Audi R8 V10 Plus vs the Alps: TG's big road test

It's time to say farewell to our Audi R8, but not before it's had a proper adventure

Guess what it’s like to drive an Audi R8 every day? Besides pretty damn special, I mean. Now maybe it’s just me, but I doubt it because you care about driving and cars as well. So here’s the thing: the Audi R8 makes me feel guilty.

Not because of the speed it achieves up the on-ramp on to the M4 at Chieveley Services, or the occasional speed-bump chin scraper, but instead something that applies to any supercar. They are supercars. They work best when doing super stuff. And when they’re not, they remind you constantly, via trumpeting exhaust, snake hip driving position, naked aggression, wham bam looks and all the rest. The R8 has a carbon fibre tub, a 5.2-litre naturally aspirated V10 of total magnificence, the engine bay is artwork, the double clutch transmission is witchcraft and traffic practically comes to a stop at the first hint of its Vegas Yellow paint and carbon sideblades. And yet what is KR16 UBY being used for? Commuting mainly. That’s not a life for a supercar.

Words: Ollie Marriage
Photos: Rowan Horncastle

And so I drive up and down motorways, often into London, feeling sorry for the supercar that ought to be doing more. This gets me down a bit. Only a little, because I can always console myself that, heck, I’m driving an R8, what have I got to be down about? Anyway, you can see where I’m coming from.

OK, so it memorably chased a Ferrari F12tdf through Wales last autumn (proving to be just as fast and about 100 times less scary), it’s had outings at Dunsfold, colleagues have taken it to Yorkshire, Scotland and Devon. I spent a great weekend with my son taking it to Shelsley Walsh to watch hillclimbing. But in essence, too much grey over the course of the last 12,000 miles, not enough yellow. To really live and breathe it needed a final, adventurous fling.

This is what I came up with. I’m a mountain nut, used to live in the Alps, still find any excuse to head out there. Historically the first major ski race of the season was held at Val d’Isere, France in mid-December, the weekend known as Premiere Neige.

So my plan was no more complicated than slinging some skis on the car, driving out, watching some racing, ride a lift or two myself, drive a couple of lovely roads and head home. Trouble is, I ground to a halt at point one. Audi has no solutions for carrying stuff outside an R8. None. No tow bar, obviously, but also no little covers in the roof gutters concealing clip-in points for roofboxes and the like. I was a bit surprised about that, but completely undeterred.

A US firm called Seasucker does a suction rack, but so limited is demand so far that there wasn’t one in the UK. However, while trawling online I found something called a Handirack. £58 for a pair of inflatable tubes that strap on over the roof, complete with loops and extra straps so you can tie things to them. Purchased from a jungle-related vendor, they arrived the next day, complete with inflating pump and felt well made from good strong materials. The principle is simple: you inflate the tubes, then strap them on through the car. This is fine if your car has conventional framed doors front and back, but the R8’s are frameless at the front, while at the back we have, well, an engine bay. So the forward one will cause irritating wind rustle where the window is unable to wedge itself up into the frame properly, and the rearward one might melt in the heat. Goodie, goodie.

Fifteen minutes of lashing down had the skis attached, tipped toward the back initially as I was also somewhat nervous about the broad noses of my Head Super Shapes having more lift than the rear wing has downforce. I wasn’t too concerned about upsetting the dynamics, but the possibility of removing the roofrack…

Poles went behind the seats, ski boots and squidgy bag under the bonnet and off I went to pick up Rowan Horncastle, who would be taking the pictures. Photography kit. Hmm. There was a general feeling of amazement at the amount we managed to pack in to a car that, even by the standards of supercars, does not have a capacious under-bonnet area. Being a Quattro, the packaging of the front driveshafts mean the R8 has just 112 litres of boot space where a McLaren 570S has 150, and the Ferrari 488 a distinctly impressive 230. Still, some judicious packing saw ski boots, tripod, photography bag and a shoulder bag squeezed in, with everything else crammed in with the ski poles on the shelf inside.

In we hopped, and twang went the rack strap across the top of Rowan’s head. I’m short and bald, so not affected; aged 26, Rowan’s bald spot is coming on a treat now and we have a new reason to complain about the Audi’s seats not adjusting low enough.

We set off from TG’s London office into evening rush hour, which meant it was an hour or so before I had to start panicking about the skis taking flight – nothing’s better for tempering your speed than a poorly secured roof load. But the skis didn’t move. Much. And the rack itself was amazingly quiet in the wind. I fully anticipated many hours of noisy whistling, and I got it. Not from the rack, but from the door seals where the Handirack strapped through. Still, we could manage to hold a conversation without having to shout.

Eurotunnel, a couple of steady hours on the autoroute and we bedded down for the night in Reims. It was past midnight and the skis had been such a faff to put on the rack that I left them there and asked the mystified night porter to keep his yeux ouvert. First stop the next morning was a stunning sunrise at the old Reims GP circuit, a couple of snaffled bursts of acceleration to hear the V10 echo back from the grandstands and, soon after, an inevitable fuel stop. I have, driving steadily, teased 22mpg out of the R8 on occasion. I’m driving steadily now, because of the rack, but because of the rack I’m doing 18.1mpg (hey, the trip computer was reading 17.3mpg, so small victories and all that). The tank/bladder ratio is about spot-on at 1:2.

It’s a reminder that even when the R8 is underperforming, both grip and speed diminished, it’s still a terrifically rapid machine.

Getting to the Alps and back turns out to be very costly in fuel when you’re doing 18mpg (473 euros), and that’s before you take tolls into account (83.40 euros each way), but supercars these days are not cantankerous objects. The R8 rides smoothly, the miles tick past nicely when you’re just shooting the breeze with a mate, I introduce Rowan to my Spotify metal mix through the B&O stereo and it sounds crisp and clear. He’s struggling for comfort in the seat because he can’t recline (the ski poles are to blame), but I have few issues: wallet, phone, beanie and bodywarmer are all accessible without exiting the car or dislocating an elbow. This becomes increasingly important as the temperature starts to drop.

The mountains are most stunning in soft evening light, so I have a plan. There’s this cracking little mountain road I know that leads nowhere, so we’ll drive up, get some pics overlooking Lac du Chevril and across to Tignes ski resort and then drive the last few kilometres to make our evening entrance into Val d’Isere. A makeshift snowbank does nothing to deter me when I have 4wd and winter tyres, but a couple of hundred yards further on, and still not high enough to escape the lengthening shadows, we run into something more permanent. A padlocked barrier. I get out, cursing, only for the silence and crispness and scenery to choke the words in my throat.

The R8 has picked up a terrific film of road dirt and looks properly used. The views across the lake are still stunning, so we capture the moment, have a chat with a local who wanders across from his remote farmhouse to see what the daft Brits are up to, then, having agreed it’s a pity we’re heading out of Europe, and that no, we probably shouldn’t partake of Pastis right now, we turn round and head back down.

Aside from the odd helicopter, you don’t get much mechanical noise in the mountains, so as we creep into Val d’Isere that evening I’m fearful of frowns and shaken heads. Not a bit of it – in fact I can’t recall a more positive reception. The mountains are a more hedonistic place – people are here for a holiday after all – so an R8 wearing a botched ski rack goes down very well indeed. We’re just another spectacle, visual clickbait, something to be Instagrammed. Encouraged, I choose to broadcast real time updates of our location to the whole resort by engaging the sports exhaust. With little other noise to compete against it sounds stunning out here. Also audible from a very long way away…

No-one bats an eyelid when we park desperately illegally amongst the TV satellite vans at the bottom of the Giant Slalom course. Handy. The racing on Saturday morning is eye-opening. We manage to blag accreditation, which means we can get close to the slope near the finish line, and watch the racers duck and carve, skis chattering on ice, hips on the deck. How many g does a skier pull through turns? I’m intrigued. It’s got to be a lot, because the angles they achieve are mad – it’s like watching MotoGP bikes.

That afternoon Rowan and I just go driving. Back down towards Bourg St Maurice, then up to Tignes. The weather is lovely, the appallingly-surfaced roads twist through tunnels and up through all manner of corners. The magnetic ride takes the sting out of all that, which is lovely, but the front suspension rattle I’ve reported on previously is still there and as the Pirelli Sotto Zero winter tyres get too warm, they become very vague and rubbery. Not good for grip or tactility. The R8, if I’m honest, feels a bit mushy.

And in the thin air above 1600m there’s a very noticeable drop-off in performance as the V10 struggles to cram in the air it needs. I have a mate who still lives out here, he gives us a hand with some car-to-car pictures, so in return I take him for a ride. I know how brave he is on a mountain, but I catch him grabbing for door handles at speeds that are well within the R8’s capability. It’s a reminder that even when the R8 is underperforming, both grip and speed diminished, it’s still a terrifically rapid machine.

The next day I catch the first lift up, have three blissful hours on my skis, then Rowan and I load up the car once again and head north. I point the ski tips up this time, because I’m now confident that the rack can handle it. Once again Rowan has to contort himself slightly, and once again, I’m perfectly comfortable. Music, chat, a break or two, the baleful hum of a V10, the odd croissant and in eight hours we’re back at Calais.   

I arrive back home at midnight. The V10 cuts off instantly, and the silence crowds in.  The outside light comes on and in its glow I decide the dusted, salted, grimed R8 has never looked better, or done anything better. I don’t think any of its rivals would have handled this trip with a better combination of practicality, aplomb and excitement. I don’t reckon a McLaren 570 would have been as hushed or comfortable inside, a Honda NSX has notably less space, a Porsche 911 Turbo is more capacious and practical, but it wouldn’t have made this an adventure. I saw 911s in Val d’Isere, I didn’t see a single other R8.

There are things I’d change about it (quicker steering, more turn-in bite, better low speed suspension control), but I honestly believe no rival has the same combination of habitability and raw excitement that the R8 offers. This drivetrain is simply stellar. And that’s it I’m afraid, my time with this V10 Plus is up and I’m bereft. On the plus side, no longer feeling guilty.

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