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Oct / Nov 2015
Up to Speed

WRITER: Roman St Clair

The new RS7 provides the perfect excuse to reacquaint ourselves with Audi’s Quattro subsidiary, including their racing division, customisation department, lifestyle brand and attractive portfolio of high-performance road cars. Yes, there’s much to catch up on.

 

“Watch out for the speed limits,” says Marion Englert from Audi Middle East. “Contrary to popular belief, there are speed limits in Germany.”
“Don’t worry,” I promise, “I will pay very close attention.”

Five minutes later, an indignant speed camera flashes in my face. I’m careening up the Autobahn in the new RS7, which is the most technologically advanced car I’ve ever been in, by far. In fact, I’m so mesmerized by the night vision cameras, flashing motion sensors, and track pad (upon which you finger-draw letters to spell out locations for the satellite navigation) that any sense of caution and inhibition went out the metaphorical window.

 

Audi’s RS7

 

The journey that brought me to the point of getting flashed (and then finding myself pressing random buttons that activate the back massager instead of actually turning the engine on) started back in 1980.

The slippery conditions at rally races in the snowy Alps led Audi technicians to pioneer a four-wheel drive technology for commercial use. Trophies and the potential for greater sales then inspired Audi executives to put four-wheel drive into commercial production. Three years later, Audi Quattro GmbH was founded, as a fully owned subsidiary of Audi AG, to oversee the development and production of this new technology for racing and road cars, and the division is now responsible for customer racing, Audi exclusive RS and R8 models, and merchandise.

Customer racing is the first of these I become acquainted with on my Audi odyssey, at the inimitable Spa-Francorchamps racetrack in Belgium, where we watch a 24-hour GT race (no more speed limits were broken on the way). There is a predictable light drizzle in the air, predictable in Belgium that is. Mechanics and engineers make final tweaks to their machines, while petrolheads clothed in cagoules begin to swarm the racetrack.

In the warmth of the Audi hospitality tent, Romolo Liebchen, head of customer racing, explains that Audi decided to launch a customer racing project in order to most effectively showcase its newly developed R8 sports car. “It was very clear in the beginning when we were designing the car,” he says, “that some racing activities would benefit the sales of this version of the car,” referring to the one designed for the mass market. One month earlier at the Nürburgring, Audi’s newest R8 generation car won at its first-ever race. “To introduce a new car into this level of racing and win is very special,” says Romolo with a satisfied grin. “You also need a bit of luck.”

Professional racing teams, as well as amateurs, can buy or rent race cars and technical support from Audi customer racing. Theprofessional teams were slick uniformed outfits with multiple race cars driven by Audi team drivers, supported by a small army of Audi technicians and mechanics in enormous pits. At the other end of the spectrum are ‘Gentlemen Racers,’ millionaires who pay a lump sum in exchange for entrance to a race, a fully equipped racecar, and everything that goes along with it. Scottish business owner Ian Loggie is one of these individuals. “There’s no faster way to get rid of money,” he says, “even if you set it on fire you wouldn’t lose it as quickly as you do with racing.”

Twenty-four hours and many warm drinks later, the faces around the Audi hospitality tent are grimacing. The Audi car that was leading into the night suffered a crash, followed by a 20-minute pit stop and was now laps behind. In the end, another Audi did finish in second place but the only celebration this elicited was: “Second is the first loser” from the chagrined team. However the news wasn’t all bad, Ian Loggie’s team had won the amateur category and were therefore seen smiling up on the podium, soaked in champagne, balancing enormous trophies on their shoulders.

Leaving Spa, we head to Neckarsulm in Germany on a verdant and picturesque road trip through Luxembourg, following the French border. Needless to say, the pre-programmed satellite navigation took care of the route and I have little context for the delightful villages and towns we passed through. The RS7 is delightful to drive, a reassuring blend of sportiness and security. The flat-bottomed steering wheel, the almighty roar of the engine at full throttle, and the seemingly never-ending powerband are finely balanced by Audi’s safety technology, which include flashing motion sensors on the wing mirrors and head-up displays indicating the speed limit beamed onto the windscreen.

Audi's RS7

Quattro’s field extends from  the international racing circus to producing such high-performance road cars as the RS7 and R8, which you can customise almost to the minutest detail.

 

The adrenaline rush as you hurtle along at 250 km/h is quite unique and incomparable to the feeling you get in the A8 for example - which is more akin to a flying boardroom - where you have very little sense of how fast you’re going unless you glance down at the speedometer. Despite its capacity for breakneck speeds, the A8 feels far more domesticated with a level of comfort not quite matched by the RS7. I can imagine it would be a perfect place to be chauffeured around while listening to Bach.

Sitting in the exclusive studio of Audi’s Forum in Neckarsulm, I notice that the entire room is decorated with the same materials used in the interior of the A8: the walls are brown leather, tables are lacquered wood, and the floor is the same shaggy carpet used in car footwells. Gareth Greith is talking us through the process of customising your car, which can cost anywhere from 450 to 40,000 USD. For the exterior, you can have almost any colour you desire. For instance, customers have provided dresses, whiskey bottles, ties, shoes, and even a sailing boat as sample colours. “The challenge is to know what the car will look like in the end,” says Greith. Finding interior colours to match each other as well as the exterior is much more difficult than it sounds but Greith is an expert, even when faced with garish tastes. “If you have a bright yellow exterior, you’d probably want to go with a darker malt yellow for the inside,” he says as we examine the personalised specimens in the showroom. “If you have a gold exterior, popular in places like the Middle East, you might combine that with red.”

In addition, there are five different types of seats to choose from as well as gear sticks, steering wheels, leathers, seven types of wood for the dashboard and panelling – you can even have a self-closing aluminium door. Clearly, they have thought of pretty much everything at Audi Quattro. “What if someone asks for a swearword in their personal message in the door panel?” I ask. “I have to say, I am yet to come across that,” replies a nonplussed Greith.

In these complex times, convenience is everything. People desire to feel rewarded in their lives but want this, somehow, without lifting a finger. Audi’s latest automotive offerings, and technology in general, pander to this need. There’s no use for maps when you have a state-of-the-art satellite navigation leading the way. The ignition, suspension, and gears are all fully automated so a driver has less to worry about. One can have a back massage while the fan blows perfectly temperate air onto your skin. But is this the best way to experience life, I mean, the road? Fear not, the RS7 is still, at its heart, a petrolhead’s car. Press down on the accelerator and you feel as alive as the day you were born, the engine roars and you’ll be slammed back into your bucket seat. Just keep an eye out for those pesky speed cameras.

 

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