The R8, as car aficionados know, is Audi’s sleek, low-slung, two-seat, mid-engined sports car. Which meant the sedan was going to be fast. But did it need to be that fast? And why did the French journalists get to drive around the track before we did? Was it really a good idea to feed us artisanal sausage, deep-fried crab puffs, and homemade parfait before sending us to drive around a racetrack? These things were all going through my mind.
The big question was: Do I wear a helmet or not? It is optional, the Germans said. After all, the Audi S8 is perfectly safe under all circumstances. But the guy from Edmunds, who seemed sane, took one.
“I have kids,” he said. “I can’t afford any head injuries.”
I’m also a father, and I also wore the helmet.
Next, we received our safety briefing. Two “pillows” on the track, or cones, meant you’d reached a braking point. One cone up and one down meant “turn in,” the racing term for when you begin your turn. A green cone is the “Ausfahrt,” the hilarious German word for exit. Three of us would drive at a time, appropriately spaced, and we’d each get three turns around the track, plus two introductory laps led by a man driving an actual racecar.
“You all had the safety briefing?” asked our guide.
“Yeah,” I said. “But I don’t remember it.”
“I have short term memory problems.”
“For this,” he said, “we make the two introductory laps.”
The track drive began. My focus wasn’t quite as stiff as the S8’s suspension. I couldn’t determine how fast I was going, because I was just trying not to die around the turns, of which there were many. Sweat pooled under my helmet liner. In conversation later, the other drivers came to a group conclusion: The S8 had plenty of giddyap and flawless steering. The brakes worked well but seemed a little worn-out from all the track driving. It’s a $115,000 car. At that price, the flaws had best be minimal.
Halfway through the second test lap, I took a sharp turn too fast, or I misjudged the distance to the next turn. Either way, I went wide past the green paint, into the spinout area. It wasn’t my slickest moment. Every test, the other drivers told me, some shmo from somewhere drives a car into a wall or a barricade. I was determined not to be that guy. There are no heroes on press junket drives; there are only chumps. Perhaps that goes without saying.
For my solo laps, I took off my sweater and scarf because I was sweating like a beast in that helmet, which made me look like a technician on the Death Star. I now knew the course, and took it easy, never going past 180 km/h. I braked sufficiently and turned wittily. The car felt like it belonged out there on the track.
After about half an hour, I pulled into the finish, alive. Joe was waiting for me, looking like a kid who’s just driven around a racetrack. Actually, that’s exactly what he was.
“You see why people get into this,” he said.
“Sure,” I said.
There were chocolate foie gras lollipops sloshing around in my belly. Also, I hadn’t really slept in two days. I wanted immediate access to a toilet, followed by a bottle of sparkling water.
Afterward, Joe and I went for a bromance-drive in the country, where we encountered several evil-looking tractors and a Basque shepherd moving his flock down the road. This delayed us 15 minutes.
“Dude, we should turn around,” Joe said.
“Nah,” I said. “It’ll end.”
The sheep parted. We drove to our hotel, which was designed by Frank Gehry, in swooping purple steel, as a tribute to the Spanish wine industry. At the entrance, underneath a spotlight, sat a gleaming silver Audi S8, arrogantly assuming the local peasantry would never attempt a revolt.
Because I hadn’t been treated well enough, apparently, they gave me a 750-square-foot executive suite with a private balcony opening onto a vineyard. After an hour-long tub soak, I put on my sports coat and went to a “presentation,” where I ate ample quantities of Spanish ham. We went on a tour of the hotel’s private wine “cathedral,” which contained 180,000 bottles, some of them dating back to 1862. Then they ushered us upstairs to have a private dinner tailored to the palates of German auto executives.
I ended up at a somewhat wonky table with an Audi functionary and his translator, who described to us the ideal Audi customer — a wealthy American architect who likes something sporty but stylish — and the actual Audi customer — a rapacious Chinese businessman who wants his car to have the largest engine available even if the smaller engine is better-performing and more efficient.
Bow down before the one you serve.
“After today,” the executive said, “I’m sure you do not rue your choice of profession.”
It’s not my profession, I thought. And I didn’t choose it. But I was in no position to rue.