ATLANTA, Georgia—Andy Pilgrim steps out of a 2018 Audi TT RS with a chuckle, casts a glance at the 2018 RS3 I’ve unbuckled from, and smiles. “That was fun, mate,” he says. “There’s really not much between them. You were keeping up well right there. Pretty even, I reckon.”
The 2017 sports-car racing season just concluded a few days earlier, and we’ve given these new cars a bit of a shakedown not far from Road Atlanta, host of the IMSA season finale. Pilgrim is satisfied that, during a roll-on acceleration run from about 25 mph to somewhere north of 100 mph, the TT RS’s only advantage over the more conventionally styled RS3 is its 287 fewer pounds and a slight jump ahead on initial takeoff. “A certified, overachieving giant killer,” he says of the $65,875 TT RS and its 3.6-second 0-60-mph time. The same description applies to the RS3 and its 3.9-second stat and is perhaps even more apropos given the $10,000 lower base price. Beyond the straight-line power, each car has an excellent chassis that allows for easy corner-entry rotation, plus strong brakes, world-class seats, and well-tuned suspension and steering, never mind more plebeian concerns like top-flight interiors and external lighting packages. In other words, exactly what we’ve come to expect from Audi’s range-topping models.
To our right, as a reminder of what Audi’s Quattro GmbH performance arm has been up to in the past several years, we’ve also parked a 610-hp R8 V10 Plus Coupe, 540-hp R8 V10 Spyder, and 605-hp RS7 Performance four-door. Refresher drives in each reaffirm their claims to being, in order, a borderline frighteningly quick mid-engine supercar, a bananas open-air monster, and a sharply styled vanquisher of more than a few chest-thumping executive stoplight burners.
Yet for all of Audi’s performance credentials established during more than 35 years of professional competition in rallying and road racing and by its first Rennsport production car, the 1994 RS2, the marque has suffered a bit in terms of its messaging. For one thing, though Quattro GmbH was its in-house equivalent of BMW’s M and Mercedes’ AMG divisions, most consumers identify “Quattro” with the company’s ubiquitous all-wheel-drive technology. For another, RS offerings traditionally have been few and far between compared to the number of rocketship models offered by other manufacturers.
The new TT RS and RS3, then, are as significant for the future they represent as they are for their individual capabilities. They are the first RS models launched since Quattro GmbH was renamed Audi Sport at the beginning of 2017, an attempt to create a stronger perceptual link between Audi’s motorsports activities and its performance-car range. Branding exercise aside, a strategy revision is likely of more interest to German hot-rod enthusiasts: Where RS models during the past decade-plus tended to arrive at the tail end of a given car’s life cycle—and even skip certain generations of those cars—they will now arrive within the first year or two of a new model’s introduction, and RS badging will be present on 10 different vehicles by the end of 2018, with the new RS5 up next at the beginning of the year.
If that’s not enough to drill home the point, Audi has doubled down on its motorsports footprint, despite its withdrawal from the FIA World Endurance Championship at the end of 2016, bringing an end to the program that claimed 13 overall wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans during a 16-year span. Production-car-based customer racing is a giant part of the game in sports-car competition, with Audi Sport—it’s responsible for the RS street cars and customer racing programs—so far delivering more than 200 R8 GT3-spec cars worldwide (60 in the U.S.). Now, Audi plans for its two newest race cars to, in conjunction with the expanding road-car lineup, prove its commitment to performance product more than ever before. Notably, the RS3 LMS (more than 15 sold in this country so far) that in 2017 raced in the Pirelli World Challenge and the R8 LMS GT4 (more than 20 sold here) that just went on sale ahead of the 2018 season are intended to appeal to track-day enthusiasts as well as to aspiring pro racers. We put our resident hotshoe behind the wheel of each.
Pro Driver Pilgrim’s Debrief
Road Atlanta has a superb flow, some wicked-quick corners, and challenging elevation changes that make it a fantastic place to test both the R8 GT4 LMS and RS 3 LMS. Chances are you will see pro drivers campaigning these cars next year, but the bulk of owners and drivers will be amateurs.
Safety is a critical factor on the track. It’s impressive to see as standard equipment in both cars a rescue hatch for driver-helmet removal in the event of a crash, an FIA-approved FT3 fuel tank, Audi’s state-of-the-art racing seat that exceeds FIA requirements and features safety nets on both sides, and an OMP fire system. The driver’s seats are mounted in a fixed position, but owners can position them to their liking. Steering columns adjust for height and length, and the pedals are adjustable, as well. An actual fuel gauge mounted near the RS 3’s fill-up port is a significant feature crew members will love; such a thing is unheard of on most race cars.
Speaking of the $137,500 front-drive RS3 LMS, it was up first. Yes, front-wheel drive, but there really is no appreciable torque steer. The starting procedure in both cars is a competition setup: power on, ignition on, push a button on the steering wheel. Initially you feel a little steering “search” over bumps and undulations; this is fairly common with race cars on cool tires. Front-wheel drive means the sensation comes through a little more, but it goes away once the tires are up to operating temperature.
The baseline chassis setup was a bit soft, but it didn’t prevent me from dropping the hammer from the get-go. The RS3 LMS is quick—there are four different power maps available, either 290, 310, 330, or 350 hp from the 2.0-liter turbo-four—with nothing in the way of snappy vices. It happily crosses curbs and has impressive cor-nering speed, thanks to its downforce, up to 800 pounds of it. The front-drive layout only made itself obvious coming out of Turn 7, the circuit’s slowest corner, in the form of a little tire-slip understeer during power application, but it was minimal, and a slight adjustment of my turn-in technique took care of it.
Shifting in the RS 3 LMS is as quick as expected from a double-clutch automatic. After chatting with a couple of Audi’s pro drivers, I elected not to use the shift paddles and just let the transmission choose the gears. According to the pros who are more experienced with these cars, there is effectively no lap-time difference by doing so. And with the transmission shifting automatically, you don’t worry about hitting the rev limiter or making sure you’re in the correct gear for each corner.
The brakes do not feature ABS, but they work well. Modulation while trail-braking into slower corners is no issue, and the car’s downforce means you can use a lot of brake pressure at the end of the straights with no worries about locking up. This car can really throw out an anchor. Weighing only 2,712 pounds certainly adds to the nimble race-car feel.
Interestingly, the RS 3 has some clever front-wheel-drive-specific tools. Drivers can use its long vertical rear-brake hand lever to drag the rear tires to help warm them up. There is also a small 10-position lever next to the hand brake; moving it adds or takes away only rear brake pressure, which could certainly help during long runs when the front tires start to go away.
In the case of the $249,500, 3,153-pound R8 GT4, going directly from the RS 3 LMS’s four-cylinder and front-drive to a rear-drive, normally aspirated, mid-engine 5.0-liter V-10-powered car making about 495 hp on this day (it will be restricted to less than 450 in race trim for most series) was instantly different by the sound alone. The abundance of Honda Civics with drain pipes sticking out the back suggest there is no shortage of folks who love a four-cylinder’s raspy sound. Race car or not, however, I’ll always prefer the scream of a V-10.
The R8 GT4 felt stable and hooked-up right out of the pits. The steering is not too quick, which suits a driving style that incorporates a slower initial steering wheel rate. With about 500 pounds of downforce, the car offers less aerodynamic grip than the RS 3 LMS, but you still feel it working, and it allows for carrying serious speed through Road Atlanta’s quicker turns. The ABS brakes are stunningly good and give massive stopping power. Traction control is adjustable and barely noticeable in the least aggressive setting. You can also switch it off.
Important note: The R8 GT4 is not a twitchy car on turn-in; the rear end is well planted. This is a major selling point for less experienced drivers and separates the R8 from other GT4 race cars I’ve raced and tested during the past two years. For context, it is possible to lap the RS 3 LMS around Road Atlanta faster than a production Porsche GT3 RS or Corvette Z06 with Z07 package (sub 1 minute, 30 seconds), and the R8 GT4 is even quicker, by about 4 seconds per lap.
The turnkey nature and accessible performance of these new Audi race cars, however, really stand out. They’re delivered ready to go. Owning one means you can show up at your favorite racetrack, drive it off the trailer, check the tire pressures and oil level, run 50 laps, and then go to dinner. Sure, you can fiddle with alignment, shocks, anti-roll bars, and wings if you want, but this test demonstrated you don’t need to do all of that to enjoy your day or weekend. That’s a big selling point, and track-day regulars and racers of all skill levels should give these cars a solid look. As I left the circuit, driving the R8 coupe road car from earlier in the day and listening to its exhaust crack on the overrun, I didn’t feel far removed from the race car I had climbed out of an hour earlier. Considering that’s the big-picture target Audi Sport aims for, it’s on the right track.