sneezing and nose blowing.
The sound though of the engines is what sticks with me from the DTM weekend, much as the mountain drive in Kirchdorf an der Krems flashes up in neon lights as a highlight. It’s a roar, primeval noise from these Audi’s DTM 460hp normally aspirated V8s, designed to knock hair follicles out at the route and leave groan men grinning and giggling like simpletons (and I offer no apologies for doing likewise). From this one grandstand, almost the entire circuit can be seen, bringing to mind once again that DTM race three years ago at Brands Hatch. True, the Audi boy’s qualifying from the outside hadn’t gone particularly well (with Britain’s Jamie Green the only one of Audi’s eight drivers to make the top ten. But given that barely 0.3s covered the top eight around the Ring’s 4.3km circuit, and unlike DC three years ago, it certainly hadn’t all been pretty shit for the Audi team. Indeed, having managed his tyres in the opening stages and played the pitstop strategy brilliantly, only bad luck – and a drive through penalty – cost Jamie Audi’s first DTM victory of the 2014 season and a result nobody would have begrudged.
By the time we’re back in the cars, night has fallen, and it’s well on the way to 10pm. Our final stretch once again takes in winding mountain roads, dips and sudden hairpin bends in the road coming at us out of the darkness to keep the heart rate elevated. Somehow at night, the drive is even better, that added injection of adrenaline really making the difference.
After close to 500km covered, the childish part of our brains has kicked in, and Carlin and I decide that ‘Gute Fahrt’ is the funniest German road sign we’ve come across. Pulling into our hotels’ car park after more than six hours on the road, we’re amazed to see that the other RS6 Avant of Audi Middle East rep Janice and our missing journalist has beaten us here, the pair having bombed their journey (legally) on Germany’s de-restricted Autobahns. The rest of the night whiles away with a few Gutmanns and a plate of deep fried chicken each.
Kevin Bloody Wilson may have had an absolute c**t of a day, but I most certainly have not. And there’s still a race weekend to go.
– Shots courtesy of Christian Bucher
|Engine:||V8 / twin turbo / 3993cc|
|Power:||552bhp @ 5700-6700rpm|
|Torque:||516lb ft @ 1750-5500rpm|
|Transmission:||Eight-speed automatic transmission / quattro permanent all-wheel-drive / sports differential|
|Front suspension:||RS-specific Adaptive air suspension|
|Rear suspension:||RS-specific Adaptive air suspension|
|Brakes:||RS high-performance braking system|
|Wheels:||20in front and rear|
|Tyres:||275/35 R20 front and rear|
|Engine:||V8 / 3993cc / biturbo|
|Power:||560hp between 5,700 to 6,600rpm|
|Torque:||700Nm between 1,175 to 5,500rpm|
|Transmission:||Eight-speed tiptronic / torque converter / all-wheel drive|
|Suspension:||Optional RS sport suspension plus with dynamic Ride Control (DRC) / steel springs / variable dampers|
|Brakes:||Optional carbon fibre-ceramic 420mm discs|
|Top speed:||305kph (with dynamic package plus option)|