The History of the Audi R8: The Birth of a Supercar



With the introduction of the R8 supercar at the 2006 Paris Auto Show, Audi succeeded in first entering and then dominating the relevant market segments and establishing itself as one of the most dominant premium global brands.
 
With a refined, easily recognizable design, the sublime performance that enables its many racetrack triumphs and everyday usability, Audi’s flagship supercar became an instant sales hit. Its worldwide popularity prompted two generations, and the future looks bright for this amazing piece of German engineering. 

A Missing Piece of DNA

For decades, the R8 has been a missing DNA segment for Audi, and to fully comprehend its origins and its importance for the brand, we must take a short trip to the past.

Audi’s Origins

The origins of what would ultimately become the Audi brand can be traced to August Horch and his founding of A. Horch & Cie. in 1899 and Audi Automobilwerke GmbH Zwickau, two brands that later merged into Auto Union, along with Wanderer and DKW. These four brands are now represented by the four Audi rings.


 
Fast forward a couple of decades, and we find Auto Union experiencing its first taste of glory during the 30s, when Silver Arrows dominated the Grand Prix tracks. The C and D-Type models were mechanical wonders even by today’s standards. Despite the decades separating them, they are essential parts of the R8’s DNA.

However, after World War II, Auto Union was in shambles. The company would need to rebuild if it were to once more compete on the global stage.

Rebuilding an Automotive Powerhouse

Audi’s slow climb back to prominence began with small, affordable two-stroke family cars built under DKW name. The pivotal point for the company came in 1964, when Volkswagen AG acquired the brands. Volkswagen revived Audi in 1965, and also enabling the return to four-stroke engines.
 
The next major milestone for Audi and its racing prowess came during the Group B era. There, the Audi Quattro established itself as one of the legends of rally racing, not to be confused with Audi’s current proprietary quattro four-wheel drive system. The Quattro ultimately proved the automaker was indeed a force to be reckoned with.
 
Finally, there was Le Mans. Audi utterly dominated the most important race in the world, winning it 13 times from 2000 to 2014.


 
Closing the DNA Gap

Despite having almost a decade and a half of on-track success, the technology and the funds, Audi was still hesitant about translating its track success to the streets by building a supercar.
 
The seeds of change came in 1998, with Volkswagen’s acquisition of Lamborghini from Mycom Setdco and V'Power Corporation. At that time, the famed supercar manufacturer’s stable contained nothing but the Murcielago, although the smaller Gallardo was in the works.
 
The Gallardo platform would actually serve as the base for the R8, but Audi’s mid-engine supercar was developed even further and ultimately evolved into something much more - something over engineered yet understated, a supercar in a suit for connoisseurs who preferred grace over a show.


 
A Revved-Up Concept Lineage

Audi first explored the idea of a production supercar with the impressive Quattro Spyder concept in 1991. This stunning concept car featured an aluminum body, classic mid-engine layout, and a removable glass roof. Behind the driver sat a 2.8-litre V6 with 172 horsepower.
 
While that power plant was by no means within supercar territory, it was a starting point. And, even though Audi didn’t plan for any production, dealers still received thousands of advanced order queries from prospective buyers.
 
Just a month later, Audi presented the Avus concept. It was another aluminum-bodied supercar study, but this time around, Audi opted to use a 509 horsepower 6.0-liter W12 engine and more aggressive prototype-like looks.


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In 2000, Audi presented the Rosemeyer concept, powered by the 8.0-liter, 700 horsepower W16 that later found its way into the Veyron. This car paid homage to the early days of Audi, their 16-cylinder Silver Arrows, and Bernd Rosemeyer, one of the company’s most successful drivers.

However, the first rough outline of the R8 silhouette was yet to be seen. It would come just three years later. The RSQ, a futuristic concept car made exclusively for the movie I, Robot, debuted at the 2003 Geneva Motor Show.

The same year, Audi offered the first true glimpse of its future as a supercar maker with the Audi Le Mans quattro concept car, which shared many of the styling cues of the RSQ. Built to celebrate the third consecutive Le Mans triumph by the R8 racecar, the Le Mans quattro featured virtually the same aesthetic and overall design of the production R8, as well as cutting-edge technology, and a twin-turbo V10 TFSI engine.

With this concept car, the foundation for the R8 was finally set and the rest is history.

The R8 Supercar Is Born

The birth of the first R8s would come in 2005, and full production began in 2006. The R8 was developed and assembled by quattro GmbH, which the company then changed their name to Audi Sport in 2016, the special division behind all Audi’s track successes and victories, as well as the famed road-going S and RS models.
 
The R8 took the name from the Le Mans winning prototype, overall proportions from the Audi Le Mans Quattro concept, and Audi’s design team tweaked the aesthetic just to match and top the rest of the model range. Nonetheless, in production form, the R8 looked nothing short of amazing.
 
The Aesthetic

One of the defining visual features of the R8 was the use of thick contrasting vertical panels similar to those seen on the Le Mans Quattro. There was unmistakable Audi DNA throughout the body and the car’s pragmatic, driver-oriented interior. The R8’s chassis was built using lightweight materials, most notably the aluminum Audi Space Frame, a monocoque body built using space frame fundamental principles. Carbon fiber and magnesium were strategically used to bring the weight down without compromising the car’s construction and rigidity.


 
Under the Hood

Rather than the V10 engine used in the concept, the R8 was initially powered by a mid-mounted 4.2-liter fuel stratified injection (FSI) V8 engine. The engine’s basic architecture was almost the same as in the then-current Audi RS4, but in the R8, it used dry sump lubrication. This dual-overhead camshaft engine with variable valve timing produced 420 horsepower and 317 lb-ft of torque, with the quattro four-wheel drive system transferring the power biased to the rear, in a 70:30 ratio. 

The Gearbox

From the beginning, the R8 could be ordered with a six-speed manual transmission or seven-speed R Tronic automatic transmission. The most beautiful part of the R8's manual transmission was the gated gearshift lever, one of the last of its kind. The automotive press hailed its clean design, crisp performance, perfect road holding and surprisingly comfortable ride quality that no competitor could match. Its straightforward engineering approach guaranteed unmatched reliability as well, so the R8 was universally praised as the best supercar on sale.


 
The R8’s Evolution Over Time

Fast forward to 2008. With the birth of this generation, the R8 received a boost in power production with the addition of a 5.2-liter V10 FSI engine. This engine was also used in the S6 and S8 of the era, but the R8 V10 engine was Gallardo-derived.
 
With more cylinders came more power, and this R8 produced 532 horsepower with 391 lb-ft of torque. As a more upscale iteration, the V10 model received upgraded styling, a Bang & Olufsen audio system, a redesigned and enhanced interior, and a pioneering all-LED headlight system, while the bump in performance was accompanied by larger rear brakes.

After the coupes, the soft-top version of the R8 was introduced in 2009, first as a 5.2 TSI quattro, and then as a 4.2 FSI quattro that joined the family in 2011. To maintain safety, convertible R8s received structural reinforcements such as additional chassis support and roll-over safety bars, and there were also minor changes to the mechanics. While the V10 version had no differences, the 4.2 V8 had a slight bump in power production, moving it up to 434 horsepower.


 
Apart from regular R8s, there were more than a few special versions produced. The first one was introduced in 2009, and it was dubbed the R8 LMS. This limited run was designed with FIA GT3 European Championship in mind, and it was powered by a 5.2-liter V10 with 500 horsepower and a six-speed sequential gearbox specially developed for this car. However, as the GT3 Championship forbids the use of all-wheel drive, this R8 featured a conventional rear-wheel drive layout.
 
Another special version was the R8 GT, produced in coupe and spider form, with both limited to 333 units respectively. A total of 90 coupes and 50 convertibles came to the US. Essentially, these super-supercars were lightened and more powerful versions of the 5.2 TSI quattro featuring minor aesthetic changes, with the biggest one being the rear wing.
 
Horsepower production was increased to 560, which meant that the GT could accelerate from 0 to 100 MPH in 3.6 seconds, compared to 3.9 seconds for the regular V10 R8. To shed weight, Audi Sport used carbon fiber wherever possible, and the result was a car 220 lbs. lighter.


 
The most extreme version of the first-generation R8 was the LMS Ultra. With the power increased to 570 horsepower, it was the final development of the 500 horsepower R8 LMS, and one step beyond the 2011 R8 LMS Evolution. Other important modifications included enlarged air vents, a larger engine oil cooler and transmission fluid cooler, lighter Bilstein dampers, and an optimized body kit that enabled both better aerodynamics and increased airflow.
 
The ultimate first-gen R8 was also the lightest, with the weight brought all the way down to 2,755 lbs. All race specials enjoyed significant success on the track, with one of the most important wins being R8 LMS Ultra’s 1-2 triumph at the 2012 24H of Nürburgring, the 40th edition of the race.



Experimentation with Engines and Fuel Options

When it comes to alternative fuels and engines not usually found in supercars, Audi experimented with both green energy and diesel power.
 
The R8 TDI concept car was unveiled in 2008, featuring a 500-horsepower twin-turbo V12 diesel engine with an amazing 738 lb-ft of torque. While the prospect of a diesel supercar looked more than interesting, Audi ultimately canceled the development because the costs of re-engineering the R8 couldn't be recovered through the investments and subsequent sales.
 
However, this experimentation did result in the creation of the R8 e-tron. The e-tron concept first came to light in 2009, and the prototype was unveiled in 2011. Development began during the same year, with plans to produce a small batch of production cars in 2012. However, slow progress in battery development meant that production was delayed until 2015.
 
With fewer than 100 units available and with the price north of $1,000,000, the R8 e-tron was an all-electric supercar powered by two electric motors sending 256 horses and 678 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels. The 0 to 60 sprint required just 3.9 seconds, with a top speed of 155 MPH and an all-electric range of 280 miles. Since the development was delayed, the R8 e-tron was ultimately introduced as the second generation R8 at the 2015 Geneva Motor Show.


 
The R8: Version 1.5

In 2012, the first-gen R8 received a facelift, with a long list of upgrades designed to improve performance, power and more.
 
One of the defining differences was the introduction of the seven-speed S Tronic transmission, replacing the R Tronic automatic transmission. Dry weight was also reduced, LED headlights became standard on all versions, and more carbon fiber reinforced plastic was used throughout the car.
 
One of the most important upgrades in this facelift was the introduction of Audi magnetic ride adaptive damping, which became standard on the R8 V10, and optional for the V8. This damping system offered drivers two modes, normal and sports, giving a new dimension to the R8’s versatility and everyday usability.
 
A new version called R8 V10 Plus was introduced, and it was available only in coupe form, with a bump in performance to 550 horsepower. However, the defining post-facelift future collector car is the Audi R8 V10 5.2 FSI quattro coupe-based R8 LMX unveiled in 2014. Limited to 99 units, this car features 570 horsepower, LED headlights from the Le Mans winning R18 e?tron quattro, a host of visual upgrades and an exclusive Ara Blue paint job.  

 

Finally, there were two special versions of the R8 catering to the American racers. The first one was Audi R8 Grand-Am, a version built for the NASCAR-governed Grand American Road Racing Association Rolex Series. To meet specifications, its power had to be detuned from 470 to 450 horsepower, and its fuel capacity was reduced as well. Next, traction control and ABS were eliminated, as they are not permitted in Grand-Am races. The aerodynamics were altered too, and the body received a stiffer roll-cage and Earnhardt bar.
 
This car took the 1-2 GT class finish at the prestigious 24 Hours of Daytona race in 2013. In 2014 and 2015, the R8 LMS GT Daytona class version was produced, which was essentially an R8 LMS Ultra GT3 with the 5.2-liter V10 from the Audi R8 LMS.

The R8: Version 2.0

The success of the original R8 and its facelifted version meant that the lineage of thoroughbred Audi supercars would continue. In 2015, the second generation R8 was introduced at the 2015 Geneva Motor Show, alongside R8 e-tron production car. The Spyder would wait to be unveiled at the 2016 New York Motor Show.
 
The biggest news for the second generation R8 was that the V8 engine was dropped in favor of the 5.2-liter V10 and that the only transmission option offered was the seven-speed S Tronic dual clutch unit, sending the power to all four wheels. Other significant changes included an upgraded exterior aesthetic, a newer Audi Space Frame, and of course, better performance.
 
This time around, the R8 shared its platform with Lamborghini Huracán, the Gallardo's direct successor. The R8 was ready to take on any supercar on the market and top it with its new looks, improved performance, and unparalleled style. Both the coupe and the convertible now featured 540 horsepower with 398 lb-ft of torque as standard.
 
However, for drivers who want more, Audi offers the V10 Plus version with 610 horsepower and 413 lb-ft of torque. When those numbers are translated into track performance, the car can reach 0-60 in 3.5 seconds in both coupe and convertible formats in their standard trim, while the V10 Plus takes 3.2 seconds. The top speed is electronically limited to 199 MPH for the R8 V10 and 205 MPH for the R8 V10 Plus. Stopping power is provided by ceramic brakes.


 
For those who want a traditional supercar feel in an Audi package, Audi Sport developed a limited run of 999 rear-wheel drive cars, called R8 RWS. These special edition models were built both as coupes and convertibles, and were powered by the standard 540 horsepower engine only. As on the standard models, the top speed was electronically limited to 199 MPH, but acceleration is slower: 3.6 seconds from 0 to 60 MPH in coupes and 3.7 seconds in the convertible body style.


 
With this edition more than any other, the R8 is a racecar in disguise. Audi Sport engineered it to share 50% of its parts with the race-ready GT3 version. This way, the R8 intertwines the thrill of track racing with the perfectly balanced daily drive embodied in a sublime mid-engine supercar.
 
The second generation R8 coupe starts at $164,900, while the V10 Plus costs $194,400. Among other things, a long list of standard features includes magnetic shock absorbers with dynamic, comfort and auto modes, cruise control, full LED headlights and an adaptive rear spoiler. The interior features 18-way adjustable heated seats finished in fine Nappa leather, the Audi virtual cockpit with a 12.3” digital instrument cluster, MMI navigation, 140 watt 5-speaker audio and many more. The convertible version features an acoustic folding roof capable of retracting at speeds up to 31 MPH.


 
In terms of exterior aesthetic, Audi offers the second generation R8 in a Black Optic package for $1,900. With this package, drivers see blacked out 20" rims replacing the stock 19” rims. The package also offers Mythos black sideblades on the R8 V10 or Carbon Sigma sideblades on the R8 V10 Plus, titanium black trim, and black exhaust tips.
 
For $5,000, Audi offers another upgrade package, featuring a diamond stitched full leather interior. Features of this option include an Alcantara headliner with diamond stitching, and diamond stitched seats. A lower-tier $3,000 full leather package includes 18-way power seats with pneumatic side and leg bolsters. Note that this package is standard equipment for the V10 Plus only. A 12-speaker, 550-watt Bang & Olufsen audio system with 3D sound is another $1,900 option to enhance the R8 experience.


 
High-performance cars call for the utmost in safety technology, and the R8 excels in this category. Standard safety features include driver single stage and front passenger dual-stage airbags, thorax side airbags, side guard head-curtain airbags and knee airbags, driver and front passenger three-point safety belts with pre-tensioning and adaptive force limiters, ABS with electronic brake-pressure distribution (EBD) and brake assist, electronic stability control with secondary collision brake assist and traction control, tire pressure monitor and more. Also, the convertible version adds active rollover protection.


 
In short, every inch of the current (second generation) R8 is designed to offer nothing but the best, from mind-bending performance and awe-inspiring looks to soothing comfort and luxury. The new R8 retains the same elegant aura its predecessor possessed, but its looks, technology, and driving dynamics have advanced beyond the original concept, making it a true second-generation model.
 
As it is one of the most commercially successful supercars on the market, the future of the R8 is certain. While we still can't guess what the next advancements in design and technology might be, we are sure that Audi Sport will continue pushing the envelope even further, taking our breath away with new heights in style and performance. Hybrid power has also now found its way into many supercars, and it could be one way to think about the R8’s future.

In the End

When it’s all said and done, the Audi R8 is not just a costly showpiece like many supercars on the market. It is a perfectly executed product that embodies a rich history and the DNA from three of the most important racing series in the world. With pre-war Grand Prix, Group B, and Le Mans victories under its belt, Audi was always a brand with high performance in its blood. With the R8, Audi’s decades of racing heritage finally have the means to transfer that heritage to the streets of the world. As the strand of DNA that finally made Audi truly complete as a brand, the R8 is one of the most important cars the company has ever produced.
Categories: Fleet
Tags: Audi R8, R8