One of the innocent bystanders was Ray "Wulfy" Wulfenstein, the owner of the Best Western hotel where we lodged in Pahrump. The sixty-nine-year-old, fifteen-time grand-father not only owns a 1989 Testarossa but also raced to respectable finishes at Daytona International Speedway in 1970 and '72. So when we needed an extra driver for photography, we didn't hesitate to call on him. For fulfilling our picky photographer's instructions to the letter and for never setting a wheel wrong, Wulfy earned Automobile Magazine's merit badge for courage in the face of excess horsepower.
Attacking Cathedral Canyon, which straddles the Nevada/California border, we focused our studies on sub-100-mph handling. All three machines slide their front tires first when hammered into a tight bend. What a thoughtful driver should do to amend the situation varies from car to car. Pitching the Porsche helps by inducing a boxing match between front and rear traction--first one end sticks while the other slides, and then vice versa. Switching the F430's manettino full clockwise (one notch past the Race position) enables the sideways-on-cue mode, where understeer is never an issue. The R8 feels heavier on its feet, and its all-wheel drive requires more patience. Tromping on the throttle midbend exacerbates understeer, even with stability control disabled, because the front tires convey 15 to 35 percent of the total torque produced. Hurling the Audi into corners with the brakes still lightly applied, a technique track heroes call trail braking, worked best for us. That helps stick the front axle while also encouraging the tail to slide wide--but not so wide that a touch of throttle or a dab of countersteer won't fail to gather up excess exuberance.
Transiting from one photo location to the next, we had ample opportunity to compare steering sensitivity and feel. Here, the R8 loses ground to the red team. The 911 is cat-quick on its feet and highly sensitive to what lies beneath its front tires. The F430 also tells compelling stories through its steering wheel. While there's no dead zone in the R8, messages conveyed through its leather-clad rim are muted. The aforementioned torque split filters communication from the road. What the R8 needs is a manettino that switches Audi's Quattro system into a duo (rear-wheel-drive only) mode for special occasions.
Toting up the R8's many assets and few liabilities yields a highly positive bottom line. Audi is to be commended for diving into the deep end of the sports car pool and swimming strongly among sharks possessed of seriously sharp teeth. Ferdinand Porsche would be very proud of how well his V-8-powered, mid-engine sports car idea has panned out. What the R8 lacks in Ferrari intensity, it makes up in kick-back comfort and all-season versatility. Compared with the 911 Carrera S--the sports car world's Coca-Cola--the R8 is a brash crusader rushing in with sideblades flashing. Those who dare to take the Audi taste test will come away well refreshed.