Ring burner

Whatís faster around the Nurburgring, a supercar or a superdriver in a humble hot hatch? We sent John Carey and some bloke named Winkelhock to find out

wheelsmag.com.au 111 TíS possible Markus Winkelhock thinks Iím the nervous type. ďFor today, I have been told zero risk,Ē the racer tells me as he pinballs from one Nordschleife kerb to the other at the opening of his first lap. On the other hand, it could it be that the two-time winner of the 24 Hours of Nurburgring wants to put a pre-emptive excuse on the record, just in case someone manages to put a shame-inducing overtake on him. If thereís risk today, this is it...

Small, powerful, agile cars are often labelled ĎGiant Killersí. Itís one of the clichťs of motoring journalism, thoughtlessly applied but seldom, if ever, tested for truth. But what would happen if something quick and compact was taken to a place giants gather? Even with a professional pilot in the driverís seat, would titans be toppled? Or not?

The venue had to be the Nurburgringís Nordschleife, on a public day, when owners (and renters, too) queue to buy tickets allowing them to savour speed and display daring. Surely some of them would bring heavy metal to the legendary track.

There are supercar owners. There are supercar drivers. But these are not always the same person.

Potential giant killers donít come much scrawnier than Audiís tiny hot hatch

Itís obvious that the means to purchase an exotic is not invariably accompanied by the expertise to exploit it. Or, as I once heard it put, a Ferrari owner ainít necessarily a Ferrari driver. Into this gap we wanted to try and insert something surprising.

Audi didnít laugh out loud when we explained our idea. In fact, they agreed to facilitate our experiment.

They could provide a car and a Nordschleifeknowledgeable driver. So the plan was made. Collect an S1 Sportback in Ingolstadt. Drive halfway across Germany to the Nurburgring to rendezvous with Audi racer Winkelhock. Ride several laps of the Nordschleife with him as he hunts big game in a $50,000 hot hatch.

What could go wrong?

Potential giant killers donít come much scrawnier than Audiís tiny hot hatch. But it fits the formula, no question. The S1 Sportback packs a turbocharged four, six-speed manual, all-wheel drive and lowered and stiffened suspension into compact dimensions.

There are versions of Audiís 2.0-litre four-cylinder TFSI engine that produce way more power than the S1ís 170kW maximum (including the 210kW example in the S3, to name the most obvious example), but thereís a rich, 370Nm-deep vein of torque from just above idle to compensate.

Itís also true that the S1 is hefty for its size, weighing in at around 1400kg with driver on board. But a large chunk of the handicap it carries, compared with an ordinary A1, is due to it being the only model in the line-up equipped with Audiís quattro permanent all-wheel-drive system.

weighing So the S1 isnít brutally powerful or feathery light.

A circuit-scorching monster it is not, but it is the kind of car that driving enthusiasts who also need day-today practicality buy. And it is decently quick. All-wheel drive means that next to nothing the engine produces is wasted as wheelspin, as its claimed (and believable) 0-100km/h time of 5.9 seconds testifies.

Thereís no doubt Markus Winkelhock is the right man to extract the absolute maximum from the S1 Sportbackís relatively modest potential. If the surname of the 34-year-old German is familiar, itís because he comes with a pedigree. He is the son of Manfred Winkelhock and the nephew of Joachim Winkelhock, gifted racers both. s old when his father died after Markus was five year Mosport Park circuit s old when Markus was five year crashing a Porsche 962C at the Mosport Park circuit near Toronto, Canada, during a round of the 1985 World Endurance Championship. Manfred had been a Grand Prix regular since 1980, driving mostly for the ATS team, but liked to mix Formula One with sports car and touring car racing.

Though he was too young to clearly recall this awful event, Markus does remember the effect it had on his surviving parent. ďMy mother said: ĎNo, no, donít go be a race driver. You should do something seriousí,Ē he tells me when we meet. She wanted him to study photography instead.

But the call of the circuit was too strong for Winkelhock. He showed promise in a junior openprogressed to wheeler series, found support, achieved success Winkelhock. openprogressed wheeler series, found support, DTM, made it into F1, then achieved success driving GT3 cars. In 2012 he was part of

the four-member team that drove an Audi Sport Team Phoenix R8 LMS Ultra to victory in the Nurburgring 24 hour race. He did it again in 2014.

But before we meet this man with the big íRing reputation, thereís the matter of getting the S1 Sportback from Ingolstadt to Nurburg.

Itís early on a foggy Sunday when we depart from the Audi Forum. This precinct, which houses the companyís headquarters as well as its interesting museum, is almost deserted. Ingolstadt is in the German state of Bavaria. Not far south lie Austria and the Alps. If youíre looking for great driving in the region, this is where you want to head. But weíre not going that way. Nurburg and its Nordschleife are near Germanyís border with Belgium, about 500km north-west of Ingolstadt.

We visit the historic town of Eichstštt and explore a steep hillside covered in vineyards outside Erlenbach.

From here we can see Neckarsulm, Audiís other important base in Germany. Itís a beautiful day, warm and clear, but back at Ingolstadt, observant German photographer Tobi had noticed the S1 Sportback was wearing winter tyres. They werenít a problem driving at a leisurely pace, but on the autobahn their blocky, squirmy tread pattern does nothing for high-speed confidence. Though we see 220km/h-plus a couple of times, directional stability isnít great. Much more pleasant to cruise around 150km/h, a stressless Sunday-driver pace in Germany.

We arrive at Nurburg at sundown and Iím preoccupied with the tyre problem. We simply canít hobble the S1 Sportback with winter rubber, so Iím playing phone and text tag with Audi to organise a solution. I go to bed after dinner and drinks at a couple of classic Nurburgring hang-outs, still worried.

Dr ive, dine, drink

IF YOU visit the Nordschleife, make sure to visit t he Pistenklause Restaurant, beneath the Hotel am Tierga rten in Nurburg. It has walls and ceilings covered in racing stuff; driver autographs, photog raphs and posters. Not expensive. Itís the place to go for dinner, especially if youíre staying at t he hotel above. For a Nurburg nightcap, head to the Cockpit Bar in the trackside Dorint Hotel. More racing memorabilia decor, with good and inexpensive beers on tap. Per fect place to tell lies about how fast you wereÖ

By mid-morning the next day, ace Audi operative Petra has a plan. Photo chase car driver Helmut heads in his A4 Avant to an Audi dealership near Koblenz, about 60km away, where heíll collect a set of summer tyres and wheels stripped from a showroom S1. Technicians at Audiís Nurburgring test facility will do a wheel swap for Winkelhockís hot laps, then put the winter tyres back on when weíre done. As the Nordschleife isnít going to be open to the public until 5.00pm, thereís ample time to get this done.

Winkelhock arrives on time, and in time for lunch.

Heís bright-eyed and relaxed, but confused by our choice of the S1 Sportback. So I explain our quest, and what weíre hoping he can do.

He estimates 90 percent of his large tally of Nordschleife laps have been in race cars. But he has driven roadgoing Audis here, too, putting development laps on the RS6 and R8.

Itís easier work in a racer, he insists. ďBecause, you know, the set-up is made just for the Nordschleife. You have got slicks, you have got downforce, the car feels so stable. In a road car it feels much more soft, and for sure with the road tyres you have not that much grip and the car is more moving, you know.Ē

An hour or so before the circuit is opened to the public we move to the cafe and bar beside the entry point. It seems Winkelhock is acquainted with half the people here today. Heís approached by a young American, a fellow racer and former team-mate whoís come to rent a Suzuki Swift Sport and show

We drive halfway across Germany to rendezvous with Winkelhock

Lap dancing

SO, WHAT kind of time did the S1 Sportback do with Winkelhock at the wheel? This is very unofficial, but we used his iPhoneís stopwatch on one lap and clocked a little under 10 minutes. The Audi stood up to the pace pretty well; there was a good amount of life left in the borrowed Bridgestones, although the brakes showed signs of post-Ring fatigue, with a low pedal and reduced bite.

Audií the first lap. Winkelhockís intimate kno Nordschleife is obvious, and itís a huge advantage. This daunting, legendary and frequently lethal 21km ribbon of bitumen is etched indelibly into his brain. Itís after our first time through Flugplatz that Winkelhock tells me heís taking zero risks.

Heís using the circuitís kerbs more than Iíd expected, but his lines are a masterclass in the value of precise car placement. Heís connecting the Nordschleifeís corners with casual brilliance, at the same time chatting about how much more speed he would be carrying in a GT3 racer at each point.

Winkelhockís fluidity yields ferocious speed. Heís using everything the S1 Sportback has to give, all of the time. Without ever making a mistake worth the name.

It is an awesome display.

Iím enjoying it immensely, but Winkelhock seems to misread my expression. ďAre you feeling okay?Ē he enquires after the first lap. ďFine,Ē I assure him, puzzled by the question. Then Winkelhock owns up to being a nausea-prone passenger, even riding with another racer he knows and trusts. The only thing thatís making my stomach churn is Winkelhock constantly mentioning scary-fast race car speeds.

The mix of cars and people here today is amazing.

Thereís a prim-looking young woman in a rented Swift Sport. Sheís not fast, but she is neat and Ė very important here Ė watches her mirrors. A BMW 3 Series GT is being piloted by an average-looking middle-aged man. An accountant, maybe. There are some tatty E30 and E36 BMW 3 Series, well driven. Iím guessing they are track regulars, the so-called ĎRingersí. Weirdest of all, thereís a British-registered Austin Maestro. This piece of crap from Englandís darkest hour is painfully slow. We flash past so fast that I canít get a look at the driver. However, we havenít come here to claim victims such as these.

Winkelhockís speed scores a Ferrari on the second lap. He catches the silver 360 very quickly, then runs the S1 Sportback up the inside on the way into a left-hander. Easy. The tally grows on our third and fourth laps. Several Porsche 911s, a Cayman, and more.

The Audi is overtaken during its four laps of the Nordschleife. But only by a pair of very serious 911s and a Skyline GT-R. No dishonour for the S1, or for Winkelhock. I only realise how hard heís been working after itís over and he climbs out of the car. Itís not a hot day, but the back of his shirt is sweat-drenched. He nips off to change it for a fresh one.

Winkelhockís toil, though, has proved the point.

Knowledge and skill in a hot hatch can beat money and power in a supercar. No risk at all.

Formula One-of-a-kind

MARKUS Winkelhock raced only once in F1, but still made it into the record books. He is the only driver to start a Grand Pri x in las t place and to lead it on debut.

Winkelhock, reserve dr iver for the Spyker F1 team, got the call-up for the 2007 European GP.

A smart switch to wets after the warm-up lap paid off when heavy rain hit the Nurburgring GP circuit. The German overtook the entire field, either on the t rack or as they pitted to change tyres. He was leading when the race was suspended after accidents, but was swamped by the faster cars on the restart.