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Story by Jack Baruth, photography by Matt Chow and Zerin Dube
It’s the space of an eyeblink. Three-tenths of a second. At one hundred and forty-six miles per hour, as the bright blue Viper SRT-10 convertible hammers into MSR Houston’s Turn Six, I am covering sixty-four feet in every twitch of the eyelid. In that space of time, as I apply the first touch of braking with my left foot while simultaneously easing off with the right, – in that sixty-four feet – the Viper strikes in a sudden scream of tire, the world slews sideways through the windshield, and I know, beyond doubt, that I have just made a very serious mistake.
There’s little time for conscious thought in these fractions of seconds. The first sense to vanish is smell, then sound, as my busy subconscious edits out all input not directly related to catching this car. I watch my hands on the wheel dispassionately, as if they are connected to someone else. No. Please. I don’t want to wreck this car, I don’t want to have made this mistake, don’t want to hit the wall, don’t want to end my utterly unremarkable driving/racing career a thousand miles from home, under the flat blue Texas sky. I want to turn back the clock. So while my vision narrows to the classic tunnel perspective and the motion of the disconnected hands on the steering wheel grows ever more frantic, I think back. Turn back the clock.
Hours earlier, we’d rolled our little convoy onto the spotless and spacious grounds of the MSR Houston facility. In the space of just three weeks, we’d managed to put two of the fastest, most desirable sporting cars in the world together at a world-class track. There had been some frantic calls and plenty of late-night scheming, but our partners had come through. From Audi, we had the new R8 mid-engined supercar; from Chrysler, the latest, six-hundred-horsepower variant of the iconic Viper droptop; and from the folks at MSR, a whole day to run the two around a fast, impeccably maintained road course.
To complement the cars, we’d acquired the hardware and the help to find out what they could really do. Our new Traqmate system would measure speed and G forces to take the guesswork out of our evaluation, while a ChaseCam would help show our readers what it’s like to run at the limit. And since all the hardware in the world is useless without the expertise to make it work, a dream team of high-speed, low-drag locals agreed to show us the fast way around MSR and help with timing, filming, and driving impressions. Track manager Michael Mills was ready to serve as instructor and hot-lapper extraordinare, Steve Mikula and Curt Raulen from Track Time Performance would keep an eye on the mechanicals and assist with driver training, and Rolex GT veteran Mike Hardage, arriving bright and early in his Porsche 996 GT2, would be there to give us a professional’s perspective on our test duo.
The day started in Senior Editor Zerin Dube’s yellow Audi TT 3.2 quattro, following Hardage and Mills around the track and learning the line. With one exception “the Launch”, which offers the driver a chance to slide sideways down the back side of a blind hill – MSR’s mostly flat. What can I tell you? It’s Texas, not West Virginia. Still, there’s something there for nearly everyone, from the autocross-esque sections of the “Keyhole” and “Bus Stop” to the high-speed, high-G “Gut Check” and “Carousel” bends. In stark contrast to some of the other country club tracks popping up around the country, there’s been no effort to idiot-proof MSR. It is challenging and fast. For anyone who lives within driving distance, it’s hard to argue against joining; for less than the price of a mediocre golf club, MSR offers thirty guaranteed weekends a year of track time, a competent, dedicated staff, and facilities which would shame many better-known road courses.
After a few laps, I had the little Audi running in the 1:56 range without too much difficulty. We’d been told that 1:51 was pretty quick for a street car when running MSR clockwise, as we were doing; an M5 had just turned a 1:51 in Mills’ hands a few weeks earlier. In the company of much quicker cars, the TT was impressive, with solid power, a reasonable amount of adjustability in the slow sections, and unflappable stability on the longer turns. Most importantly, it was a trustworthy ally on an unknown track, combining solid front-end grip with reliable steering feedback.
While Zerin and I worked on remembering the sequence of turns out on course, the rest of our team prepared for the test of the TT’s big brother and fanged friend. Nick Salvatore served as supercargo for the test, arranging cars, equipment, and all the little details, while Matt Chow began scouting photo locations. Before we knew it, the warmup laps were over, and it was time to start running the cars hard.
This was to be my second time running Audi’s mid-engined supercar on a road course. Last November, I’d come to trust and admire the R8 during a series of two-laps sessions at Infineon. It’s made a reputation as a near-perfect supercar for the street; as a track car, however, the R8 can still impress. Once up to speed, the flawless interior and obsessive detailing fades away, replaced by the angry, metallic wail of the dry-sumped V8 as it reaches for the limiter without so much as a hint of flywheel effect. At Infineon, I’d driven the six-speed, but at MSR we’d been given the R-tronic. Don’t confuse this gearbox with Audi’s sleek and seamless S-tronic dual-clutch transmission; this is fundamentally the E-gear transmission from the Lamborghini Gallardo, which means industrial-strength guts, a single clutch, and a rather uncompromising approach to the engagement of said clutch. It wouldn’t be my first choice for spending a day shopping around the hills of San Francisco “ the low-speed operation often seems to directly contradict the driver’s intentions “ but at MSR it was utterly unnoticeable.
What I mean by unnoticeable, of course, was just about perfect. No, it doesn’t provide the Formula-One-stutter-step of a dual-clutch transmission, but it does the job. At speed, the R8’s automanual swaps cogs without drama, leaving the driver’s left foot free to brake and his entire mind free to concentrate on hitting his marks. When combined with the first-class ABS system, R. tronic makes corner entries completely painless. Simply stand on the brakes and flick the left shift paddle any number of times; the ABS will deliver you to the clipping point on time and the transmission will make sure you are in the best possible gear for the exit.
Ah, but what about the classic rotational tendency of big-motor, mid-engined supercars? Well, the R8 will rotate, but it rotates in the driver’s service, not as his adversary. An unsubtle amount of lift-throttle in slow corners prompts a reliable swish of the tail, at which point the right pedal can be immediately reapplied for fine adjustments. More than any other modern car I’ve ever driven, the R8 captures the on-track magic of my personal Boxster S, with its subtle adjustability and matchless steering feedback, but although the plot may be familiar, the movie runs at fast-forward. The Audi FSI V8 is thrilling in a way my Porsche’s small-displacement flat-six could never be, roaring madly between the clinical clicks of the upshift paddle and filling the cabin with a seductive mechanical resonance. It’s tempting to simply stay out on track until the fuel runs out or the tires wear to their cords but knowing there is another, even more outrageous, car waiting for my evaluation makes it a little easier to put my hand out the window and signal my way into the pits.
As I roll down the pitlane, I see a black helicopter slowly lowering a crate into the paddock, and I know that Mr. Roboto has arrived to put the R8 through its paces. A crew pops the lid off the crate and our cyborg tester hops ten feet in the air before landing on all fours in front of the R8. His face is invisible behind the mirrored visor of his carbon fiber Impact! Helmet, but the angry motions of his head, and the vehemence with which he throws me out of the drivers seat, make it plain that he’s as excited about the R8 as I am. We work to attach our Traqmate timing gear, and he’s off in a flash.
From the first corner, it’s apparent that Roboto is in full hoon mode. He’s entering corners completely sideways before carelessly flicking the rear around for exit, toying with the weighty bulk of the engine behind the drivers’ compartment as if it were a yo-yo. He’s (or perhaps I should say it’s) buzzing the pit wall on every lap, seemingly just to hear the 8200-rpm symphony bouncing from the concrete only inches away. Ten laps later, he’s back in, and we have our numbers. The R8 runs an easy 1:48.3, measurably faster than the M5 we’d heard about earlier. There’s a chorus of respectful whistles from the pit wall. Did any of us doubt it? Not really. As a track car, the Audi punches above its 414-horsepower rating. Somebody whispers that they’d seen a Gallardo running a few days previous, and that it hadn’t run any faster than the R8. We’re all impressed, to say, the least, but Roboto’s making angry hand motions and demanding that we hook up his USB interface for a full download of driving impressions. What follows below is a map of MSR with key numbers and a full Traqmate graph from a 1:49.0 warmup lap. Unfortunately for us, we’ve misconfigured the Traqmate; it retained lap times but only kept the first five laps. No worries, we’ll know better in the future.
Roboto is eloquent about the Audi’s balance and tossability, but he’d like more front tire. There’s a reason mid-engined street cars are supplied with a sizable “stagger” – the difference in width between the front and rear tires – it keeps stockbrokers, first-year neurosurgeons, and spoiled heiresses from exiting off-ramps backwards at high speeds. A high amount of stagger ensures that the front end never outgrips the rear. Still, the R8 deserves better. The chassis is so solid, so trustworthy, and so competent that it could use another 20 or 30mm of front tire, just to allow further exploration by experienced drivers. Given an R8 of our own, we’d fit the Hoosier R6 in a 255 or 265 width in front, and a 295 or 305 in the rear, and really set some hot laps.
Let’s look at the data. At the start/finish, the R8 is clearing past 86mph, hitting just a hair above 106mph during braking into Turn 17. (As we are running backwards, the first turn shall be the last, so to speak.) Turns 17 and 16 are really one long turn, the R8 showing a slight desire to power oversteer on exit. It’s a balancing act between keeping the car straight and getting the throttle squeezed to the stop as soon as possible.
We’re flat out until Turn 15, “The Launch”, but before Roboto can get there he has to maintain a flat cyborg-foot through 16, “Gut Check”. Take a look at the graphs at the 2000-foot mark. Note that the the acceleration isn’t perfectly smooth; it’s from cranking in almost a full G’s worth of cornering at speeds above 90mph. It takes a cyborg with truly poor judgment to pin the throttle to the stop despite the cornering force, but that’s exactly what we have. The Audi reaches 112mph before sliding sideways down the back of “The Launch” on the off-camber surface. Maximum grip is available at the bottom of the hill, and that’s where the Traqmate briefly records 1.17G before flicking sharply the other way for for the entrance to the Keyhole.
The Keyhole and Bus Stop occur at autocross velocities and grip levels. At speeds between 50 and 70mph, the R8 can be hooned around with delicious ease. In “full race” mode, Roboto would have settled down and forgotten the joy of viewing the next corner through the passenger window, but what’s the point of that, when there are luscious four-wheel-drifts to be had? The Bus Stop, in particular, is so tight that a bit of sideways entry can actually make for a faster exit. Compare the Lateral G chart with Accel/Braking to get a sense for how the R. tronic permits a very subtle dance of left and right feet in the slow sections. Thanks to the paddle-shifter, it’s possible to do the maximum amount of trail-braking and apply flawless power in the exits; a manual-transmission R8 would show a more decided gap between braking and cornering, as a heel-and-toe entry would be required for each of the slow corners.
Turn 7, the Sweeper, is joined to the very fast Turn 6 by a long straight. It’s here that the Audi winds out to a max speed of just over 125mph before dropping to 90ish for Six. The Diamond’s Edge corner complex is the slowest part of the track, at just 41mph. It’s here that a mid-engined car should have a real advantage, in these slow, big-G turns – but as we’ll see later, there’s one way to overcome that advantage.
Down to the Carousel, we’re at 119mph before cranking around the long turn. Here, the R8 is not perfectly settled; it wants to transition between understeer and oversteer as Roboto straightens out for “Let It Rip”, the right-left transition before the front straight. The R8 completely dominates this section, flawlessly swinging left and right at over 80mph, generating over 1G of force. In just 190 feet of track, mind you. It’s the most hellish freeway avoidance maneuver imaginable – and the R8 just clocks it dead.
Make no mistake, the R8 packs a true supercar punch around MSR. Tuned-up C5 Vettes and club racers found themselves quickly yielding to the angry-faced Audi; even if they had power and grip to match Roboto’s aluminum bullet, there was no answer possible to the mid-engined transition response in fast sections and the R. tronic’s exit punch in tight corners. It’s a world-class road-course car – one capable of rolling down the freeway home in a manner to rival the best German full-size sedans. There’s nothing in the world to match its combination of talents. Frankly, I’d have no problem naming it as that oft-argued “Best Car In The World”, right here, right now.
But it isn’t the best track car in the world. It isn’t even the best track car in this test. That honor goes to the 2008 Dodge Viper SRT-10. The reason is easy to spot; it lies beneath the hood of our blue convertible, nearly entirely behind the front axle, in a position that a more marketing-obsessed company would call “front-mid-engined” or some such nonsense. The infamous Viper V-10 has been making headlines, scaring passengers, and offending decent people on the street for seventeen years now, but with this new 8.4 liter, variable-valve-timing variant, it finally reaches the status of Greatest Street Car Engine In The World. There’s no longer any dispute possible. The devotees of Porsche, Ferrari, Corvette, et al have always given grudging respect to the Viper’s twisty torque and solid slug of mid-range power… with a snide aside to the effect of “Well, it doesn’t rev” or some similar condemnation, delivered with a wink and a nod. “Just a truck engine, really.”
Those days are over, pal. The Viper can now rev – and rev it does, launching the Viper down the track as if the world’s largest rubberband were fixed to the front bumper. The 2005 Viper felt strong from idle but became breathless past 4500rpm, like a World’s Strongest Man competitor forced to run a mile against his will. The new car is stronger than ever from the left side of the tach – and now it can run to the limiter effortlessly, opening its lungs and screaming to 6200rpm without the merest suggestion that, yes, an early shift wouldn’t hurt. Forget that. Don’t short-shift the ’08 – you will miss out on the majesty of six hundred horsepower and the fearsome redline rush that accompanies our most indecent sports-car fantasies.
So the engine’s a winner. What about the chassis? As noted before, it’s virtually a mid-engined car, despite the defiantly cab-backwards design. In the first few laps around MSR, I probe delicately at the chassis, trying to gain a sense of the available grip. Under that broad, unforgiving Texas sky, the Viper is in no hurry to cooperate. The steering’s dead, the shifter balky. Over the course of the day, I repeatedly received fifth gear when I believed myself to be grabbing third; only after thirty or laps did I finally perfect the relatively humble art of shifting the reluctant box. We’ll have to up the pace a bit if the Viper’s true character is to shine through…
…and once we do, the street-rod veneer falls away and the sports car beneath is revealed. The steering wheel comes alive, the brakes are revealed to be steady and dependable, and the big power behind the grinning-snake badge becomes accessible. “Slow your hands down”, Michael Mills tells me, and he’s right – I’m trying to fight the Viper into submission. Relax, drive it like the world’s biggest, fastest Miata. Let the engine slide the tail in the tight sections, and the SRT-10 turns in magical fashion. The R8 is ahead of me, with Hardage at the wheel. He’s at the limit, the suspension squirming and the rear end dancing around a few inches at a time in tune with the rising and falling revs from the direct-injection V8. It’s a masterful performance, a real lesson in how the top drivers communicate with their cars, but from the driver’s seat of the Viper it’s slo-mo. I can drive by at any point I choose. Not just the straights, where the extra one hundred and eighty-six horsepower makes any drag race a farce, but in the corners as well. The Viper simply has more tire and far less understeer. Far less? More like none, thanks to the instant attitude adjustment available from the rumbling V-10. Around the sharp, slow “Diamond’s Edge”, the Viper sucks the Audi up effortlessly and I’m forced to short-shift to prevent an inadvertent bump-draft. It isn’t until we get to Turn One, the wicked, high-speed left-right combination, that the Audi shows the purity of its chassis, Hardage driving through with just a soupcon of drift while I struggle to keep the Viper out of the guardrail.
I pull in for a few moments to chat with our team of local heroes. They’re tossing around the idea of a 1:46 lap, and of speeds well beyond anything the R8 can see. The Audi’s good for slightly over 125 on the back straight. What can the Viper do? Time to find out.
All pretense of “taking it easy” disappears now; it’s time to drive the car for real. Here’s where things get tricky. The Audi has a safety net of expertly programmed traction and stability control systems. Even when they’re turned off, as they were for Mr. Roboto’s timed laps, it appears that they might cut back in if things get really shaky. By contrast, the Viper has nothing to protect the incompetent, the untalented, or the simply unlucky. There’s no ESP, ASC, DSC, ATTESA, or any of the alphabet-soup garbage forced on us by a committee of lawyers and engineers. There’s no four-wheel drive, no traction-sensing center differential, no cunning arrangement of passive-steer geometry. There’s only the car, and six hundred horsepower, a lap timer, and me. If I make a mistake, I’ll be on my own.
Which brings me to the beginning of this story. I knew the Viper could make 140 down the back straight, but after just three laps I found myself knocking on 142, then 143, then 144. What was possible? Was a 1:45 lap out there for the taking? The lunchtime had come and gone, and the track pulsed with traffic. There was no clear lap to be had. Still the Viper pressed on, casually dispatching everything in its path. Corvettes? No problem. A Porsche GT3 made an attempt to stay ahead; I swatted him emotionlessly with the throttle, sucking him into the Viper’s cruciform intake and leaving him bobbing in the wake of my passage. Faster and faster we went, the Viper now whispering to me instead of screaming, the information coming through my hands and feet clearer and clearer, showing me the way to go, until I looked down on the entrance to Turn Six and the speedometer showed me a proud sliver of space above the one hundred and forty-five mile-per-hour mark. I tapped the brake lightly as we went in – as lightly as I could, knowing that I needed to shed nearly fifty mph by the clipping point – and the world went sideways.
I thought. I thought about being home. I thought about the talk I would have with the wonderful people at Dodge who had entrusted us with this car despite the tendency of The Press As A Whole to send press-fleet Vipers into bridge abutments and oncoming traffic. I thought about surviving the impact. MSR has plenty of runoff, but I didn’t know if it had enough runoff for this one. I thought about pride. It’s a killer, that pride, and nothing instills it quicker or in more deadly fashion than being at the wheel of a car which appears able to bend time and space with a single squeeze of the throttle. I knew the mistake I had made – I’d trail-braked too deeply, with too much steering applied, at speeds beyond what I’d seen in the corner before. Such a simple error! This is what I thought. A simple error.
While I thought, my body was doing something else. In fact, it was doing just what it’s done hundreds of times before on-track in situations like this; easing off the brake, catching the oscillations, lightly pedaling the accelerator to remove the profound engine-braking effect of eight point four liters of Viper V-10. And while I thought, and watched, the car did just what it was supposed to do. It went straight. Before I could blink again – before another sixty feet could pass – we were accelerating out of Turn Six down towards Diamond’s Edge. And in that moment, I thought about a six-hundred-horsepower supercar that could be tossed, and caught, at one hundred and forty-five miles per hour as reliably as a Camaro-Mustang-Challenge race car could be at ninety, and I fell in love. Before I reached the carousel, I was hooked, any pretense of impartiality tossed to the winds. I’d placed my life in the Viper’s hands, and it had returned my life to me, and the timer flashed 1:47.1 as I blitzed the start-finish line and waved to the folks in the pit crew. It was time to bring it in, time to hand it over to Mr. Roboto for the real fast laps, time to say goodbye.
I didn’t hurry back in.
We’d like to have another full set of data for you from MSR on the Viper, but the bad luck I’d evaded out in Turn Six struck our Traqmate instead. The G-sensor had become detached, causing the system to shut down. Luckily for us, the MSR people were hand-timing the SRT-10 during the serious laps. How fast did it go? A low 1:46, easy, in traffic. What’s the potential for the car? Well, that’s the best part. For most modern supercars, the limit is measured in terms of the traction control, the clutch engagement speed, the power-shifting capability of the differentials. You drive to the limit of the computers and the engineers, and that’s the limit.
The R8 shows us a better way – it has traction control, and it has four-wheel-drive, but it also has a perfect chassis layout, a sweet balance, and a high-revving engine which rewards every extra tenth of a second you can squeeze out before the corner entry. It’s not a computer car. It’s not made for the feckless masses. It’s a serious driver’s sweetheart that just happens to be wrapped in a stunning body and sumptuous interior. You’re faster in the R8 with the safety net dialed back, which is as it should be.
In the Viper, there’s no safety net, no limits. We’ll never know what the Viper is truly capable of, because it would take a perfect driver to get that time. The Viper gives you as much as you put into it. All the talent, all the effort, all the courage you possess – the Viper takes it and delivers results beyond your expectations, but it never tricks you into thinking you’ve seen all it has to offer. You could drive the Viper around MSR for every one of those thirty weekends a year, for the rest of your life, and you would never find the very last hundredth of a second. Other supercars represent accomplishment, in the fiscal, engineering, or marketing sense. The Viper represents challenge. You might get tired of being stared at every time you fill up, you might grow weary of hearing people talking about your mid-life crisis, you might even come to dislike the smell of hot fiberglass which greets you at the end of every session – but you will never, ever, grow weary of driving this car as it was meant to be driven. And for that reason, it wins the on-track portion of this shootout.
Stay with us this week, as we’ll bring you Parts Two and Three of the Supercar Saturday. In Part Two, we’ll take the R8 and Viper to the freeway, the streets, and a highly dodgy-looking “storage garage” in downtown Houston. In Part Three, we’ll show you the videos we took of the on-track action and try to figure out which car we’d buy with our money. It’s not an easy choice, and we think you’ll be surprised at the results. See you soon!