There’s only one way to truly appreciate Mercedes-Benz’s new GT3 racer – on track at full speed. It bodes well for the future…
By Andrew Frankel
For a car manufacturer that has been at it longer than any other, Mercedes-Benz has done remarkably little racing as a stand-alone constructor. Take its Formula 1 activities: active pre-war, then nothing bar two years in the 1950s until 2010. Purpose-built Mercedes sports cars are only a little less rare.
This, however, seems likely to change and you’re looking at the reason why. This SLS AMG GT3 is Mercedes’ first home-grown sports racing car to be made available to customers, and judging by the form shown to date, it seems unlikely to struggle for buyers in this gloriously resurgent form of the sport.
Motor Sport was invited to a private test at Hockenheim to see what all the fuss was about.
I like the third category of GT racing. The cars are still demonstrably based on road-going product and tend to come with price tags less than half that of their illustrious GT2 sisters (though at €334,000 — or £289,500 — before tax the SLS is hardly cheap), yet are sufficiently modified relative to the GT4 mob to be considered racing cars in their own right rather than race-prepped road cars. The SLS, for instance, weighs 300kg less than the road car, has predominately carbon-fibre body panels, a carbon safety cell, a Hewland race gearbox and over 260kg of downforce at just 125mph.
Interestingly, in some regards it might be considered the inferior of its street-legal counterpart: the regs require it to have smaller wheels, steel brakes and, thanks to its engine restrictor, slightly less power too.
My guide for the day is five-time DTM champion and sports car legend Bernd Schneider, who has done much of the development work for the car. I sit in the airy cockpit while he shows me around, car suspended on its air-jacks as mechanics fuss and fret over it like a mother sending a child to a new school.
In truth, there is not much to explain. It has a clutch but you use it only to set the car rolling. Cleverly, not only is the steering adjustable for rake and reach, the whole pedal box slides too, allowing drivers of different shapes and sizes to use the same seating position. It can be set up for leftor right-foot braking. I’m shown only how to engage neutral and work the radio before it crackles into life to tell me I’m free to go. Thoughtfully Mercedes has provided Porsche Carrera Cup champion Thomas Jaeger in another SLS GT3 for me to follow — I’d not been here for a while and could barely remember which way the track went.
The 6.2-litre V8 blasts into life. Internally it is no different to the road car, but unsilenced its popping and banging sounds likes fireworks going off in your helmet. It has around 550bhp which in a car weighing about the same as a Ford Focus is enough to capture and retain your attention.
We do perhaps six laps. The car feels fun but strangely unsettled. Up ahead Jaeger is going quite rapidly but I’m slightly irritated by the SLS’s eagerness to run wide into corners and break loose at the back on the way out. This nervousness is a characteristic which the road-going SLS is well known to exhibit on race tracks, but I had expected Schneider and friends to have been able to exorcise it from the race car.
Back in the pits and slightly nonplussed, I explain as much to Schneider. He doesn’t need to say anything as I can read the furrows in his brow well enough. He goes and talks technical to some people on the pitwall before leaning into Jaeger’s car once more. Then the crew chief is on the horn: time to go again.
Within a lap I knew what had gone wrong. In their understandable eagerness to preserve the machinery, a pace had been set that, while apparently quick, was far too slow for the car. This time Jaeger was flying, using bits of track he had not been near before. It should have been far more difficult to keep up with him, but it wasn’t. The car’s tyres and brakes needed the energy now being put into them, the suspension the loadings it was now experiencing, the wings the air now flowing over them. Like all the best racing cars, it only felt right being driven flat out.
And now the Mercedes was brilliant. The closest rival I have driven is Aston Martin’s V12, 6-litre DBRS9, a car that was never less than tricky and truculent no matter how you drove it. By contrast the SLS was forgiving, indulgent and outstandingly quick.
Why? Simply because Mercedes-Benz doesn’t go racing to make up the numbers. It thinks not only how to make the car fast, but how to make it easy for customers, many of whom will be middle-aged amateurs like me, not seasoned professionals like Schneider. It’s blinding over the kerbs, impeccably balanced at high speed, and if you do over-egg it at the exit and find your view of the track ahead best afforded through the Perspex side window, really rather accommodating as well.
All it cannot do is disguise its weight — not so much what there is, as where it is. This is a car with a very large engine at one end and a big gearbox at the other (albeit a massive 40 per cent lighter than the one in the road car), and it doesn’t turn in to or accelerate away from corners with the agility and traction of a midengine car. Then again, for a car destined to spend much time longdistance racing, its less aggressive responses are just as likely to be welcomed as scorned. Back in the pits it’s my face that needs no further explanation as Schneider’s brow relaxes. I’ve driven GT3 cars that were quick but awkward like the Aston, and others that were lovely in all regards save the rather important requirement of being able to post a decent lap time (the GT3 Jaguar XKR in particular), but none capable of proving so fast and friendly at once.
In its first race at the end of last year, the SLS took on the assorted Porsches, Audis and Corvettes that make up the cream of this kind of racing and qualified third out of a field of over 200 at the old Niirburgring. It retired after a first-lap altercation while trying to take the lead. The next one it won outright.
By the time you read this it will have undergone full FIA homologation and will be embarking on its first full season, and if it’s not a success I’ll eat my laptop. Clearly the car is fast, and having ended up on the podium on its first 24-hour outing in Dubai in January, reliable too. But I think it has further appeal: even by GT3 standards it’s a fabulous-looking car and if I was rich enough to consider one but had also to bear sponsorship in mind, I think its speed and looks plus the impeccable reputation and brand values of Mercedes-Benz might be just what I needed to clinch a deal.
Mercedes hopes to sell 20 SLSs to European teams this year before trying its luck in the US. My bet is that with a car like this, it’s going to find itself very lucky indeed.