The Beauty is a Beast – Hot Laps in the Mighty GT R

Gary Anderson
RRICHARD SIMONDS, MAURICE LIANG, DAIMLER GLOBAL MEDIA
I had been waiting eagerly since learning from Mercedes-Benz USA staff that they would be bringing the Mercedes-AMG GT R to the Western Automotive Journalists Media Days in March at newly renamed WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Not only would we be able to photograph the car for The Star magazine, I would have the opportunity to drive it at speed on the storied track

The Beauty is a Beast – Hotlaps in the Mighty GT R

The paddock was still and quiet. The mist was just lifting from the track as the loading gate on the unmarked transporter opened. The driver unfastened the hold-downs and climbed through the side door of the trailer. Then suddenly the bright-green beast lurking in the shadows opened its bloodshot eyes and with a bark split the morning calm before its roar subsided into a menacing growl.

This was the moment I had been waiting for since learning from Mercedes-Benz USA staff two weeks earlier that they would be bringing the Mercedes-AMG GT R to the Western Automotive Journalists Media Days in March at newly renamed WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Not only would we be able to photograph the car for The Star magazine, I would have the opportunity to drive it at speed on the storied track.

 

 

Beast from the Green Hell

This wasn’t just any GT R: If you’ve seen a version painted in Green Hell – Sir Jackie Stewart’s famous term for the Nürburgring – Magno matte finish at Amelia Island or another major U.S. automotive event in the past year, this was the car you saw. As I slid into the driver’s seat to move the car to our early-morning photo shoot, I realized that I was sitting in the same model in which Lewis Hamilton had driven  demo laps just days before at Circuit of The Americas during the recent South by Southwest event in Austin, Texas.

 

 A nearly identical GT R is used as the 2018 F1 Safety Car.

Except for that specific paint finish, the car before me was built in the same plant – to exactly the same specifications – as the GT Rs now used as safety cars in Formula 1. The only physical differences between this review car and those vehicles are they include a roll cage installed in the stock interior and an additional set of display screens mounted in front of the co-driver, one monitoring the race feed transmitted to commercial cable channels, the other selectable for track data and car positions. A communication system is installed behind the seats, and safety lights are mounted in an aerodynamic roof pod.Other automotive companies have an aspirational sports car at the top of their performance lineup, but no other manufacturer offers their machine in six progressively hotter versions as Mercedes-AMG does with its GT, all of which share the same basic exterior appearance. A customer can order a GT, GT S, GT C, or GT R coupe – all of which are totally practical for the street – or the track-only GT3 and GT4. There are even roadster versions of the GT, GT C and GT S.

My coach for the day – International Motor Sports Association driver and AMG Driving Academy instructor René Villeneuve – explained the model range this way: “Each of the GTs was a logical step up in power, suspension and aerodynamics towards the ultimate goal of a car that could be used on the track as effectively as it could be driven on the street. The GT R is the model that bridges that gap, competitive on the track and still pleasant to enjoy on the street.”

 

Under its skin

Many manufacturers brag that their production sports cars are derived from track cars. For Mercedes-AMG, it is the other way around. The F1 safety cars, as well as the GT4 customer racecars, competitive in FIA and IMSA racing with changes only to body panels and cockpit structure, are derived from the GT R.

For comparison with the other street GTs, the 3,982cc 577-horsepower biturbo V-8 engine producing 516 pound-feet of torque offers 27 horsepower and 14 pound-feet more than the GT C and over 100 horsepower more than the GT.With the “intelligent lightweight” aluminum-chassis structure and extensive use of carbon-fiber panels, the GT R has an awesome power-to-weight ratio of 5.94 pounds per horsepower unit.

 

Designed from the start for optimal handling, the engine is located behind the front axle, connected to a 7-speed dual-clutch SpeedShift transaxle to the rear of the cockpit with a drive shaft that – according to MBUSA representative Ashley Gillam – weighs only 8.5 pounds, in a carbon-fiber torque tube. When cornering, power is split between the rear wheels by an electronically controlled limited-slip rear differential integrated into the transmission housing. This configuration results in a near-perfect 47:53 front-to-rear weight balance.

The front and rear tracks have been widened 2.2 inches beneath wider fenders for improved stability. The GT-standard independent front and rear wishbone suspension, built of aluminum to reduce unsprung weight, is damped on the GT R by adjustable coil-over shock absorbers.

 

Airflow for both cooling and handling was as carefully designed on the GT R as on an F1 car. The openings in the front of the car not only channel air to the radiator and oil cooler, they maximize airflow into the wheel arches to cool the brakes and turbocharger intercoolers mounted behind the front wheels.

 

In addition to the functional diffusers under the rear bumper and fixed carbon-fiber wing to reduce lift, the GT R has an almost invisible aero component in front. A carbon-fiber splitter concealed in the underbody in front of the engine and weighing only 4.4 pounds automatically moves downward by 1.6 inches at 50 mph in Race mode to create a venturi effect in the airflow, reducing front-axle lift by up to 88 pounds and sucking the car onto the road. At the same time, when the flap opens, air is channeled more efficiently to the rear diffuser and brakes.

Braking, of course, is as important to lap times as power and suspension. To provide maximum stopping ability in competition while improving driveability in normal traffic, the GT R comes standard-equipped with a high-performance composite brake system. However, since this Green Hell GT R is used in demonstrations, it was equipped with the carbon-ceramic brake system that increases stopping power and fade resistance while reducing unsprung weight by another 37 pounds.

 

Finding the beauty in the beast

To fully demonstrate the potential of an incredible vehicle like this requires an experienced professional.  Villeneuve took the helm; I took the spare seat. As he showed me some braking and turn-in points I had never seen before on Laguna Seca – my home track for 17 years – Villeneuve casually mentioned that he had logged more than 20,000 laps on this track.

On hot-lap rides like these, I’m always impressed with the difference between a race driver’s skills and those of even the best amateur. Villeneuve didn’t just use the car’s awesome acceleration more often; he also hit the brakes faster, harder and more frequently than I would to bleed speed into a corner. I was glad that the seat belts automatically tightened under deceleration, or I would have suffered serious bruising from being thrown violently against the belts 11 times a lap.Then it was my turn. While I was considerably slower around the track than my coach, within two laps I was driving faster than I had ever previously driven at Laguna Seca. The car is just that easy to drive.

 

 

After our initial laps, Villeneuve talked me through the experience. “The automatic shift sequences in the GT R are actually superior to what an average driver can achieve. Using them gave you the chance to gain confidence in the car’s handling before trying to manage manual shifts, but you quickly learned how easy it is to keep this car on the correct line.“You may not have noticed it, but the rear steering makes a big difference in that. By the rear wheels turning opposite the front wheels at lower speeds, the car turns in quicker, with less inclination to oversteer on tight turns like the Andretti Hairpin. By contrast, on the faster sweepers like Turn 4 after the tire bridge, the rear tires turn the same direction as the front wheels to set up additional understeer to keep the car stable.”

Villeneuve’s astute observations of my driving technique helped me to appreciate this car’s features. “You also had the benefit of the variable spoiler on the front of the car to increase traction as you accelerated to your maximum track speed on the front straight, but I was glad you followed my hand signal and lifted slightly at the crest after the Start-Finish so that you wouldn’t go light coming into Turn 1.

“I did have the variable traction control knob set at half, which allowed you a little oversteer in the run-out after the Corkscrew to keep you on your line into Turn 10. I dial it down when I’m driving since I know the car and track. Overall, you did a good job out there.”

 

 

 

So, how much would this glorious machine cost if you wanted to know how it feels to drive a real racecar on the street and track? The GT R is $157,000, base price. Our example had $20,000 of performance options such as ceramic brakes and carbon rear wing, and another $20,000 of cosmetic and comfort options like paint, convenience package, sound system and interior trim, coming in just under $200,000. But you can’t buy more performance in any other car for that price.

 

 

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