A glance down at the speedo yields a reading somewhere north of 260km/h, as Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit’s notorious first turn, Doohan Corner, rapidly approaches into view. The sight, looming ever larger, makes my already-perspiring hands tighten their grips on the Audi RS5 Sportback’s alcantara-clad wheel.
This is comfortably the fastest I’ve ever been on track, and my brain is screaming at me to stand on the anchors.
There is a driving coach in an identical RS5 Sportback ahead of me, and he hasn’t stopped talking; but to be honest, I’d sort of tuned out. I had my hands full trying to keep up with him on a cold damp track, and my mind had just enough time to wonder just how these instructors are able to cruise about with one hand on the wheel, while simultaneously shouting instructions through a handheld radio.
I was trailing him to mimic his lines and his markers. A dab of brakes at the 150 metre mark to bring the nose into line, and to shift the weight over the roll centre, sees the RS5 lean hard through the dip and exit, without incident, out and on to the ascent up through to the Southern Loop.
I’d just survived my first full lap of the fearsome Phillip Island raceway.
But let’s rewind to how I got here.
"An old adage says that you can only ever experience your first time once, but waiting in that RS5 in pit lane truly felt like I was attending my first track day all over again."
I’m no stranger to race tracks. I have frequented track days at Winton for years driving both my old Subaru BRZ and current Nissan R32 Skyline GT-R, and have assisted friends numerous times in the pits at Phillip Island for various Vic Time Attack events and club-level sprint days. But I’ve never driven around PI myself as the sheer speed always intimidated me, and I never felt I had the right car.
Recently, Audi kindly invited me to partake in its relaunched-for-2021 Audi Driving Experience day, which promises a flock of ‘right cars’ and the perfect introduction to the fearsome seaside circuit.
Like many last year, the team behind Audi’s Driving Experience were forced to shut up shop while the nation raced to get the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic under control. With Melbourne’s brutal lockdowns receding into the rear-view, the team are back with a full 2021 calendar comprising of 28 events across New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia.
Their track day driving experiences are divided into two programs: Dynamic ($1250) and Sport Pro ($3500).
The Audi Dynamic driving experience sees punters offered the chance to get behind the wheel of RS3, RS5, RS6, RS Q8 and TT RS models; with dedicated coaching through various exercises such as steering slaloms, slide control, emergency braking, track lapping and a Motorkhana competition.
The Sport Pro experience turns the wick up again, offering warm-up training, one-on-one on-track coaching plus a full debrief and track analysis – all with an Audi R8 at your disposal.
For our media day, we got to sample a blend of the two programs and were offered a steer in the TT RS, RS5, RS6, RS Q8 and R8 Performance. ‘Right cars’ for Phillip Island, indeed.
To start the day, we were given a brief warm up exercise in the form of a controlled slide. The aim was to dial in our reflexes, loosen up the arms and – if anything else – to properly wake up a flock of caffeine-desensitized journalists. A trio of Audi RS6 Avants were the weapon of choice, and a wet skidpan our theatre.
We were given three attempts with ESC off. It was a fairly simple affair, lining up at the centre of the skidpan, winding on one full-turn of lock, and planting the accelerator. The RS6’s long wheelbase yielded quite a forgiving balance point in the yaw range, with the ability to sustain big angles with some feathered throttle application. With our arms now loose, and the flock of journos now wide awake, it was on to the track laps.
An old adage says that you can only ever experience your first time once, but waiting in that RS5 in pit lane truly felt like I was attending my first track day all over again.
I bee-lined for the RS5 to start with, knowing that we’d eventually sample all offerings throughout the day. It seemed to be the most conventionally balanced platform for my intimidating first taste of PI, and would be my pick of the bunch were I to tackle a full track day in my own time.
The RS5 was the most forgiving and intuitive to pilot, while the mid-engined TT RS and R8 Performance were markedly more sensitive to mid-corner inputs – made even more difficult with ever-changing track conditions thanks to on-again-off-again rain throughout our day, typical of Phillip Island's coastal climate.
The RS6 Avant, also, wasn’t nearly as composed as it struggled to contain its mass, squirming uncomfortably if you asked too much of it under braking and cornering. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the RS Q8 was the biggest surprise (both literally and figuratively, tipping the scales at almost 2.4 tonnes) with a mind-bending agility that belied its size and weight.
Early power-on out of corners was a far more composed affair than in the RS6, as it was in virtually all other areas of the track be they braking, corner entry or – dare I say – even steering fidelity. It sounds almost blasphemous, but given the choice: I would resolutely choose an RS Q8 over an RS6 at a race track. The instructor must have rolled out the PR line of the RS Q8 possessing “the biggest factory-fitted brakes in the world” about three times during that session, but by the end of it I sure believed it.
The end of the day saw us return to the skid pan, and finish with a friendly Motorkhana competition.
Of course, the team behind the Audi Driving experience will keep you caffeinated and well-fed throughout the day, with a healthy sit-down lunch break plus morning and afternoon tea – all inclusive of your ticket price.
It must be said that the Phillip Island café is actually one of the better ones around the state, but Audi’s catering was on another level again.
But I wasn’t there for the food. I was there because the instruction of professional drivers, and Audi’s tightly-run ship, seemed like the perfect introduction to a race track that had unnerved me for years.
The scratch hasn’t so much been itched, more like the bug has bitten - hard.
It’s a truly phenomenal track, and I long for the day I get to return.
Perhaps I’ll finally find the courage to take my own car in my own time later this year.
Can I take Turn 1 flat? Let's find out...
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