Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Audi R8's retirement party during Monterey Car Week. The 15-year-old R8 stretched its legs on official company business one final time on Aug. 19 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca with some special guests in attendance. One of them was the daddy of the original Audi R8, designer Frank Lamberty, as well as nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen. And then there was me: a random guy who had nothing to do with the car, yet was invited to lap the famous track to celebrate its legacy as Germany's supercar.
Over the course of a few days, I was able to spend a good amount of time with both Lamberty and Kristensen. They are truly larger-than-life figures in their own right, one of them in the design space and the other in motorsport. Both, however, owe much of their success to Audi, and more specifically, the R8.
I've talked to car designers before, and they typically use lots of big words, cite art concepts I know nothing about, and drop endless poetic references to things like flowers, the wind, or the curvature of a Herman Miller Eames Lounge chair. Not Lamberty. The charismatic German talked with me, not to me. He told me all about his hiking adventures in Norway, his interactions with Audi's former racing boss Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich (a personal hero of mine), and his love for race cars. And of course, he professed his love for his four-wheeled child, the Audi R8.
Lamberty and I were sitting next to each other while watching vintage F1 cars lap Laguna Seca, when the mighty roar of the V12s suddenly ceased. A minute or so later a red Audi R8 V10 flew past us. He immediately hopped out of his chair onto his feet to get a better look. He turned to me and said in his sharp German accent, "That's Tom! Looks good, yah?"
Here's the guy who created the R8, owns one, and has obviously been around hundreds if not thousands of them for over 15 years, yet seeing one zoom past him turned him into a young kid who couldn't contain his excitement. Every time Kristensen drove past us, Lamberty would turn to me, point to the car and share a tidbit about the R8. He talked about the redesigned side blades in the second-gen car, the aggressive front end, and how the original design was heavily influenced by the R8 Le Mans prototype—the very one that helped Kristensen to six of his nine victories there.
"My boss at the time, Walter de Silva, called me to his office and said, 'Lamberty, we have to design not a British mid-engine sports car and not an Italian mid-engine sports car—we have to design a German mid-engine sports car,'" Lamberty told me. "I knew at that moment that I had to establish the identity of a true German mid-engine sports car."
Lamberty already knew what the Italians were doing with the platform (Lamborghini Gallardo), and was convinced his design had to be a radical departure that was organically German. He didn't waste time with flowers, the wind, or designer chairs. He claims to have gained inspiration from three simple things: The Porsche 904, a Ducati 996, and an eagle (yes, the animal). In his own words, these were "aerodynamic, purposeful, and aggressive yet elegant." According to Lamberty, it's these principles that shaped the core lines of the Audi R8.
After our conversation, he stepped away for a minute and came back with a pen. He looked around our table for some paper but found only a tiny cloth napkin with the Audi logo. He said something in German that I think may have been something like, "Well this sucks," but he got to sketching anyway.
He started with the R8's three main lines—the ones inspired by the Porsche, Ducati, and eagle. The first one runs horizontally from the front of the car to the back and has two arches for the wheel wells. The second line is the inverted "C" that forms the cockpit (very Bugatti-esque), and the third one is perhaps the most famous of all: the vertical line at the B-pillar that gave birth to the side blade.
Like artists often do, he apologized for not being on his A-game as he hadn't actually sketched the R8 in a long time. He then began tinkering with the original lines and added subtle details that showed where the taillights would fit in, as well as the headlights and roofline. The end result was the main silhouette for the car, but with a few extra bits added on.
He signed the napkin and gave it to me, then we took a photo together and continued watching the action on track. An hour later we both got to do a few laps in separate R8s and celebrate the most important design of Lamberty's career. Needless to say, he was emotional.
The next day, I shared a few words with him at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. Unlike many corporate figures from the auto industry who often come off annoyed at large events, Lamberty seemed as happy as could be. He even took the time to chat with a few R8 owners who spotted him in the crowd.
Truly the closing of a chapter for Audi, and obviously for Lamberty, too. What a pleasure it was to experience them both.
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