The glow of the hotel lights is quickly subsumed by the inky 5am darkness beyond their reach. Only memory tells me that Mount Panorama is out there in the bitter cold. As a keen marathon runner I follow a training plan with slavish dedication, and today’s entry on the schedule says I need to run 10km sandwiched by a 2km warm up and 2km cool down. Two laps of the Mount gives me 12.4km and the slip road to and from the hotel gets me close enough to the 14km total.
My exposed face and ears are instantly numbed by the sleet that drops the zero ambient temperature deep into negative territory. But the cold isn’t on my mind as I climb up out of the Cutting on the edge of lactate threshold and max heart rate. Instead, I’m more concerned by the lack of traction under foot, especially any time my sneakers touch a white line marking the edges of the circuit. There’s too much moisture in the air and on the tarmac for ice to form, but even at running pace and with significantly less than one horsepower pulsing through the Continental rubber on the soles of my racing flats, I’m struggling to drive off my toes. In a few hours, a 60-car fleet of AMGs, shod in much broader Continental rubber and armed with multitudes of horsepower, will attack the Mountain in anger as part of the week-long Festival of AMG.
This is AMG’s second festival at Mount Panorama (the first in 2008 served as the local launch for the W204 C63). The 2015 event is serving as a proxy market launch of both the flagship GT S and volume-selling W205 C63 S. Over the course of this week, nearly 300 customers (and a handful of lucky motoring journalists) will get to sample the new models and the majority of the AMG range – SUVs and S-Class variants are absent. There is a hulking black G63 lurking menacingly, but sadly and sensibly it remains in parc ferme.
Beyond the $13.5 million worth of cars brought to Australia’s most thrilling racing circuit, Mercedes-AMG has put on the full show with a laser display last night, while a customer lounge, complete with chandeliers, has transformed multiple pit garages. Oh, and Mick Doohan and Bernd Schneider are wandering around chatting to AMG owners. I do laugh when I see Schneider bailed up by one lady who insists he flick through the family album on her phone.
The only thing seemingly outside of AMG’s control is the weather and the forecast suggests rain is highly likely before the end of today. Still, the few spots that eventually materialize are vastly better than the 10cm of snow heaped upon Mount Panorama for one of the days of the festival.
Given the hugely varied skillset and experience on display (along with coloured pants and racing shoes), it’s no surprise that the event isn’t a hot lap free-for-all. Instead, the AMG Performance Driving Academy eases participants into the day with a series of exercises designed to get a feel for the cars and the circuit. To underscore the variety of skills present and the proximity of the walls to the tarmac, an A45 arrives at lunch with a small graze down one of its flanks.
After lunch, the hot lapping begins and each car has an instructor in the passenger seat to keep things under control. For many participants, this is their first full lap of any circuit anywhere and nearly everyone’s first flyer at Mount Panorama. In order to ease us into the challenges of driving at Bathurst, this first session is given a 70 per cent ceiling and a 150km/h top speed. Those limits are swirling in my head when, first up, I’m ushered towards the driver’s seat of a GT S. Bugger doesn’t cover half of it. Thankfully, I know the instructor, and we quickly conspire to politely (and safely) ignore the directive.
Like a Porsche 911 or modern Ferrari, the AMG GT S is one of those rare cars that meets and exceeds the lofty expectations heaped upon it by its looks and reputation. With 375kW and 650Nm from the charismatic twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 and snappy shifts from the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, the GT S makes short work of Mountain Straight and we crest the hump the better part of 100km/h up on our limit.
The brakes, optional carbon ceramics on this example, chomp our speed in half before Griffiths Bend and the fast and light steering points the nose up hill for the run to the Cutting. Even without resorting to wide-open throttle, the heroic engine fights against the extreme gradient of this section of the track and speed again builds towards 200km/h. You can skim the car through the shallow kink before the Cutting without braking, but as soon as the GT S settles, you’re deep into the brake pedal in order to wash off enough pace to allow the front end to bite into the incredibly tight and blind entry to the Cutting.
On thankfully dry tarmac and with the ESC in its most lenient setting, the GT S will take full throttle on the very steep run out of the Cutting, so long as you don’t snap open the taps. The AMG’s friendly balance of agility and grip is on obvious display on the tippy-toe run up under the tree to Sulman Park. From here, the Mercedes-AMG flagship dances a line between floating and settling across the top of the Mountain through Reid and McPhillamy and onto Skyline. Admittedly, this is only my second time driving in anger at Mount Panorama, but I doubt I’d ever get tired of the challenges of this piece of tarmac. The consequences of even the tiniest error are obvious, but the rewards for accurately threading the GT S through the concrete jungle are addictive.
This isn’t my first experience of the AMG GT S on an iconic circuit, having last year attended the car’s international launch at Laguna Seca. That memory floods my thoughts as the GT’s nose tumbles down off Skyline and through the Esses and Dipper. Though they each vie for the steepest section of racing circuit in the world, Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew and Bathurst’s Esses and Dipper are markedly different to drive. While the run along Skyline suggests the entry to the Esses is completely blind, it’s nothing like the uphill approach at Laguna Seca that completely obscures circuit references. In fact, when I drove the GT S there, Bernd Schneider suggested to scan the trees in the infield and use the second one as the turn-in point. Once turned-in to the Corkscrew however, it’s an easier section of track, as visibility instantly improves and it’s significantly wider than Mount Panorama. Neither corner is easy to master, but Bathurst is more unforgiving should you confuse talent with ambition.
The GT’s steering is light and fast, and small movements easily and accurately poke the front end down the Mountain, out of Forrest’s Elbow and onto Conrod. In fact, the steering is so light that when I first drove the GT S in the United States last year, I embarrassingly mistook it for a good electric system, rather than the hydraulic set-up that it is. Other journalists have expressed the opinion that the steering is too light and reactive. I agree that you must acclimate to its responses, but it reminds me of the razor-sharp steering found in a Ferrari 458 Speciale or F12.
To underscore the GT’s phenomenal speed, on a single flying attempt, Mick Doohan later recorded a 2:26 lap on the road-biased Continental rubber. One can only wonder at what might be achieved on the optional Michelin Pilot Cup 2 tyres. And even Doohan admitted that a regular Bathurst specialist would extract more of the AMG’s deep reserves of speed. Given the optimum combination of laps, tyre and driver, could the GT S get around Mount Panorama’s hallowed 6.2km in as little as 2:23? It’s a theory we’re unlikely to ever confirm, but it’s a ludicrous number to even contemplate being achievable by a comfortable road car.
Our time with the GT S at Mount Panorama might have been brief, but it’s only further enhanced evo’s opinion that this new AMG is the real deal.
Having completely forgotten the 150km/h limit and 70 per cent ceiling, I jump into a C63 S and immediately barrel up Mountain Straight at over 200km/h. Not knowing the instructor, I get a wrap on the knuckles. Oops. Sorry.
After the 70 per cent ceiling is lifted, I get another chance to sample the C63 S. It’s immediately obvious how much more suited to track work it is compared to the previous-generation car. The balance of the new car is very neutral and it feels about eight-tenths as fluid as the GT S, which is significant praise given how impressed we are by the flagship AMG’s deep well of talent. The C63’s steering carries a heft that is absent from that of the GT S, and the front end doesn’t load up the outside tyre like the previous-gen C63 would during extreme cornering. A few of the old car’s charming edges have been chamfered smooth, but the new C63 S still has all the swagger you’d expect of an AMG. And while we’ll always miss the brand’s bombastic 6.2-litre naturally aspirated V8, the new twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre unit is hilariously vocal for an engine muted by forced induction.
Later in the day we get the full Mount Panorama experience when a large eastern grey kangaroo clears the catch fencing in a Superman-style single bound and scampers across the hump on Conrod as the C63 I’m piloting nuzzles up against its speed limiter. It happens so quickly that there’s barely time to get pressure into the brakes, despite the fact that I cover the pedal with my left foot.
Throughout the afternoon I jump from 45 to 63 and GT S, and the instructors allow my pace to ramp up with each lap. At one point we’re laughing like drains as our CLA45 gobbles up C63s and GTs up and down the Mountain. And while I’m primarily here to sample the new GT S and C63 S, my drive of the day comes at the wheel of a CLS63. Given pretty much free rein to drive as hard as I can safely do, the memory of thundering across the top of the Mountain will remain with me forever. Judging by the split-melon smiles on the faces of the other participants, I’m not the only one to have etched indelible memories on my brain. Jesse Taylor