Blue skies, shimmering asphalt and powerful Audis in Shanghai

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2016, 11:09pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2016, 11:09pm

It’s not easy taking photos when you’re being thrown around the cockpit as the R8 V10 Coupe Performance does speeds of over 200km/h. I’m in the passenger seat for a hot lap of half the Shanghai International Circuit on an Audi Driving Experience day. You can hear the rear wheels scrabbling for grip as the mid-engined sports car is thrown around a corner.

Earlier I had done three half laps myself but could achieve nowhere near the speeds I am now experiencing with pro driver Mark Allison. The track is littered with knocked-over cones.

“Hong Kong drivers tend to knock over the cones because they’re used to driving on the other side, and think they are farther away from the apex,” Allison explains. Like all the instructors, the South African has many years experience racing.

Located in the city’s suburbs, the Shanghai International Circuit hosts the annual Formula One Grand Prix along with other races such as the China GT. Nearly 5½ kilometres long, its design is shaped to resemble the shang character from Shanghai. Audi began running driving experience days in China in 2003 and regularly uses the Shanghai Circuit. Arranged for Audi customers in Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland, it allows them to experience a level of driving not possible in everyday conditions, while in a controlled, safe environment.

The day had begun with a briefing teaching handling techniques and track safety. Outside in the pit lane, a fleet of six shiny new Performance versions of the R8 V10 awaited. For once, the Shanghai smog had dissipated to be replaced by glorious blue skies above the shimmering asphalt. With a pro driver in the lead of each R8 trio, we had set out onto the track with the pro setting the pace to make sure no one got too carried away. Despite being instructed in the briefing on the ideal line for cornering, I soon discovered that this is where I needed improvement.

The event is divided into stations and at the second station, in a pair of R8s and an RS7 Sportback, we hone our cornering technique. Usually when racing, the fastest way around a corner is by using the straightest line. Luckily for us we have been given a helping hand. Blue cones mark the area where we should brake leading into the corner, while orange cones mark the point we need to aim at on the apex and then on the exit.

Sitting beside me in the passenger seat of the R8 is a Chinese driver who has raced in Formula Ford at Silverstone. He tells me to relax - not an easy thing to do when you are driving a HK$3.38 million sports car and don’t want to cause any damage.

We’re using corners 11, 12 and 13 of the track. The tightness of the first two keeps the speed down before you are led into the long right-handed turn 13. Correctly exiting this turn in a race is very important because what follows is the longest straight currently in use on any Formula One circuit. We are, however, brought to a stop before returning back to our starting point.

Utilising the rest of the straight is the final station. Effectively, it is a drag strip pitting an Audi RS6 Avant against an RS7 Performance. From a standing start, we accelerate all out down 400 metres until some blue cones mark the point where we start gently braking. After turning, we return. This time we accelerate over a shorter distance before bringing the car to an all-out stop with the smell of burning rubber as the brakes do their business.

The cars are both closely related, but thanks to the extra 44 horsepower eked out of the twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 in the Performance version, the RS7 prevails. On the dash with 605 horsepower on tap, we hit speeds of around 180km/h, which, thanks to the car’s head-up display, is easier to see.

After a buffet lunch at the Audi hospitality centre, there is one last test in store. This time we are to drive a complete circuit in an R8. I’m driving the second in a quartet of R8s following the car driven by the pro.

Coming out of the pit lane, I soon have to brake as we enter the difficult and slow turns one and two, followed shortly afterwards by three and four. I try to keep up as best I can with the pro, but he is soon far in the distance before slowing down to allow me to catch up. Going around turns 12 and 13, my instructor tugs the wheel to correct my line while saying to me, “gas,” where I should be accelerating. On the long straight following, I close the distance so much that I actually have to brake, and looking in my rear-view mirror the car behind, driven by another amateur, is still far away.

Races are won on the corners, and it is obvious that this is where I still need work. The fastest time ever on the Hermann Tilke-designed track was set in 2004 by Michael Schumacher, in a shade over one minute, 32 seconds, during the inaugural Formula One race. I have no idea what my time was, suffice to say that Schumacher’s record was well and truly safe.