Mercedes-AMG upgraded their GT3 race car, then let me drive it
Kyle Fortune is a freelance motoring journalist who has written for a host of newspapers, magazines and websites including Motor1.com, Car Magazine and the Daily Telegraph.
Two race trucks, three cars wearing tyre warmers and a team of engineers are waiting for me at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz.
It’s an oval track, with a tight, testing infield, situated in what was once a coal mine in former East Germany. Aside from an annual DTM race it’s a track used for testing, be it racing teams, or boffins trying out new driving tech. I’m here for the former, and I’ve my racing lid, suit, and I’m wearing my best poker face.
That’s difficult, because, while I’m definitely a holder of a racing licence, my racing CV is limited to a few kart races with friends, and a single drive in a MX-5 12 hour endurance race. Seven years ago. I’m not sure that really qualifies me to drive the Mercedes-AMG GT4 here, let alone its more serious relative, the GT3, but that’s what I’ll be doing. Today I’m the manifestation of the Peter Principle in motoring journalism: I’ve seemingly been around long enough to get such invites, without anyone really checking to see if I’m actually able.
The GT4 I’m familiar with, having driven it briefly at Paul Ricard last year. I spun it. It’s AMG’s first rung on the motorsport ladder, a car that’ll compete at the front of the grid in any global GT4 championship, and be inexpensive to run. That’s relatively speaking, of course – all motorsport, even entry-level, or feeder-series is eye-wateringly expensive. I’ll be driving the GT4 first. Before I do, Maro Engel, a man whose driving CV is far more impressive than mine, takes me for a few familiarisation laps in an AMG GTR Pro.
Those three laps do nothing to allay any concerns: the track is technical, Engel’s effortlessly quick, and while I’ve now a (very) rough idea where the track goes, a few more laps would be useful. But I have no time to think about it, as within seconds of pulling up outside the pit garage, I’m being strapped into the GT4 car.
Around €200,000 will buy you one of these – it a racing version of the road car, so it’s powered by the same 4.0-litre turbocharged V8 engine, good for as much as nearly 580hp if you’re running it testing or at a track day, but significantly less in race trim thanks to the rulebook’s playing field levelling ‘balance of performance’ formula. Even so, it feels formidable getting in it, not least because squeezing yourself over the high sill, through the roll cage and into the snug seats and belts requires flexibility long gone from my knackered old frame.
It is, as I remember it, pure racecar in its look and feel, and relatively easy to drive, too. That’s useful, as are the ten laps in it giving me some idea of where the track goes before things get even more serious.
Getting out of it is, after those ten laps, even less graceful, but Thomas Jäger, Mercedes-AMG’s test and development driver for its GT4/GT3 cars, quickly points me in the direction of the GT3. It’s new – or at least an evolution of the previous GT3 car.
The changes, says Jäger, have made it easier for mechanics to work on – racing cars typically being built and rebuilt more often than a Duplo set in a nursery – and it’ll be faster when it’s not in the garage thanks to improvements in the aerodynamics and braking performance. It’s a lot more formidable than the GT4, costs double the money, yet is aimed at much the same audience.
The engine here is AMG’s non-turbo 6.2-litre V8, because, says the AMG test driver, teams are familiar with it from the old SLS GT3 racer. That, and it’s absolutely bombproof, the big V8 not needing a rebuild until it’s got 40,000km on it. In the racing world, that’s the equivalent of the moon and back – most rival GT3 cars would need their engines stripping three or four times to cover that sort of distance.
Costs-wise, Jäger suggests the GT3 runs at around €9 a km to run, without fuel and tyres, compared to about €5 a km. Incredibly, if you want to try one, without buying (or being a lucky journo) AMG will rent you one, at a cost of €16 per km, along with ‘deployment costs and transportation’. Talk about winning at hire car bingo.
As I’m getting in it I’m happier to hear about the fact the new splitter and rear bumpers are quicker to replace, which could come in handy should I run out of talent and bin it. Inside, it’s much the same as the GT4, a Bosch digital display is in front of me, the steering done by simple grips at quarter to three rather anything that could rightfully be described as a ‘wheel’ (if you’re my vintage, think KITT).
That ‘wheel’ is covered with a smattering of useful buttons and there are knobs on the transmission tunnel for the ABS and traction control systems. Jäger seemingly thinks I’m better than I am and says I can loosen off the traction control if I want. I’ll be ignoring him and leaving them well alone, then.
Before I’ve time to think about the ridiculousness of my situation, Jäger is closing the door, and I’m pressing the engine start button as the air jacks drop the GT3 onto the ground. I pass the first test of getting it out of the garage without stalling, and chunter down the pit lane with the speed limiter on. It feels recalcitrant, unhappy with the slow speed. Passing the end of the pit lane has me prodding the little speed limiter button off with my right thumb and having the full breadth of the GT3’s performance available to me.
Jäger told me it’s easy to drive as I got in it, but I just smiled, nodding, thinking he’s bullshitting me. But it is. Easier, in fact, than the GT4. The GT3 feels so resolute, so faithful to my inputs that it’s difficult to initially comprehend. I’m going relatively slowly, too, short shifting as I find my way around, familiarising myself with its performance before pushing it harder.
It works better and better as the speed rises. That, admits Jäger later, is the effect of that downforce, those big wings doing their thing and allowing more speed, more of the time. The engine, always a favourite in AMG’s road cars is sensational, its response, like everything else, is not dulled by any sort of delay: the merest touch of the accelerator sees the revs rise and the GT3 gather speed accordingly, a finger pull of the paddles gets another gear fired up or down instantaneously.
It’s usually the brakes that bewilder in racing cars, such is their ability to be stood on to wash off ridiculous speed, but today, in the GT3, it’s the steering that impresses me most. It’s so light, but so precise and accurate it’s the real highlight. The way the GT3 changes direction is like little else I’ve driven, save for Ginetta’s G58, which, like the GT3 had aero helping it. Ten laps flash by, not with anything like the pace of a proper racing driver, but fast enough for me. For now, at least.
With the GT3 I get out elated rather than intimidated, feeling like I could get a lot more from it, and it from me. That, admits Jäger, is pretty much the idea: he’s developed the car to allow the sort of wealthy drivers who buy them the opportunity to run at times not far off their pro driver partners, comfortably. After all, if you’re cash rich and time poor you want to be able to rock up at the weekend, jump in, and be competitive.
One day, perhaps, but in the meantime if there are any gentlemen (or gentlewoman) GT3 owners out there wanting a weekend off, drop me a line, because I’d love another go.