OVER THE PAST DECADE, MERCEDES-BENZ AMG MODELS HAVE BECOME A BYWORD FOR THE ULTIMATE COMBINATION OF POWER, LUXURY AND EXCITEMENT. Guy Fiorita SPENT A COUPLE OF DAYS AT AN EXCLUSIVE OWNERS’ EVENT, GETTING TO KNOW THESE THOROUGHBREDS OF THE ROAD – AND FALLING IN LOVE WITH THEM
I’m not a car fanatic, a speed freak or adrenaline junkie. I don’t particularly enjoy driving fast. When I learned to drive, I made a conscious effort at smoothness. The goal of any good driver, I thought, was to drive so that your passenger hardly noticed the movement. No sudden turns or slamming of brakes. Right?
“Wrong, all wrong,” comes a voice on a walkietalkie by my side. “You have to hit the brake much, much harder. Jam it as hard as you can and pull the steering wheel to the left.”
Sitting behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG, stopped in the middle of a racetrack, I had have obviously blown my first test. The voice is Former British Formula 3 and DTM racer Marco Engel, my team leader. I’ve just finished the first leg of the first day of training and I am already coming up short.
The racetrack is in Andalucia, Spain and I am here as part of an AMG Private Lounge event. My co-drivers are all AMG Mercedes owners. The chassis number on their cars qualified them to join the AMG Private Lounge, of which there are now more than 20,000 members. The thirty or so here with me are mostly from Germany and the UK but also from as far away as Brazil, the US and Lebanon. These are people who are serious enough about their cars and driving not only to have paid the price of an AMG but to have splashed out a few thousand extra to spend two days speeding around a racetrack having orders barked at them by professional race car drivers.
The Lounge event is taking place at the Ascari Race Resort. We were helicoptered in the day before from Marbella. From above, the track is a beautiful expanse of tarmac that twists its way through the rolling hills. This 5.4 kilometres track with a total of 26 total turns was once called “the most challenging race track in the world,” by some guy named Fernando Alonso and I get the feeling I’m soon going to find out why.
Earlier this morning we were divided into groups and now each is out on a section of the track being put through their paces by one of the instructors. AMG has brought along an impressive group of rock-star drivers like F1 and Le Mans racer Karl Wendlinger, endurance racer Roland Rehfeld and four-time Mercedes DTM champion Bernd Scheidner.
They have their work cut out for them with me. Back on the track I am finding that this Lounge is anything but relaxing. After my initial break and turn failure, we move onto a series of warm-up exercises including a combination of fast slalom, cornering technique, trail braking and handling parcours, skid pad and lead and follow training. At the end of each exercise we stop just long enough to switch cars between the AMG CLS 63, SLS, SLK and my soon-to-be favourite, the C63 AMG Black Series.
And off we go again. Around and around. I soon find I am pushing the limits, if not of the car then at least my own. I’ve been bitten. The faster I go, the faster I want to go. At one stage in the loop, we get to drag race against another driver. Each time I punch the gas a little harder and break a little later. I’m surprised by how much I want to win. I never do, except once when the other driver was penalised for stopping outside the box.
And it is not only the speed that’s got me. It’s the sound. The primitive, guttural rumble of an AMG is exhilarating. No wonder owners say it was one of the main factors in their decision to purchase one.
Later that day I get a chance to see how it should be done, this time as a passenger in a Pagani Huayra. Equipped with a Mercedes-AMG V12 engine that produces 720 horsepower, this brandnew Italian hypercar has a top speed in excess of 230 mph (370 km/h). By the time I get myself strapped into the passenger seat, my Italian driver is already giving me the thumbs-up. “Ready,” he says and something suddenly pushes me deep into my seatback and I find out what 0–60 miles per hour in just three seconds feels like. The rest of the lap is a jostling blur that proves once and for all that I knew nothing about real driving. There was nothing smooth about that, I say to myself as I walk away on wobbly legs.
Looking at the itinerary the next morning I thought that the “On Road Experience” and the chance to take a leisurely drive through the Andalusian countryside at the wheel of a classic AMG would be more my pace, but my pace had obviously changed. Halfway through the drive, beautiful as it was, I found myself itching to get back on the track. Before I could however, I was taken off road in a Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG. The vehicle proved to have impressive power as we slogged our way over the muddy hills around the resort grounds but I was here for speed.
Which is exactly what I lacked as we lined up for the big event of the day, a team trail where all the times are added together and the lowest total time receives a prize. I really want this one, or at least I don’t want to let my team down. They’ve been so patient. So this time I really go for it, pushing myself faster and faster until I come skidding to a stop, dead centre in the box. Perfect. I look over to see that my time is just a few seconds worse than the slowest member of our team. Not bad for a non-speed freak. The proud moment is short lived. It appears I’d missed two gates and hit a cone along the way too. It all adds up to 15 seconds of penalty time and knocks my team out of any chance for a victory.
Fortunately everyone’s attention quickly turns to the last event of the day and the chance to run a few laps in a true race car, the SLS AMG GT3. The top-of-the-range of Mercedes-Benz cars, it is a strictly limited edition and so extreme you are not allowed to use it on the road. This was universally considered the highlight of the whole Lounge by my co-drivers. Personally I found the asbestos suit, the helmet with just an opening for the eyes and a driver’s cage that took a Houdini-like effort to get into, almost unbearably claustrophobic. On the track, the car’s raw power is scary and I am afraid it remains beyond my skill set. The experience, however, certainly gave me a new-found respect for race drivers.
I may not have come here much of a “car person,” but by the end of the three days, having driven, and heard, enough horse-power to propel a horde of Mongolians across the Steppe, something in me has changed. Now as the shuttle slowly winds its way back to Malaga airport, I sit leaning over the seatback in front of me like a restless child, watching the road ahead. “Are we there yet,” I ask the driver. “No, about another hour,” he answers. After my AMG Private Lounge experience, I’m confident that I could do it in half that time. And as I watch the olive groves move slowly past my window, one thing becomes perfectly clear, I’d sure love the chance to try.