While checking my emails one mundane Monday morning last month I opened an email from Mercedes-Benz’s friendly PR people asking if I’d like to attend the media day of their AMG road-show. They would have the full line-up of the three-pointed stars AMG models for us to drive at the Yas Marina Circuit. The thing is, my schedule is a bit crazy at the moment and I’ve driven everything in the AMG line-up pretty extensively. So other than reacquainting myself with their excellent cars and having a bit of a jolly on a racetrack, there wasn’t much point in me making the trip up to Abu Dhabi.
Before politely declining the invitation, I noticed that part of the program would involve a taxi ride in the drool inducing SLS GT3 racing car with F1 safety car driver Bernd Maylander behind the wheel. ‘That’s pretty interesting’ I thought, ‘wouldn’t it make for a great feature if they let me drive that instead?’ Slightly cheeky I know, but hey – you don’t ask, you don’t get. A few phone calls back and forth with said lovely Mercedes PR personnel and to my delight the idea was given the green light. Result! Mercedes’ only stipulation was that I would have to wait till the last day of their week-long event just in case I had, erm, an unfortunate incident that might put the car out of action before they completed their activities. Fine by me.
Fast forward to today and I’m standing in the spotless race garages at Yas with not one but two motorsports greats. The first and most obvious is the utterly gorgeous SLS race car I will be driving, up on its air jacks with the Mercedes mechanics feverishly preparing it for the day’s running. The second is multiple DTM champion Bernd Schneider, who has been flown out to guide me through my first experience of the SLS GT3. Seeing as he was the man behind the development of both the road car and race car, I feel really privileged to have him here.
I’m introduced to Bernd as the hack who’s going to be driving the car today and after pleasantries are exchanged we wander over to the car. At first sight, it’s clearly an SLS, only meaner-looking. The body sits 18mm lower, it’s 50mm wider than the stock version, and it has been de-domesticated with all manner of racing modifications. There are vents and slats and strakes and spoilers everywhere—all for function, not frivolity.
Like all GT3 cars, the SLS has been built to a very stringent set of rules designed to keep costs down and make the racing as close as possible. The body shell has to be just like that of the standard car, while the engine can be modified only externally in areas such as exhaust and oil supply. The suspension configuration must be as in the standard car and you can forget about carbon-ceramic brakes or wheels larger in diameter than 18 inches.
Yet the rules can’t stop the SLS GT3 from being as different from the standard SLS as a standard SLS is different from an A-Class. For a start, carbonfibre body panels replace all the aluminium bodywork except the roof, while the glass of the cabin has been tossed aside in favour of strong, lightweight polycarbonate. A full aerodynamics package has been applied, including a front aero splitter, small DTM-style winglets on the front fenders, rocker sill extensions and a vast carbonfibre wing complemented by an aero diffuser. Altogether, the changes help produce huge downforce for a GT car — 276kg at 200kph.
If like me you’re used to all Mercs having only two pedals, you’ll be momentarily surprised that there’s a clutch pedal in the footwell, as the standard car’s dual-clutch transmission has been replaced by a racing-spec, Hewland-built single-clutch automated manual, an item that not only affords more durable gears and lots of alternatives for gear ratios, but also weighs 40kg less than the double-clutch unit.
Meanwhile the SLS GT3’s lightweight, forged aluminium control arm suspension is fully adjustable for track, camber and ride height, as well as for damper compression and rebound. The GT3 comes with forged aluminum, centre-lock 18-inch wheels wrapped in racing slicks that sit over motorsport-spec steel brake discs with six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers. Other alterations include a 120-litre carbonfibre-reinforced plastic fuel tank and onboard air jacks for quick pit stops.