I’ll be the first to admit there’s always a few butterflies and a solid burn of trepidation when I’m slipping on the overalls and about to strap into a full-blown racer like the new Mercedes-AMG GT3.
This is the latest Mercedes-AMG customer sport racing car and a steroid-injected leap from the already formidable road-going Mercedes-AMG GT sports car.
It’s certainly a demonic looking thing, even sitting in pit lane with the engine switched off. It’s also a serious bit of AMG racing kit that has some very big shoes to fill if the success of its predecessor is anything to go by.
The previous SLS AMG GT3 was the first customer sport racing car from AMG, which debuted in 2010 and went on to collect 187 victories including a “Grand Slam” in 2013 – winning the four big-time endurance races in Dubai, Bathurst, the Nurburgring and in Spa-Francorchamps.
There’s a full pit crew here at the Sydney Motor Sport Park to manage five very lucky members of Australia’s motoring media in and out of the driver’s seat of the AMG GT3 racer.
And we certainly need the extra hand. It’s not easy contorting your body through the roll cage and into the racing shell. Fortunately for me, the smaller you are, the easier it is. The switch-laden F1 style steering wheel has to be removed before you crawl in. And then it’s right foot first, followed by your backside, as instructed.
Ignore the procedure and you risk getting stuck bottoms-up in front of your peers. Not a good look.
The driver’s seat isn’t adjustable, but the steering wheel and pedal box are, so within a few minutes you’re as comfortable as it’s going to get before you’re locked into the seat via a six-point racing harness.
The two key requirements at this point are forward vision and the ability to press the clutch pedal to the floor – even though you only need to do so to get the car moving. Once completed, you’re 100 per cent on the paddle-shifters.
“And, one more thing”, says the race engineer, “you’ll need to left-foot brake - there’s a lip on the left side of the stopper pedal, so you physically can’t use your right foot.”
Next up is the in-car communications tutorial. Normally, drivers plug into the car’s communications system through a port in the helmet, but the new AMG GT3 uses a Bluetooth connection and it works brilliantly, eliminating cords from the cockpit almost entirely.
Generally there’s no passenger seat in a race car, but this particular machine represents a $700,000 plus investment, so for today’s sessions we’ve got pro driver (and the legitimate AMG-GT3 racer) Dominic Storey riding shotgun – not only to guide me around the circuit, but also as guardian angle should things go horribly wrong.
Almost there, but for the instructions on the complex steering wheel (it’s not really a wheel, more like half a wheel) obscured in a multitude of buttons including start, stop, and the all-important pit lane button that is automatically activated when you depress the clutch and must be pressed to disengage as you head out onto the track proper.
Finally, it’s almost time to fire up the 6.3-litre naturally aspirated V8 engine taken from the SLS AMG 63 – further enhanced for the new AMG GT3 car. Lubrication is by dry sump, allowing the engine to be mounted low down in the chassis and well behind the front axle for optimal weight distribution.
Thankfully, the days of stick shifts have been confined to the history books, at least in this class of racing. Instead we get a sequential six-speed gearbox connected to the engine by a lightweight carbon-fibre torque tube and drive shaft.
Importantly, there’s also a multi-disc locking differential integrated into the transmission that works in concert with the car’s traction control system to help get torque down to the ground. And just like the Mercedes-AMG GT S road car, shifting is via steering wheel mounted paddle-shifters.
Tipping the scales at around 1270 kilograms, the AMG GT3 is one of the heaviest cars in its class, despite its lightweight composition. The body is almost all carbon-fibre; the bonnet, doors, front guards, front and rear aprons, side walls, side skirts, diffuser, boot lid and rear wing are fabricated from the lightweight material.
With in-car tutorials completed, and a go signal from the pit-lane marshal, I go through my mental checklist; hit the starter button, push the clutch in, pull the right paddle, give it some revs and release the clutch – hopefully without stalling it.
So far, so good. It’s loud in the cockpit, even with a helmet on, but I’m 100 per cent focused on obeying every instruction from Dominic – namely hard on the brakes, ease off, and back on the throttle. Or there’s “wait, wait, now back on the gas”.
I’m pretty familiar with the track, so I’m keen to wind it up as we blast towards the tricky turn 2. Acceleration is ballistic, it’s on a different level entirely to the road car, and requires a cognitive recalibration of speed and reaction times. Once you’re in tune though, it’s addictive although you’ve still got to be patient with the throttle or the torque can overwhelm the rear axle.
Surprisingly, the steering is lighter than expected. It’s a direct-ratio rack-and-pinion system that is servo assisted, so it’s also quick and offers amazing feel. It’s another function that requires a brain recalibration, but once you’ve nailed it, apexes can be hit with surgical precision time-and-time again.
While it might look intimidating, its amazing how quick you start to feel comfortable behind the wheel of the GT3. I’m ready to push harder. For the second flying lap, I’m flat in 5th and keen to hold it there through turn one, but Dom’s instructions are to roll-off the throttle for a second or two, then back on as we exit turn one.
You can certainly feel the aero at work down the straightaway and confidence continues to build. The brakes are quite phenomenal. You can stand on them from almost any speed and stopping power is infallible. Better still, the car doesn’t move around.
No sooner are you at home with the car and the track, and it's time to wind it back and cool the brakes down before pitting. The experience though is a real eye-opener. It’s as easy to drive as the Mercedes-AMG GT road car – perhaps even easier.
That is until a hot-lap with Dominic after we’ve already had a drive. He’s dialled up the pace, times 10 in my opinion. He’s taking sections flat, where I was loading up the brakes, and still the car remains glued to the tarmac – not even a wriggle from the rear tyres.
What an incredible experience. If I had my way, I'd still be there doing laps.