At the turn of the century, with just a few years to go until its hundredth birthday, Audi had built everything from mass-market economy cars to executive sedans to rally champions to Le Mans winners. It had pioneered two-stroke engines, front-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive. There was just one thing left to do - tackle the most rarefied class of roadgoing car there is: the supercar class.
From Le Mans quattro to R8
Like the Q7, A3 and others, the R8 made its first appearance as a concept car. 2003 saw no less than three Audi concept vehicles making their debuts, the Pikes Peak quattro, the Nuvolari quattro and the Le Mans quattro. It was this last that would evolve into the production R8.
The Audi Le Mans quattro
The Le Mans quattro took its name from the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans which at that point, Audi had won three times in a row, in 2000, 2001 and 2002 and five times in total. (This theme would be carried over to the production car, as the R8 designation was taken from the R8 Le Mans car which chalked up these victories.) A mid-engined coupe, the Le Mans quattro boasted a wealth of innovations including LED headlights, and Audi Space Frame structure made from aluminium and clothed in carbon fibre and aluminium body panels. The shape was aerodynamic and from some angles recalled that of the 1930's Silver Arrows, but avoided falling into the retro trap and was unashamedly modern, breaking new ground with its distinctive contrasting side blades. And it was also unmistakeably Audi.
The Le Mans quattro with open front and rear decklids
Like its spaceframe, the Le Mans quattro's engine was developed from that of the Lamboghini Gallardo, now that the Italian brand was part of the VW stable. The Audi version had four valves per cylinder rather than the Lamborghini's five, as well as twin-turbochargers and Fuel Stratified Injection (FSI) technology. A six-speed gearbox transmitted power to all four wheels, naturally. An automatic pop-up spoiler raised itself when the car hit 70mph, although the car's top speed of 214mph was about three times that!
The production R8 with 4.2 litre V8 engine
The production R8 was announced in 2006 and made its official debut at that year's Paris Auto Show, with the silhouette retained from the concept, but with certain detail changes like the smaller engine cover hatch. The R8 is produced in a newly-renovated factory at Neckarsulm in Germany by quattro GmbH, Audi's high-performance subsidiary, who developed the concept car from scratch, and whose meticulous work procedures recall the stringent tests the original quattro was put through, as each R8 is built out of 5,000 components by hand before 95 lasers inspect the car, taking over 220 measurements and making sure these are within 0.1 millimetres of an acceptable range. Luckily, the lasers are able to do all that in a total of five seconds - not that time is of the essence, since just eight to fifteen cars a day are built by the factory.
The R8's cabin shows its racing heritage, most notable in the squared-off steering wheel
The first R8s had 4.2 litre V8 engines based on those found in the Audi B7 RS4, but extensively modified with dry-sump lubrication, four valves per cylinder, FSI and two double overhead camshafts per cylinder bank. A more powerful 5.2 litre V10 became an additional option in 2008, based on the powerplant from the Gallardo, with which all R8s share their transmission options of a manual six-speed with metal gate, an Audi-developed R Tronic semi-automatic with no clutch pedal or a double-clutch S Tronic Direct Shift gearbox. With any of these fitted, the R8 is undoubtedly fast, but it's also a very safe place to be, with its magneto rheological dampers giving consistent adaptive handling, Bosch's ESP 8.0 Electronic Stability Programme with ABS and front dual-stage and side curtain airbags. The all-LED headlamps of the Le mans quattro showcar couldn't be carried over directly, but the R8 does feature LED safety light bars under the headlights - a new Audi trademark. V10-powered cars also have bigger brakes and more aggressive styling touches.
The R8 with 5.2 litre V10 - note the larger side air intakes
A V12 TDI R8 made its debut at the 2008 North American International Auto Show as a concept vehicle, making use of Audi's expertise with high-performance diesel engines. Due to the costs involved in re-engineering the R8 to make the huge twin-turbo V12 diesel engine fit into it, a production TDI won't be a reality, but a convertible - with both V8 and V10 engine options available - is hotly anticipated to be arriving shortly, however.
The R10 V12 TDI Concept - the NACA airduct in the panoramic roof is to allow necessary additional cooling for the diesel V12
Barely three years old, the R8 already has a raft of awards to its name. Autocar named it Best Handling of 2007, Autobild made it their Sports Car of the Year 2007. The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada awarded it Canadian Car of the Year, Best Prestige Car and Most Coveted Car of 2008. It won Car of the Year titles in 2007 from British motoring TV shows Top Gear Fifth Gear, with the latter also naming it as Best Fast Car. In 2008, an MSN Car of the Year Poll saw the R8 win with 42% of the votes, comfortably beating the second-place winner, the Ferrari F430, which scored 13% of them. In the same year, it was Automobile Magazine's Automobile of the Year, Playboy's Car of the Year and World Performance Car of the Year and World Design Car of the Year at the World Car of the Year Awards. And last but not least, Motor Klassik readers voted it as the Classic Car of the Future for 2009 - sealing the deal on the R8's status as the perfect car to kick off Audi's second hundred years.
The view of the R8 most commonly seen by other road users
Those Side Blades...
The R8's most defining characteristic is undoubtedly the distinctive sideblades the car sports behind the doors. The side blades can be ordered in body colour, a contrasting shade or two special finishes; Oxygen Silver or the Carbon Fibre-like Carbon Sigma, pictured left. Given the car's huge popularity, plenty of aftermarket tuner-type options are also available, however!
Audi receives more requests from toy and model companies to make scale R8s than any other car. As a longtime Audi collaborator, Kyosho had access to the R8 before it hit the showrooms, and their 1/18 scale R8, with its opening doors, front decklid and rear engine cover, working steering and incredible detail levels is truly worthy of the full-size car, especially in its Audi-exclusive colour of Sepang Blue with silver side blades.
Kyosho's 1/18 scale R10 in Sepang Blue
This fantastic model is, of course, up for auction in our special forum section here, along with all the previous models featured on the blog. Bidding officially ends on all models early this coming Friday morning (the 17th July) UK time, as per our announcement here.
And, of course, all proceeds go to the Helen & Douglas House, which provides hospice and respite care for children and young adults.
For more information about the range of model cars available from Audi, please visit www.audi.co.uk/merchandise