ENDURANCE RACING continues to go from strength to strength. In a world where motor racing categories are struggling to attract or retain manufacturer support, GT racing suffers from almost an embarrassment of riches. Alpine, Aston Martin, Audi, Bentley, BMW, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ferrari, Ford, Ginetta, Honda, KTM, Lamborghini, Lexus, Lotus, McLaren, Mercedes-AMG, Nissan and Porsche all currently have homologated GT3 or GT4 machinery; not even Formula E and its so-hotright-now pure electric powertrains can boast such a wealth of manufacturer support.
The other advantage GT racing enjoys is market relevance. Unlike Formula E, GT racecars are not only available to purchase but represented in showrooms by road-going counterparts. Mercedes-AMG has long been a supporter, tasting victory at the Dubai 24 Hour, Bathurst 12 Hour, Spa 24 Hour and Nurburgring 24 Hour with first the SLS then the GT. This gave us an idea for our local drive of the AMG GT R, the raciest of the current range available in Australia: MOTORís own endurance test, 12 hours straight encompassing every possible scenario, from racetrack hot laps to mountain road blasts to peak-hour traffic. Let the clock begin.
11AM: Iíd never think to spec a GT R in Jupiter Red, but thankfully someone at Mercedes-Benz Australia did because it might just be the colour that suits it best. The hero hue is Green Hell Magno, named in honour of the Nurburgring Nordschleife, where the GT R set a blistering 7min10.92sec lap, but in vivid red with black body trim (roof, side strakes, wing, mirrors) and wheels itís a real automotive power dresser. Even better, Jupiter Red is one of two free standard colours, though the sexy 10-spoke alloys are an extra $3500.
Another no-cost option is the snug, manually adjustable AMG Sports bucket seats which offer superb support, though clambering in and out over the hip-hugging sides will turn the outside of my thigh black and blue the following day. You nestle into a GT, the steep incline of the centre console giving a cockpit-like feel. The console, steering wheel and infotainment have been updated in the recent GT facelift, the latter not a moment too soon, though the questionable ergonomics remain, the gear selector in particular being an awkward stretch. The GT is one car in which Mercís indicator stalk gear selector would be a welcome improvement.
Press the start button and the 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 explodes into life. The GTís exhaust note definitely doesnít need any improvement; itís the very definition of a guttural roar and even in Comfort mode clearly states the intentions of AMGís bespoke sports car: get the hell out of the way. Rumour has it the flagship R is quite a different beast to its (relatively) lesser siblings, capable of greater subtlety as well as more impressive performance, but letís start with the latter.
12PM: Sandown Raceway. Mercís insurance prohibits the GT R from sharing a track with any other car but thanks to the kind folks at Evolve Driving we have Sandown to ourselves for an hour during the lunch break of one of its drive days. Helmet on, lots to do, but before the action can commence itís two slow laps behind the camera car for Jacobsí lens. Race mode engaged, the GT R is like Winx in the gates, straining to be unleashed. The violence of the acceleration when the track ahead finally clears is shocking in its ferocity.
No GT could be called anything other than crazily fast, but in its ultimate 430kW/700Nm guise the M178 is like a volcano, gurgling with intent at low speeds before erupting like Krakatoa at full throttle. Engaging launch control on Sandownís main straight dials up more than 5000rpm, almost turning the car inside out when the brake is released. A lighter press on the brake allows a 3000rpm stall and rocket-like acceleration. Traction is still limited in first but from second gear onwards not a kilowatt is wasted, 0-100km/h disappearing in 3.73sec, 200km/h less than seven seconds later and the quarter mile completed in 11.42sec at 207.99km/h.
Our window of opportunity is rapidly closing, but thereís just enough time to attempt a representative lap time. The GT R makes a mockery of my 1min20sec goal, quickly settling into the mid 1min17sec bracket with a best of 1:17.1. It could undoubtedly go quicker, but to do so would require more time and talent than we have available today. Itís a monster, clocking almost 250km/h down Sandownís two straights (just 10km/h less than a V8 Supercar) before the $17,500 carbon-ceramic brakes are called upon. The Sport ESP setting is brilliantly tuned, but turning it off completely and activating the trick nine-stage traction control, lifted from the GT3 race car, unlocks even more potential. Set to seven, the system allows enough slip to slide the car off corners while still providing awesome drive. Itís brilliant.
However, while brutally effective, the GT R feels surprisingly uncomfortable at maximum pace. Ask for everything the brakes have and the ABS triggers, extending the stopping distance by some margin. Clearly the huge carbon anchors provide more force than even 275/35 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s can cope with; paradoxically, the GT R feels to stop better with about 75 per cent pedal pressure. Its biggest shortcoming, though, is its behaviour over bumps. Thereís a sizeable compression halfway through the turn 2-3 chicane; attack it and the GT R pogoes half-a-carís width sideways. Kerbs are to be scaled at your peril and accelerating hard out of the final chicane the car squirms over the bumps, like the front and rear are responding at different rates.
2:30PM: Our route is a simple and well-trodden one. Head east through Melbourneís outer suburbs, scale the twists and turns of Reefton Spur, a quick dash to the summit of Lake Mountain before completing the loop through the Black Spur back to Melbourne in time for the sunset. At least, that was the plan. Currently weíre looking at a barricade at the bottom of Reefton and planning our next move while a pair of amused and bemused council workers exercise their smartphones, taking pictures and making calls about this flash sports car thatís all dressed up with nowhere to go. At least it makes for a good photo opportunity.
Our new destination is the summit of Mount Donna Buang, its access road a 16.7km tarmac ribbon of two distinct halves. The first half is bumpy, heavily cambered and often slippery under the overhanging trees, conditions not conducive to the GT R giving its best. Its pace is never in question, but it isnít just sensitive to bumps, itís borderline allergic. The steering is much improved, the nervous dartiness of early GTs calmed, but thereís still little indication of what the GT R is going to do next, particularly in long, fast corners - perhaps the front will skip or the rear will hop, or both will happen simultaneously. Such behaviour breeds indecision and in a car this fast that quickly erodes confidence.
Halfway up, the road changes, becoming drier, quicker and smoother in nature. Here the GT R excels. With a stable, consistent surface beneath them, the fat Michelins provide so much cornering grip the limiting factor is how fast your mind can process information. The acceleration along each straight is potent enough to promote tunnel vision, the twin-turbo V8 offering endless power and each gearshift - either up or down - is fired through the dual-clutch íbox like a bullet from a gun.
Itís difficult to imagine a more potent production car on this stretch of road. Or a more aggressive one; select Sport Plus or RACE and the cacophony from the exhausts suggests the mufflers have fallen out.
5:30PM: The GT R sits silently but the thunder continues. A trio of storms triangulates our position, slate grey clouds rumbling ominously, making shooter Jacobs somewhat reluctant to climb the giant steel lookout platform to nail the overhead shot, despite my (scientifically untested) reassurances that the lightning doesnít look like itís coming this way. Ever the professional, he starts climbing.
Photography done, the descents occur quickly. Both Jacobs and I from the giant conductor weíve been standing on and the GT R from the mountain itself. Whatís remarkable is the amount of traction a 430kW/700Nm rear-drive sports car can generate. Power oversteer takes serious commitment and a heavy right foot; anything less severe is likely to generate understeer or, more likely, just savage acceleration.
At least thatís the case in the dry. Two-thirds of the way down the mountain, fat drops start to appear on the windscreen as those heavily laden clouds release their watery cargo. The GT R is neutered almost instantly, any pace evaporating thanks to semi-slick tyres and an inconsistent surface. Traversing through Warburton heavy rain becomes torrential downpour, overwhelming roadside drainage and reducing visibility to virtually nothing. The ESP is still in Sport and any meaningful acceleration results in a judder from the rear axle as the 325mm rear boots spin freely. However, turn the ESP off, set the adjustable traction control to halfway and the GT R accelerates without fuss, the electronics allowing the perfect number of kilowatts through that the surface can handle. Itís remarkable.
7:00PM: The weather is causing chaos. Much of Melbourneís eastern roadwork is now under water, one bus driver risking becoming the captain of a 50-seat canoe by boldly (or stupidly) ploughing into floodwater. The low-slung GT R hasnít the same luxury, burbling around the hazard, the steering tugging this way and that as standing water is encountered.
Driving any GT slowly is a curious experience and the hardcore R is no exception. Logic suggests selecting Comfort is the smart move, dulling the engineís response and softening the dampers, but doing so makes the car feel out of sorts. Like most of its kind, the dual-clutch íbox doesnít particularly enjoy stop-start driving and in its sleepiest setting it can be difficult to wake quickly if a sudden bolt of acceleration is required.
Likewise, the dampers are softer but somehow feel out of sync with the rest of the car. Dialling up Sport Plus doesnít cause the ride quality to deteriorate like you might expect. In fact, in a way it improves it; the GT R isnít any less comfortable but deals with road imperfections swiftly and decisively without a thought to occupant comfort. Itís firm, but this is a track-focused sports car - deal with it.
10PM: Thereís always something worth looking at on Chapel Street on a Friday night. A Porsche 911 Turbo and Bentley Continental GT are worthy of attention, but a freshly arrived Ferrari 488 Pista on optional carbon rims is the highlight. From behind the wheel, itís easy to forget weíre in a drawcard ourselves - the AMG GT R isnít exactly common.
Nor is it an easy car to assess. After 11 hours on road and track I find myself out of step with prevailing sentiment, that the GT R is somehow a different beast to the regular GT range. To me it feels like GT concentrate: it plays to the carís strength (unbelievable speed, noise and presence) without really addressing its shortcomings (suspension compliance; on-limit handling).
The best sports cars somehow manage to be wolves at maximum attack yet sheep during day-to-day driving. The GT S and GT C attempt this duality of purpose by adding trinkets like a glass roof and electric seats, yet end up feeling like wolves in rather silly and unconvincing sheep costumes as their hardcore sport car genes inevitably shine through. The GT R is the ultimate iteration of AMGís sports car because it knows itís a wolf and doesnít try to be anything but. It has its flaws yet still has enormous appeal as it exudes aggression in the way looks, sounds and performs. Bring on the Black Series.