So different, and yet so similar
The Audi R18 e-tron quattro is one of the most advanced racing cars on the planet. With a diesel/electric hybrid powertrain, four-wheel-drive, and (probably) more computing power than the entire Audi road car range combined, it has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times and claimed two World Endurance Championships.
The Eurofighter Typhoon is one of the most advanced fighter planes on (or above) the planet. With a pair of Eurojet EJ200 engines generating 40,460 pounds of thrust with the afterburners lit, and more computing power than the Space Shuttle, it has a top speed of Mach 2 (2,470 kilometres per hour) and can (probably) deliver eight tons of high-power weaponry through a mail slot.
Audi’s official magazine Encounter - otherwise known as The Audi Technology Magazine - brought the two together for a comparison test of sorts. Representing the wheelmen was three-time Le Mans winner Andre Lotterer, and for the flyboys we have Eurofighter test pilot Geri Krahenbuhl.
Krahenbuhl and Lotterer compared notes after trying each other’s cockpit for size. “I was bit shocked by how little you can see out of it,” Krahenbuhl, who started his career 30 years ago with the Swiss Air Force and spent time at the Naval Test Pilot School in Maryland, said of the R18. “There’s just a tiny slot to look out of, like a tank.
“I also found the buttons pretty confusing. The clutch and a few other switches are intuitive, but the rest of the operating logic is extremely unfamiliar to me. The different colours of the switches and buttons would take some getting used to. In an aircraft, these things are purely tactile and kinesthetic.
“The main difference as far as I can see,” Krahenbuhl added, “is that the aerodynamics of a race car are entirely focused on ensuring it doesn’t take off while, in flying, we want to get off the ground as quickly as possible.”
He’s right. The Eurofighter will accelerate from brake release to Mach 1.3 at 36,000 feet, pretty much vertically, in 90 seconds. “It goes like a bat outta hell,” Krahenbuhl laughed.
Lotterer, who also has championships in Formula Nippon, Super GT (twice), and the WEC to his name, found the plane completely baffling. “Obviously, the sheer extent of the instruments and possibilities are fascinating. You can hardly compare a car, which moves in two dimensions, with an aircraft that moves in three dimensions,” he said.
“Perhaps people who already have a pilot’s licence would be able to grasp the operating logic faster. I don’t have one, so a jet cockpit is something entirely new to me. The elements that we operate with our hands and feet in the race car are not comparable with the pedals, controls, and switches in an airplane.”
The Eurofighter has three dashboard screens, plus a head-up display and another in the pilot’s visor. The major controls are grouped together on the control column, while the cockpit is filled with redundancy switches.
The Audi similarly has most of the major controls grouped together on the steering wheel, with the clutch and gearshift paddles on the back, plus four screens including a digital rear-view mirror on the ceiling.
As alien as the car is to the pilot, and the plane is to the driver, there’s more in common than you might think, here. Both machines exist at the bleeding edge of what’s technically possible, are monstrously complicated and demanding to operate, and require crews at the very top of their game.
More than that, both pilot and driver process the same sort of sensory information and use the same sort of motor skills to work their machine. Even if they are confused by the controls, they would probably take to the other discipline pretty quickly