Diving into Spring Mountain Motorsport Ranch's tight turn 2, the Porsche 911 Carrera S nips under the Ferrari F430. A silver scimitar suddenly splits the red haze. Porsche and Ferrari are natural foes--always have been, always will be. But will the sports car elite drift wide to make room for an Audi R8 that's only recently set its Pirellis on American pavement? We're in Nevada to find out.
Like the meteorite that recently holed a New Jersey home, the R8 is heaven-sent. The four-rings brand has never done a sports car. Never mind the five Le Mans victories by the racing car with the same name; open-cockpit endurance racers are a touch hairy for a romantic driving weekend in wine country.
To identify the true inspiration behind Audi's new $100,000 two-seater, you've got to set the Wayback Machine way back. Dust off your history books to find the 1938 Type 114 F-wagen named after its conspirators, Ferdinand and Ferry Porsche. After sending their Auto Union racers to grand prix victory circles during the Age of Titans (see sidebar), Porsche father and son penned their first sports car. The common thread from the grand prix racers through the Type 114 to today's Audi R8 is an engine situated between the cockpit and the rear axle with a transmission cantilevered out the back. One world war later, the prescient Porsches homed in tighter with their V-8-powered Cisitalia Type 370 sports car proposal of 1947.
Why Porsche then went the rear-engine route is a story for another day. Still, anyone with a spare $100,000 would be foolish to miss the ways and wiles of today's 911 Carrera S. We've included the Ferrari F430 in this clutch because it's the platinum standard: a more intensely entertaining sports car doesn't exist. Paying a premium and waiting patiently for a turn to own an F430 is the justifiable price of entry into the Ferrari fold.
The question is whether Audi's R8 makes for suitably savory meat in this sports car sandwich. You won't find that answer in power-to-weight calculations or learned design critiques. The only way to know for sure is to drive the dickens out of these rivals, which is precisely what we did for three days all over southern Nevada. As luck would have it--and we had our share--there's no better place to wring out three hot sports cars.
The defining moments of our adventure occurred within the first two hours of my stint in the R8's sport seat. After escaping Las Vegas congestion and enjoying a rapid pass around Mountain Springs Summit, I sped west on Nevada 160 to meet the Ferrari and the Porsche. As I ran out of hilly terrain, the desert valley swept forth like a boundless gaming table--an ideal place to exercise the R8's six-piston, carbon-ceramic brakes. After a burst of acceleration to 165 mph, I mashed the brake pedal to experience fade-free stopping power that felt like running into a megasize marshmallow. The R8 dug its heels into the pavement and the seatbelts cinched my torso like a boa constrictor. There wasn't a murmur of protest from the brakes, the tires, or the chassis.