Sprints on all fours

James Chan

AUDI DRIVING instructor Joachim Kleint seems preoccupied at the end of a line of traffic cones, a makeshift slalom course on the Zhuhai International Circuit. While I'm trying to strike up a conversation with the 1979 European Rally champion, he's looking over my shoulder to keep a wary eye on the next guy who's negotiating the cones. He answers my questions, but he's already made a mental note of what to tell that driver.

Kleint balances his attention as keenly as the wheels of the Opel Kadett GTE he rallied to victory before he joined Audi. What does his job entail?

'We hold these driving clinics all over the world, about 17 times a year, mostly in Europe,' he says. 'In Europe, particularly Scandinavia, driving courses of this kind are in hot demand because of the snowy weather. We practise all kinds of car-control techniques in the snow - without using the ESP [electronic stabilisation program] system, of course.'

The driver who's got Kleint's attention is now haring down the straight, weaving wide between the cones. The instructor flags him down. 'Try holding the steering wheel steady, be more precise - and drive faster,' Kleint tells him.

The Audi Quattro Driving Experience was set up for local media by the German marque's Hong Kong distributor, Premium Motors, to show off the cars on a race track, and educate the marque's fans about the need for Quattro (four-wheel-drive) in Hong Kong.

'Most consumers aren't aware of the real benefits of Quattro, and the excellent handling and perfect traction of driving a Quattro car,' says Premium Motors spokeswoman Jacky Raenisch. 'We hope the exercises in the Driving Experience show that the real function of Quattro is maximising the grip and traction of the car, regardless of the speed, but in unexpected conditions. Quattro is one feature that places such as Hong Kong need, given its humid climate and the many narrow corners on the hillsides.'

Raenisch says most of the Audi range are equipped with Quattro, but A8s and A6s are lined up for today's runs. The latest A4 2.0T Avant has journalists itching for a test drive because it's lighter and faster. However, it's reserved for the instructors, including Christoph Klapper, Jerry Ahlin and Kleint, or Beijing rally driver Zhou Yong.

In briefings, we learn how Audi's fuel stratified direct-injection engine saves fuel by switching to lean-burn mode during part throttle, and how the fuel-air mixtures can be more precise when petrol is injected into the cylinder.

The marque's technicians also highlight the difference between the two types of Quattro systems: a mechanical Torsen (torque sensing) centre differential for longitudinal-engine models, and a computer-controlled Haldex differential for transverse-engine models. The direct shift gearbox is basically two manual gearboxes put into one, we're told.

Kleint says the Torsen differential 'feels more direct than the other one. Although it's no comparison to the four-wheel-drive systems in rally cars, Audi's Quattro is still very good.'

An A6 2.4 is prepared for my slalom. It doesn't have the straight-line power to get up to tyre-squealing speed until the third cone. So, I just plant my foot on the throttle all through the first few cones. Not until the mid-section does the car manage to accelerate to a sufficiently high speed for the ESP to kick in. For a saloon as big as the A6, the steering precision is outstanding. I can confidently aim the car at every entry and exit. The ESP does a remarkable job. I can feel the technology taking action to yaw the car back on course. And I wonder where the rear end of the A6 would go if the ESP was off. 'When you feel the ESP kicking in, you should know you're driving way too fast,' Kleint says later. 'You should slow down a bit because you'll be in big trouble in a car without the system.'

On Zhuhai's main straight, we try what's called an anti-lock-braking system braking and turn exercise to show how ABS controls steering during an emergency stop.

An Audi instructor shows how easy it is, driving smoothly through the turn, braking impossibly late, and then turning in with the tyres barely before locking up. Then the amateurs are let loose, braking too early or too late. Before long, cones are flying all over the place, and the instructors pounce with advice.

'You weren't braking hard enough to provoke the ABS,' I'm told. Although there isn't a comparison demo of a non-ABS car doing the brake-and-turn, we get the instructors' point: keep steering to avoid the obstacle. The ABS is invented for that reason. We spend the last section of the afternoon driving a lap of the circuit behind an instructor. His presence is a kill-joy, but we soon envy his handling of the A4, running the car at 60 per cent of its potential, braking early for each turn and sailing through corners smoothly and way below the limit. The Audi instructor floors it on some straights to let us do some catching, but just to make sure no overly confident journalists or local Audi owners knock each other off, or send the car down to the sand traps. Still, one guy manages to send his car into the sand.

It was fun spending a day driving madly at Zhuhai, without worrying about police. We know Audis are dynamic cars, but it's good to let them loose on a race track.

Nobody broke the Zhuhai lap record, but Audi has shown its cars are as good for the road as they are for the track. So, what do the Audi instructors think about the level of Hong Kong drivers' skills?

'When I spoke to Mr Kleint, he said that many of the participants were more focused on speed rather than the handling or driving techniques,' Raenisch says. 'In his view, the right timing in braking, accelerating or steering would be more important.'

Additional reporting by William Wadsworth