It’s got pedigree, enormous power and a truly exotic price tag, so it should provide a brilliant drive. Not so, says Frankel. It’s flawed in concept and could have been so much better first book I bought with my own money was something called ‘My Greatest Race’, a collection of 20 first person stories by the greats of racing’s past and present. Published by the Jim Clark Foundation in 1974, I remember trembling with excitement as only an eight-yearold can as he hands over three pounds and 50 new pence of hard earned pocket money.
I must have loved that book because not only has it survived 33 years, it remains in remarkably good condition, even though I came to know it so well I could quote vast tracts on Innes Ireland winning at Solitude and Gonzalez at Silverstone to anyone kind enough to listen. But if I let it fall open today, it is invariably at page 125 that the leaves part — where Stirling Moss starts his tale of the 1955 Mille Miglia.
I was so fascinated by this event that, when road testing for Autocar in the early 1990s, I borrowed a Porsche that happened to be in for evaluation, drove it to Brescia, talked my way into a Mille Miglia media pass and chased Stirling, now navigated by fellow contributor Simon Taylor, right around the route. Of course I couldn’t keep up, but in those brief moments when I was behind that man in that silver 300SLR with those three little numbers on the side, watching its progress and listening to its desmodromic valve gear hurl flame and thunder out of its stubby exhausts — well, short of actually driving the thing, I could not see how life could get better.
And then, a couple of weeks back, I did get to drive an SLR. It too had ‘722’ stamped on its side and I’m unlikely to forget the sound bellowing out its side-exit pipes either. And just like Stirling’s, it would slam you past 170mph on even quite short straights. It should have been the drive to end them all, but I spent almost all my time pondering how much better it could, and should, have been.
I’ll explain. Mercedes has been better behaved than many other manufacturers when it comes to exploiting its rich racing heritage for cold commercial gain. There have been no special Caracciola editions, no E-class ‘Silver Arrow’. But the temptation to put Stirling’s race number (and start time) on this revised version of its SLR supercar has proven too much, even if the resulting name— Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren 722 Edition — is one of the biggest mouthfuls in the automotive canon.
At £340,000 it is expensive enough to provide a few moments’ fun pondering what else you could have for the same money — I think a BMW M5, a Ferrari F430 and a Toyota Amazon for towing whatever racing car the remaining hundred grand would buy might make an interesting stable — but as the entire UK share of a production run of just 150 is already sold, people shopping in the rarified regions of this market are clearly not that price-sensitive.
What you’re buying into, of course, is a carbon-fibre car designed by Gordon Murray before he left McLaren and, thanks to some remapping work, now boasting 650bhp, making it more powerful even than his masterpiece, the 627bhp Fl. It’s no secret that Murray and Mercedes did not at times see eye to eye through the whole process, nor that the result was considerably heavier than he would have liked. Even though the light wheels, lightened oil tank and aluminium dampers boasted by the 722 version have dropped weight by 42kg, it still weighs 1724kg, making it much heavier than, say, a long-wheelbase supercharged Jaguar XJR limousine.
Then again, with 650bhp under your right foot, not to mention 6041b ft of torque, you can probably afford a few extra kilos. Most importantly, it doesn’t feel heavy. Despite the curious, and to me inappropriate, five-speed automatic gearbox, this more powerful, less heavy SLR explodes off the line. Forget 0-62mph in 3.6sec, or even 0-125mph in 10.2sec: how about 0-186mph in 28sec flat instead, accompanied by the most aggressive V8 blare this side of a NASCAR grid?
But all this excitement merely makes a promise the rest of the car struggles to keep. I have no evidence for this, but the 722 feels as though the vast bulk of its development has been done on the racetrack and not enough on the public road. With a lowered ride height and dampers 15 per cent stiffer in bump than before, it changes direction like no other front-engined car of this weight I’ve encountered. But instead of making the SLR feel super-agile, the needlessly aggressive steering actually makes it feel twitchy and nervous. I even spun it doing a cornering shot in the Dubai desert — my fault entirely for trying too hard to make it perform for the camera — but I genuinely cannot remember when I last lost control of a car on a public road. After that I left the safety systems on.
Other problems remain: it has even bigger carbon-ceramic brakes than the old SLR, but they’re no nicer to use or easier to modulate. The cabin remains cramped with little stowage space and the seats are uncomfortable, while the ride quality has deteriorated to just plain harsh.
I can see why Mercedes has decided to create this car, and the fact that it has all but sold out will doubtless prove to them it was the right decision. And in this context, the fact that the car itself is slightly disappointing is perhaps not that important. Whether Mercedes should have played quite so fast and loose with those three little numbers is another matter. For one I wished they had not, and if I had a choice of driving this new 722 again, or merely following the old one for another few minutes, I’d choose to follow every time.