Friday, 26 April 2013

Audi RS4 Avant - Irresistible!

I was lucky enough to sample the new Audi RS4 Avant not long ago, and as it is only a few months since I also had the S6 Avant to try out (see my blog entry here), I thought there was some merit in comparing the two. Although both will set you back in excess of £50,000, depending how you choose the optional extras, the basic cars are similarly priced, and both fall roughly into the same category of ‘performance family estate car’. Certainly both have comparable luggage-carrying capacity: although it should be noted that the S6 offers 565 litres of space, whereas the RS4 only provides 490 litres. In practical terms, that means that while both would comfortably accommodate a family of four and the associated stuff required for a week away, the S6 would be more suitable for those with a third child, or who are contemplating a two week holiday with camping paraphernalia or the like.

In price and function, the two cars are therefore similar – or at least in the same ballpark. Both have V8 engines providing more than 400bhp. But although the S6 gives 414PS (408bhp) from its twin-turbo, 4.0 litre engine, the RS4 simply blows the larger car away with a staggering 450PS (444bhp) from its 4.2 litre normally-aspirated version.

With lightweight technology being a key element in Audi’s marketing strategy these days, it is also pertinent to note that the RS4 is 155kg lighter than the S6, giving it a nearly 20% better power to weight ratio. And, oh boy, that is something that you notice!

Driving the S6 Avant left one thinking: “it’s a lovely car, but can I really afford it?” but the RS4 is far more addictive: “I need to buy one of these, how can I afford it!”

It is a car that demands to be stretched, to be hurried along, even if there is no hurry. Even when you can see the next traffic light ahead is red, the temptation is to always be there first, apart from anything else, because you can. In many ways, it is more like a high-performance sports car than a family estate. When I took my 12-year-old son to his cycling club, the bike went easily into the boot, but as I drove there, I quite simply forgot what I was doing, and found myself pushing the car through the corners, accelerating through medium-speed curves with enthusiasm that had us both grinning foolishly.

Then there are the “impressive engine acoustics”, as it says in the brochure. The V8 bellows out without the constraint of turbo-charger. Subtle it isn’t, but it is rather good.

I am reasonably used to the S-tronic gearbox, and in dynamic mode it enables the enhanced acoustics as well as providing the optimum gear for fast acceleration – obviously at the expense of fuel consumption. But it really doesn’t matter. Getting good fuel consumption is not the point of the RS4 Avant. Rather like Billy Whizz from “The Beano”, the point is to travel quickly, not to arrive sooner. It may mean you end up a bit red in the face, but why not? It’s worth it.

Look forward to a lot of visits to the pumps!
Dynamic mode also activates the sports suspension, which may be fine for some press-on driving round a test track, but is, I am afraid, rather uncomfortable on nearly all of the roads that I drive on. Local government seems to be unable to provide road surfaces that can survive a British winter without developing more potholes than the surface of the moon and repairs seem short-lived as well. But I digress. Fortunately, the Audi RS4 Avant can be set to allow comfort mode on the suspension and dynamic for everything else, which worked well enough for me and my aging spine.

Overall, this is a remarkable car - yes, it is expensive, but it does do everything extremely well. I've been lucky enough to drive an R8 on more than one occasion, and it is a very wonderful car, but totally impractical. When I drove the RS5 last year, I was impressed - it's a proper wolf 'in sheep's clothing'. But there's something about the estate, which makes the disguise even better!

I see that this month's Motor Sport contains a test of the RS6 Avant , but unless you have the extra £15,000 burning a hole in your pocket, I don't see how it could be that much better.


Monday, 15 April 2013

Silverstone Musings

Six hours racing at Silverstone, then, and a dominant victory for Audi, just as at Sebring.

But things are rarely as simple as that, and I spent a long time after the race discussing the events of a race that, in the end, covered just three laps more than the six hour WEC race last August.

But the most significant aspect of the weekend, to my mind, was the fact that the works Audis pitted after just 22 laps of the race. Thereafter, the longest Audi stint was 25 laps, but this was only achieved when laps completed under “Full Course Yellow” conditions (and rain) slowed the pace dramatically - generally, the standard Audi stint was 24 laps.

This compares to last years race, in which the Audi R18 could manage 28 or 29 laps on its 58 litres of diesel. Indeed, a comparison of the amount of fuel used by the winning Audi last year and this years winner shows that McNish, Duval and Kristensen used 22% more fuel this year than Tréluyer, Fässler and Lotterer did to win last year's race.

When Allan McNish was asked about this during the race, he explained: “More downforce equals more drag equals more fuel,” which sounds reasonable enough, given the new aero package on this years R18 e-tron quattro, but even so, the amount of extra fuel used is still somewhat astonishing (and came as a surprise even to Toyota).

An analysis of the fastest 50 laps achieved by the two Audis reveals that the average lap time improved by nearly two seconds, compared to last year, an indication that the 2013 car is an improvement over last years model. This contrasts with Sebring, where the 2012 car actually beat the new car in a straight fight.

However, the fact that a front driveshaft failed on the number 1 Audi, and it was still able to finish a few yards behind the winner, indicates that the hybrid system, while improved (we are told) from last year, still does not contribute very much to the performance of the V6 turbodiesel internal combustion engine. This surely must be the aspect that Audi has to improve if it is to stand any chance of continuing its winning ways once the 2013 revision of the Toyota TS030 Hybrid appears at Spa.

And what any of this means for the low-downforce requirements of the 24-hour race at Le Mans is another matter altogether.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Classic Tracks, part 2 - Monza

In the hope that readers were not too bored (or jealous!) by tales of my exploits at Indianapolis in 1991, I would like to continue the tour through my scrapbook, by sharing the two occasions, in 1980, that I visited another iconic motor sporting venue, Monza.

Just before Christmas 1979, I was dispatched by my employers to Lugano, in Switzerland, to help a certain bank whose year-end computer procedures were likely to take around 36 hours to complete. As the bank was planning to close at 3pm on New Year’s Eve, and reopen at ten in the morning of January 2nd, this didn’t leave much leeway for anything to be corrected should things not quite go to plan, so the consultancy for which I worked was called in to ‘fix things’. My predecessor had promised much, and hopes were high that I would come in, sort everything out, and take the next flight home. It didn’t happen: the bank stayed closed all day on January 2nd, and I was still living in Switzerland until May 1980.

The silver lining to that particular cloud of my IT career was that I got to go to Monza; twice in fact: the first time to see the 4-hour, European Touring Car Championship race in March, and the second to see the 1000km World Championship of Makes race in April. Rather like the Motor Speedway at Indianapolis, Monza is a place that is defined by its race circuit. Its surroundings are the very stuff of which motor racing legend is made.

On both occasions, I made my way there on public transport. It was a relatively straightforward trip: from my digs in Lugano, the train went directly to Milan, crossing the Italian border at Chiasso. From Milan, a provincial train service then took me to Monza, and then there was just the matter of a three mile walk from the station to the famous Royal Park, in whose grounds the Autodromo Nazionale is to be found.

As a motor sporting venue, I can only describe Monza as magnificent. Neither of the events I went to was particularly well-attended, but the atmosphere was still tremendous. The huge grandstand overlooking the startline, the famous electronic scoreboard, the columns guarding the entrance to the paddock; they all contributed to an almost religious feeling. Here was a place that was filled with fervour at the Italian Grand Prix every year, and the echoes of the tifosi were ever-present.

For the Trofeo Mario Angiolini, as the ETCC race was called, on March 23rd, 1980, I left Lugano, according to my diary entry, at 6am. I didn’t actually record the time that I arrived at the circuit, but I described the journey back home again as a “pain – arrived just before midnight”. I recall Italian transport services on a Sunday evening being just as flaky as in the UK.

It was a rather grey and dreary day - as the photos suggest, but brightened up by the presence of a very purposeful looking Mercedes 450 SLC driven by Jörg Denzel and Clemens Schickentanz. The competition was similarly German, in the shape of various BMW 635 CSis. Although the Merc led early on, it turned out that the BMWs were able to spend less time in the pits, and the race was won by the green 635 CSI driven by Umberto Grano, Heribert Werginz and Harald Neger.

Much more memorable was the World Championship of Makes race on April 27th. My diary records that I was on the 05:09 train out of Lugano – I must have got up before 4:30am; boy, I was keen! – and I was at the track in time to see the Alfasud support race that started at 9.30am.

There was a second support race, for Formula Fiat Abarth, which featured folk such as Paulo Barilla and Roberto Ravaglia on the entry list, but the star of the event was a certain Emanuele Pirro, who won the race easily.

For the main race, the entry was good – there were two works Beta Montecarlos from Lancia (being driven by Riccardo Patrese / Walter Röhrl and Eddie Cheever / Piercarlo Ghinzani), along with a third car entered by the Jolly Club. As a Brit abroad, though, the main interest was the British Racing Green De Cadenet-DFV, which the charismatic Alain de Cadenet was sharing with Desiré Wilson. The rest of the Group 6 (aka prototype) cars were, to be blunt, a fairly motley assortment of Osellas, of varying engine capacities.

The main battle of the race was between the de Cadenet and the Sportwagen Porsche 935T, particularly when it was in the hands of Pescarolo. Towards the end of the six hours, though - and it was a six hour duration event, despite being billed as the "Monza 1000kms" - it began to rain, and the big Porsche looked a bit of a handful through the Ascari chicane, where I was standing at that point.

It went into the pits for rain tyres, but the de Cadenet kept going, and ended up the winner of the race by a mere 10 seconds.

They were both great events, and I remember both very fondly. I never got to see a Grand Prix in Italy, but still there were fans climbing onto the advertising hoardings to get a better view, and quite a few, I reckon, coming in through holes in the perimeter fence.

For the police, it was also a grand day out; they would happily point their guns at the fans in the trees, telling them to come down, before sharing a joke with the same fans, who would climb back up again as soon as the cops moved off to another part of the circuit.

I even managed to climb the old banking, covered in moss, for a view of the cars heading down the start-finish straight. Great memories!