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Flat out in the hardcore R8 supercar Audi never built

It's more than just a road-going racer: this is no less than the most exciting, capable and focused R8 we've ever driven

Published: 04 Jun 2024

As topics for dissertation or conversation go, I could rabbit on this one for hours. Don't get me wrong, I loved the R8, but Audi didn't do enough with it, never expanded its repertoire beyond doing away with the front driveshafts. The V8 and manual gearbox? They were abandoned after the first generation. Audi showed an electric R8 e-tron in 2015, a few years earlier there had been a prototype V12 TDI diesel, but nothing came of either. But mainly this: where was a focused lightweight version to do battle with the 911 GT3?

It's not like Audi wasn't into racing. There's just the small matter of those 13 Le Mans victories between 2000 and 2014, but more directly there's the customer racing R8 programme. Audi Sport has built hundreds of LMS GT3 and GT2 racing cars. The programme dates back nearly as far as the R8 itself and the cars have seen huge success around the world. And yet apparently Audi never thought there'd be any appetite for a road car that reflected the racer. Go figure.

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Bet it never thought it would see it reflected quite so perfectly. What you're looking at here is more than the mirror image of a racecar. It is a racecar, but a road-legalised one. Ah, you're thinking, you've seen these before, when people manage to fit indicators and a horn to an ex-Le Mans Porsche 962 and drive it about a bit. Wrong, because this isn't a one-off, ABT is building 99 of these.

Photography: Mark Riccioni 

For starters it's a surname, not an acronym, an independent race team and purveyor of tuning parts for VW and Audi. As Audi’s DTM partner, it’s won multiple championships and enjoys semi-official status. The XGT project is all its own work – although the timing of it doesn’t look coincidental as we’ll come on to discuss. ABT takes one of those £400,000 LMS GT2 cars and does so much work converting it back to road use that the car no longer wears an Audi VIN plate – ABT is certified as the manufacturer.

It’s taken ABT two years to get full German TÜV certification. We’re not just talking indicators and numberplates – it had to crash test the car. Twice. And put it through drive-by noise tests and full WLTP emissions and fuel economy checks (473g/km CO2 and 13.6mpg, if you’re wondering). Hard to believe that rear wing, the dive planes, those swollen carbon flanks and the viciously sharp vents got through road regs, but they did.

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As I walk up to it, I can’t see the compromise. Open the door, take in the slot windows, the yoke steering wheel and built-in roll cage. Still no hint it’s road legal. But, ah, aren’t those the road car’s aircon controls? And don’t the DTM race seats usually have head supports that extend further forward?

10 minutes 39 seconds

They do, it turns out. Here they’ve been cut back to improve side visibility. So in I hop and out I go on to the roads of Mallorca. The engine is the racecar’s 640bhp 5.2-litre free-breathing V10. It’s not changed much from the road car anyway, but the engine is never the issue in racecars – that honour goes to the gearbox. A sequential straight cut paddleshift is light and fast, but it’s not refined or docile, it won’t do traffic and it’ll drill into your ears. Switching it for a seven-speed twin clutch was the biggest mechanical change ABT made, but the result is a drivetrain that trickles happily around at low speed.

There are two other major changes that make the XGT a perfectly viable road car: the engine is no longer rigid mounted to the back of the chassis tub, and bushing replaces rose joints in the suspension. The former means much less cavitation and vibration in the cabin, the latter means you can drive on bumpy, tramlined roads without immediately crashing. And ABT needed this to sit stable and true on autobahns.

All of which means that your senses are at odds. Because from the driver’s seat your eyes insist you’re in a racing car (so do everyone else’s eyes for that matter), while the sensors in your arse, ears, feet and fingertips are discovering this is all pretty placid going. The ride, on four-way adjustable coilovers, is smooth and sophisticated, packing plushness into minimal travel, the gearbox bleeds the shifts perfectly, the engine is tractable and good natured. It’s a largely viceless road car. But for one thing. One of the main reasons it’s 350kg lighter than a road R8 is the lack of sound insulation. Two hours of exposure, that’s what I reckon you’ll cope with. Use ear pods and you could daily this. Apart from width restrictors. And loftier speed bumps.

 

But why bother? Because it is enthralling to drive. This is a pedigree racecar that has been brilliantly adapted to road use. It’s genuine in a way that a road car made track ready just isn’t. Though €598,000 including tax works out at about £511k in the UK. Approaching Ferrari SF90 XX money. Which has over 1,000bhp. And a hi-fi. But if it was my money, I’d have this all day long. It’s more natural and engaging to drive, plus there’s an authenticity to the XGT that’s unlike anything else.

Which you realise when you drive it on track. Like a proper racer it only grips once you get some temperature into the Pirelli Trofeo R tyres (full slicks are optional). That nullifies the understeer, gives you confidence to exploit the rear traction. Which is extraordinarily communicative. Push hard out of corners and you feel the rear diff start to lock up and both wheels drive you forward. Give it a bit too much now and the tyres start to smear themselves wide, but it all happens so progressively and calmly that you barely need to back off the throttle. The XGT gives you time. Everything happens calmly, progressively. It’s the most exciting, capable and focused R8 I’ve ever driven.

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The timing’s interesting though. Coincidence that this arrives just as the R8 bows out? I doubt it. Fearing it would be comprehensively upstaged, Audi probably wanted the R8 off the table before this arrived. What a thing. I like it because it’s so mechanical, so true to itself, because it’s not a known quantity. There’s something subversive about the XGT. It’s a shame it’s fallen to ABT to show what might have been.

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