Selling cars is traditionally done by sales staff in dealer showrooms.
Still, premium brands in particular use other more emotive, dramatic methods which often involve maniacally fast, sporty cars on a race track, perhaps with Le Mans legend Tom Kristensen chauffeuring…
Audi has this week been rotating dozens of customers through full day driving courses in its high-end exotics at The Bend, Australia’s new $110 million motor sports park, corporate playground and driver training facility near Tailem Bend, an hour from Adelaide.
The object for Audi is to sell cars. For the punters, a priority is to fully enjoy the extreme potential of R8 and RS-badged high-performance models as well as leaving The Bend with the rare experience of going hard on a racing circuit.
Audi was quick off the mark to take over The Bend for a week to showcase its Audi Sport portfolio to dozens of customers, dealer-nominated prospects, the occasional celebrity/ambassador and some inquisitive wannabe Audi owners with a hankering to try before they buy. Existing R8 and RS owners are offered attractive deals to take the opportunity to fully understand and explore their savage beasts.
A number of different Audi Driving Experience courses are offered, including advanced instruction, special tuition for women, and even very specific race driving coaching. Generally, blokes have to stump up $999 for the entry level frolics. Women currently pay $500 for half a day. Maybe they have less leisure time for car fun?
For those who may not know, Audi Sport is a stand-alone performance arm involved in the car maker’s factory motor sport programmes (currently Formula E and DTM), global customer racing (GT3, GT4 and RS3 TCR), plus it also creates the brand’s peak performance R8 and RS products.
In six years of the national Audi Driving Experience, 8200 guests have cycled through programs such as the one at The Bend. Many - around 250 at last count - have been sufficiently seduced to sign up for new cars.
While the clear intention is to sell more cars, Audi decorates the occasion with positive (safety) intentions, with a team of instructors who are at the Bend giving one-on-one driving tips to the guests on the racetrack, and on a very wet-and-wild skid pan, and a mixed conditions motorkhana course.
If the guests feel inclined to order a new car…terrific. But it is also important to send them home with a better understanding of controlling cars capable of 300km/h.
Australian love their sports machines. We know that from the strong demand for Mercedes-Benz AMG models and BMW M cars, and the impressive fact that seven per cent of all Audis sold here are Audi Sport hot rods makes Australia the fifth largest market for Audi Sport (but only the 11th biggest for the Audi brand).
Eighteen of 40 national Audi dealers now have exclusive Audi Sport corners in their showrooms replete with specialist sales staff, the latest cars and merchandise.
Close to three dozen RS and R8 cars (coupes, sedans, Sportback hatches and Avant wagons), all equipped with option ceramic brake packages but otherwise absolutely standard, are on hand for the guests to exploit.
The brutally quick 412kW/700Nm 4.0-litre TFSI V8 RS6 is deployed for the swerve-and-brake exercise. Too competent to threaten, it behaves remarkably compliantly with rare comfort levels too.
The excitement cranks up during the cornering exercises, when RS3s (the most popular Audi Sport model) are coaxed through a series of different profiled bends to demonstrate cornering grip and prowess, the 294kW/480Nm 2.5 five-cylinder making marvellous noises under acceleration or when the S tronic seven-speeder changes cogs. Yes, the stability control electronics (which we have to leave engaged) do intrude when corners were approached too fast or if the tail steps out, but this encourages us to drive a little smoother.
There is a G-force meter but no time to glance at it. But the tyre pressure and temperature dash indicators suggest the front tyres are copping a belting.
The RS3 is a most engaging tool, feeling reassuringly planted even when pushed beyond the boundaries of common sense. It’s also fun like a good sports machine should be.
Comparing rear drive and all-wheel-drive versions of the flagship R8 supercar on the saturated skid pad leaves no doubts about the poise and grip superiority of AWD quattro in a challenging, low-adhesion environment. In this dog-on-linoleum romp, the $402,340 (plus on roads) 449kW/560Nm V10 plus R8 quattro deals with full throttle in tiny bursts; the lighter and more affordable $299,129 rear drive R8 RWS version though is inclined to instantly break traction, flicking into a spin accompanied by an exuberant roar from the V10.
Getting to try the surprising undulations of the smooth easy-flowing asphalt mega course of The Bend in a $400K quattro V10 plus R8 coupe is a highlight of the track day. There are sensible boundaries, but instructors allow the participants enough latitude (rope) to enjoy a mid-engined missile that fires from zero to 100km/h in 3.2secs). That front end is about the best in the business, turning so immediately and keenly into corners and changing direction so elegantly, so effortless. A little understeer can be offset by a slight easing of the throttle to get the front tyres to bite..
Tom Kristensen is on hand at the Bend to sprinkle Nordic good cheer amongst the guests, and to take a few lucky ones for hot laps in an R8. The now-retired Danish legend has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans nine times – 1997, 2000-2005, 2008, 2013 - three times more than anyone else. For perspective, Peter Brock won the same number of 1000km Bathurst classics, but one difference is that Kristensen’s victories tended to involve a distance of around 5000km per race.
Typically he plays down the challenge of enervating 24-hour contests: “It’s just sprint racing, but longer!”
Getting a little earnest for a moment, Kristensen explains that making a mistake and locking a wheel/tyre can have a huge impact on your race at Le Mans, where some team strategies call for rubber to be preserved for three or four “sometimes five” stints.
He also details the technique of drivers coaxing more energy from hybrid prototypes by coasting at key moments to bank a few seconds of welcome boost. “You’re in cut-and-thrust dicing in constant traffic, passing seven to nine cars every lap, and it goes against instinct.”
After such a stellar career, Kristensen’s decision to retire was not so hard, he says. He lost both his parents in recent years, leaving him responsibilities as the new head of the family. Ten might have been a nice round number of Le Mans wins, but he walked away at the end of 2014 with few regrets (and a farewell second place). His final race in Brazil was an emotional time. “I miss racing sometimes, but I have family responsibilities. Still, I can have a cup of coffee and eat what I like.”
That is, within reason. Now 51, Kristensen, looks as trim and as fit as ever. Straight off the plane to Australia to start his present Audi commitments, he caught up with his son who is studying at Sydney University and immediately took off on a 10km run around The Rocks. His first time in Sydney, he took the chance to check out the handiwork of another prominent Dane, Joern Utzon…
Kristensen is quite enamoured of the newly minted The Bend race facility.
Kristensen likes race tracks that have “consequences" for drivers who make mistakes. By that he doesn’t want people hurt or killed, “But I want track limits less forgiving. I want drivers to respect other drivers. Too many drivers today don’t have the right respect for the circuit.
But the Le Mans great who began his career in Formula 3 and Formula 5000 cars is pleased to see the halo driver safety hoop mandated in Formula One and other open cockpit categories. “It takes some visibility away from the driver but it does offer added protection and it’s still an open car.”
Kristensen says is a real pleasure to drive on The Bend, a new “old-school” track of nearly eight kilometres with so many varying corners. Not as lengthy as the 13.626 km Le Mans sports car circuit, but still a challenge.
The first new permanent race track built in Australia since Queensland Raceway near Ipswich 20 years ago, The Bend is privately owned by the South Australian business impresario Shahin brothers.
Located on the former proving ground of Mitsubishi Australia, zoning was never a major issue.
Various track configurations can be used including the 18-turn 4.9 km track used for a recent Supercars championship round, and a 7.7km 34-turn grand prix layout – the longest in the Southern Hemisphere. A large skidpan is already operational while under construction are a drift and rallycross circuit, 80-hectare 4WD adventure park, rally track, and dragway.
A jet freighter-capable airstrip is intended to help secure international car and motorcycle racing series.
More than a mere race track though, The Bend already boasts a smart Rydges Hotel with 100 rooms above the pit bays (and a cavernous foyer laced with rare and pricy road and race machines).
The terrain is featureless and flat but the already impressive facility will only grow in appeal as it matures with more buildings, grandstands and the addition of trees and lawns.
In the future there are secure plans for a business park, trackside villas and premium garages to store track toys. The Bend will become a country club for car people, with memberships, and mercifully no golf course…