2017 Mercedes-AMG GT R track review

The most hardcore road-going GT in the AMG range, the R is a snarling, bellowing beast. Test driving it on-track is a proper test of both machine and driver.

Thundering into turn one at the deceptively named Bilster Berg Driving Resort, the 2017 AMG GT R is popping, crackling and snarling as I downshift under heavy braking before turning into the tight uphill hairpin.

Following Mercedes-Benz racing legend Bernd Schneider at close quarters is highlighting two glaring points. One, I’m thankful I’m not tackling this roller coaster of a circuit for the first time without his expert guidance and, two, this most hardcore GT iteration is just about too much car for this track. (That has nothing in common with the word 'resort', mind you.)

Bilster Berg is more roller coaster than racetrack, such is the scope of the elevation change, the blind crests, tight hairpins and buttocks-clenching braking zones. Today, the thunder and lightning that emanates from the AMG GT R reflects the heavily greying sky, that threatens to dump rain on the circuit, making our drive experience even more terrifying than it otherwise might be.

Thankfully, it doesn’t rain. But, man, this circuit - and this car specifically - are a challenge…

If you are the kind of enthusiast that wants to love the GT R, I’ve got good news for you. It’s a beast that is easy to fall for, for all the right reasons. The power, the torque, the noise, and the epic way it piles on speed at the barest hint of throttle application. In the purest sense of turning a GT car into a track weapon, the R is right up there with the best - think GT3 in Porsche speak.

The flip side, though, is that - in the current tradition of all AMG product - the GT R is slightly unhinged, maniacal, a little nasty and a harsh taskmaster. In other words, you’ll want to have some serious John Smalls to unwrap the outer limits of the GT R’s performance potential - on road or track.

Of course, you can drive it sedately if you’d like... but why the hell would you?

Schneider is laughing as we unseat ourselves after three hot laps around this ridiculously technical ribbon of tarmac carved into the German countryside outside Bad Drieberg.

“Fun?” he asks with the sly grin of a five-time DTM champion and Bathurst 12-Hour winner. I explain that following him is both an exercise in futility and a white hot indication of why he’s a race driver and I’m not.

“You’re not as slow as you think,” he says, clearly trying to manage my fragile ego. Schneider’s grasp of this car is otherworldly: flat through corners, later on the brakes and earlier on the throttle than any mere mortal would think possible.

He urges us to go faster, to better extract the maximum out of the semi-slick tyres, give them a lap to warm up, then work them harder each lap thereafter to feel the outer limits of the chassis and the tyres’ adhesion.

“This is a scary circuit in a car like this,” says Reinhold Renger, Schneider’s partner in crime on this drive day and fellow Mercedes-Benz gun race driver. “But you can have confidence in the GT R around here. It’s forgiving and it’s easier to drive fast than you think.”

There’s heavy artillery at play here. 430kw at 6250rpm, 700Nm between 1900-5500rpm, 0-100km/h in 3.7 seconds and a top speed of 318km/h. The R is the GT theory on a Mr Olympia style steroid program.

‘The needle’ extends to the bodywork - the GT R is low, fat, aggressive and nasty from any angle. Styling is subjective and some of you won’t like it, but that’s fine. The GT R looks exactly the way it needs to. Fit for purpose? You’d better believe it. The nose and headlight design tends to elicit the most controversy and yet I think they beautifully accent the hardcore nature of this monster.

There’s so much going on beneath the electric green paintwork, you’d need an age to go through it all. Chief among the technology is four-wheel steering, more carbon-fibre bodywork, active underbody aero, more power from the twin turbo V8 (over the other GT models), completely redesigned active suspension, more torsional rigidity, and a nine-position traction control system that Schneider loves tweaking to suit the track and driving conditions.

Behind the air dam at the front, there are flaps to control airflow, and in front of the engine underneath the car, there’s a cabin fibre panel that lowers up to 40mm, which AMG claims reduces front axle lift by up to 40kg at high speed. Revised front guards, stretched to cover the 46mm wider track, hide wider wheels and a forged aluminium suspension system and new adjustable spring/damper units. It’s mind boggling, track-focused tech at play here.

The AMG GT R is front mid-engined with a rear-biased 47:53 split, assisted by the transaxle at the rear of the car. The 4.0-litre V8 gets the help of two turbos and boost is lifted from 1.2 bar to 1.35 bar, while the turbines can spin up to a staggering 186,000rpm.

There’s a carbon-fibre torque tube, surrounding a carbon-fibre driveshaft that weighs just 4kg, and the transaxle houses seven ratios to best distribute that blistering power and torque. I could ramble on all day - carbon-fibre roof, carbon bracing, titanium exhaust, all-new back axle, electromechanical actuators for the rear steering system, 15kg lighter than the GT S - the list is seemingly endless.

Select Sport+ or Race mode, open the exhaust and give the throttle pedal a proper workout and the colossal soundtrack from the exhaust pipe is quite simply the most awesome sounding turbocharged engine available. Aren’t hairdryers supposed to muffle engine noise? Not the bellowing hellfire generated by the AMG V8 - this is as good as it gets. It’s mighty under load and nasty as hell when you back off. If you had the means to buy it, you’d have to dig very deep to find reasons not to.

The gurus recommend we do our first track session in Sport+ while letting the transmission change gears for us. The benefit here is we get to concentrate solely on the track. With the ESC tuned out a little, you can get the rear spinning if you want to, and the gearshift is sharp, without being savage.

For my second and third sessions, I switch to Race mode, and shift via the paddles. The ESC is still on, but it allows you to slide the GT R more, and steer into a slide before it decides whether or not you know what you’re doing. The gearshift feels even more savage, accompanied by an explosion from the exhaust at each upshift.

It’s stupendously fast around a race track in the right hands, for a platform that historically isn’t best suited to this discipline. Sure, it feels heavy and you’re always aware you’re threading a big car around a twisting ribbon of hot mix, but the steering is sharp, the balance beautiful, the brakes savagely effective, and the grip prodigious, such that you get faster and faster to the point you can’t quite get your head around how rapidly you can drive the GT R.

You get the sense that if you extended beyond the limits of your capability as a driver, the GT R would bite you, and bite nastily. The flip side of that though, is the fun you can have up to that fine line. The more your confidence grows, the more you can manhandle the GT R exactly the way you want it, and tune the nine-stage traction control system in exactly where you want it too. Drivers of the ability of Schneider even leave it in play for proper hot laps when setting times.

The GT R isn’t as clinical and digital as a 911 or McLaren and thank god for that. If you want that kind of driving experience, you’re already catered for. The GT R is a bit of a throwback - with a heavy focus on modern tech. It’s brawny, hairy chested, offensive and stunningly fast - all with the most evocative of soundtracks.

You’ll hear some of us at CarAdvice (yes I’m one) complain often that modern performance cars are too technical, too capable and too well sorted to deliver a raw (and perhaps prehistoric) driving experience. The GT R certainly isn’t one of those cars. It grabs you by the scruff of the neck, shakes your skull until your vision goes blurry, and almost chokes the life out of you.

It requires commitment, reflexes, skill and a measure of bravery - especially on a track as difficult as Bilster Berg. And that’s what makes it so damn great. Driving the GT R at speed is an event. It’s exactly what a seriously fast, seriously impressive car should be.

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