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Lapping Le Mans in an Audi RS 3 Sportback

Editor's Letter

The moment I laid eyes on the itinerary, the line "hot lap of Le Mans in an Audi RS 3" jumped off the page. I figured I'd be rocketed around Circuit de la Sarthe by someone like Audi's Tom Kristensen, the recently retired nine-time 24 Hours of Le Mans champ and the grand marshal of the 83rd running of the world's most famous endurance race. That alone would have been sick enough. Instead, I'm standing in the Dunlop Bridge's shadow, about to hop into the driver's seat of a brand-new RS 3 Sportback. Alone. My heart pounds in anticipation, and with more than a little trepidation. Please don't let me spin it off into the gravel.

As we told you in last month's issue, the RS 3 Sportback is Audi's new devilishly fast, delightfully composed hot hatch. We won't get the Sportback in the U.S., but it's likely we'll get a sedan version with the same 367-hp, 2.5-liter turbo inline-five underhood. Good. America needs more killer sport compacts like the RS3, which should prove stiff competition for the BMW M235i and Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG.

We're ushered to a staging area where several RS 3s await. Marshals are cleaning up a big crash at the Porsche curves, so the real racers' qualifying session is red-flagged. (Note to self: Watch out for that section.) We mill about and check out the cars as night creeps up on the circuit. Suddenly an Audi R8 safety car appears, lights pulsing and flashing. It's go time. No warm-up, no in or out lap. One lap, 8.47 miles around one of the world's most legendary circuits.

As I strap on my helmet, I try to frame a mental picture of the track layout, but it's no use—my adrenaline is spiking, and I'm now absorbed in getting a sense of the RS3's snug sport seats and thick, flat-bottomed wheel as I set it up for my tastes. We fire up the cars and listen to them spit and blat. I flick the shifter into Sport mode; I'll work the paddles around the 38-turn track.

The RS 3 caravan launches, and we immediately dump off into the Tertre Rouge section, one of the more challenging sets of turns. Just keep it on the tarmac, Floyd. Remember, the tires are cold. As we roll onto the Mulsanne Straight, I'm pushing the RS 3 past 120 mph when I suddenly see them in the rearview: two Le Mans prototypes -- equipped with passenger seats for VIPs -- coming up way too fast. This was most definitely not on the itinerary. I swing to the right, and they blow past, engines wailing madly. Whoa.

We wind our way around the track to the Porsche curves, where a support vehicle is still at the scene as yellow flags wave. I get back on the gas as we approach the main grandstand and pit lane. It's the most surreal part of the experience: Le Mans is buzzing with activity and spectators, and maybe even a few of them are watching us. Just like that, it's over, the most amazing six minutes of my career.

My lap was puny, however, compared with what friend and frequent contributor Jason Harper experienced during the same weekend. He competed in the Michelin Aston Martin Le Mans Festival event in a Vantage GT12 boasting nearly 600 horsepower, in a 40-car field with co-driver and Aston CEO Andy Palmer. Harper's driven around many tracks, but competing on this level was a new experience for him, as was the immensity of Le Mans.

"Driving the Circuit de la Sarthe was like nothing I've ever done before," Harper said. "Like the Nürburging, it's just so long that you can't really imagine it until you actually do it. The Mulsanne Straight is 3.7 miles long and just so narrow, but at 180 mph it doesn't really take that long. It's the Porsche curves that really get you. You're just going so fast, and the walls close in, and the margin for error is small. During our race, there must have been a half-dozen crashes. And that was just in 45 minutes!"

Harper put in a couple of laps in anger before he went off into the gravel, and we've been affectionately calling him "gravel boy" ever since. (Only because we love you, man.) I was in the pits when he came back in. Despite the mishap, he was ecstatic. Big hugs all around. The man just raced at Le Mans, the drive of a lifetime.

There are moments in every auto enthusiast's life when you experience something special like Harper and I did at Le Mans. Maybe it was the time you dominated at the local autocross or when you topped the charts at a racing school. Your first podium during a real race. Or that day on a stretch of road where you made some magic.

I'd love to hear about your greatest memory behind the wheel. Let me know at letters@automobilemag.com.