Ferdi de Vos experiences what it's like to drive with Formula 1 veteran David Coulthard at the SA Festival of Motoring, held at the Kyalami race track.
Johannesburg - It was mesmerising, driving with DC.
Not because it was a dramatic, spectacular, over-the-top experience, involving lots of lurid, smoky burn-outs, major sideways antics or doughnuts galore. No. On the contrary.
It was because of the smooth, graceful execution, the ease with which the winner of thirteen F1 Grand Prix races handled The Beast around the track.
There was no dramatics. No sudden, unexpected movements. Each steering input was deliberate, all pedal modulations calculated…
One could liken it to the Scotsman’s commentary on F1 - measured and considered, in the midst of the cacophony of noise and over-excitement that’s seemingly part of F1.
Similarly, he seemed calm and composed behind the small X-shaped steering wheel while the thundering AMG GT3 - fitly agitated and very much alive - squirmed and writhed in the corners, trying its level best to escape from a tight leash.
Taming The Beast
After only a couple of corners of the revamped Midrand circuit it was clear why multiple DTM-champ and Mercedes test driver Bernd Schneider has nicknamed the latest Mercedes-AMG customer race car The Beast.
With over 410kW (with two 36mm restrictors to make it compliant with the FIA GT3 Balance of Performance rules) and 650Nm on tap from its hand-built 6.2-litre naturally aspirated V8 and weighing just under 1 300kg, the be-winged, composites clad monster is fast (0-100km/h in just on 3 seconds), and ferocious.
With a shorter wheelbase than its SLS GT3 predecessor much testing was done to temper the new GT’s wayward rear, and many aero improvements were made to provide more front-end grip.
It also received an aggressive face, reminiscent of the SL racers in the ‘fifties (and now also used on the new GT R), one that rival GT racers would not like to see in their rear-view mirrors…
WATCH: The new Mercedes AMG GT3 sounds like a beast
Based on the standard AMG GT and utilising its aluminium structure, the new customer race car is them finished at Affalterbach with huge wheel arches and wider carbon-fibre reinforced plastic body panels, fully-adjustable double wishbone suspension, a pneumatically-operated seven-speed transmission, massive brakes and a massive rear wing.
The latest AMG racer was specifically developed to partake in FIA GT3 series worldwide (such as the FIA GT World Cup, ADAC GT Masters, European Le Mans series, WeatherTech SportCar championship and Blancpain series) against cars ranging from the Ferrari 488 GTB, Audi R8, McLaren's 650s to the Bentley Continental GT, BMW M6, Aston Martin Vantage and Nissan GT-R.
Sold to privateer teams for the princely sum of R6.1-million (and counting) it was purposely decided to keep the sonorous 6.2-litre V8, rather than the production model’s turbocharged 4.0-litre engine, to minimise operating costs.
It showed the opposition a good view of that huge rear wing during its perfect debut in the Nürburgring 24-hour race in the Eifel earlier this year, with a clean sweep of the podium and a total of five cars finishing in the top six.
More recently the Mercedes-AMG GT3 met with more success at the Nordschleife with a customer team securing first place in the DMV Grenzlandrennen - a round of the VLN endurance racing championship.
Brought out especially by Mercedes-Benz South Africa to thrill customers at the Festival of Motoring, currently under way at the Kyalami Grand Prix circuit, our David has slewed much more powerful Goliaths during his career.
With 246 starts, 62 podiums, 12 pole positions and 18 fastest laps to his credit driving for Williams, McLaren and Red Bull, Coulthard is still one of the most experienced F1 racers ever. Yet, interestingly, he never raced at Kyalami (he only entered F1 in 1994, a year after the last SA Grand Prix) although he did some testing at the Midrand circuit later on.
Still, the Mercedes-Benz brand ambassador and Laureus ambassador didn’t need much track time to learn the new track layout.
Even after slowly exiting the pits (with the limited-slip diff clanking ominously at pull-off) he quickly worked the AMG through the gears, reaching nearly 180km/h before he had to stomp on the brakes - late, very late - for the first sharp right-hander.
READ: Revealed - Nuburgring-developed Mercedes AMG GT R
So immense was the stopping power I found myself literally hanging from the straps of the six-point harness while the car rapidly decelerated. Coulthard was already turning in - the long nose turning sharply, obediently following his fluent inputs.
The GT3 scythed through the corner and accelerated smoothly through the new, slightly uphill S-corners before the Scot, hardly braking and surprisingly early, turned in for the left-hander leading onto the back straight.
Watching the smooth, controlled actions from his gloved hands the Scot made it look all so easy, keeping the monstrous AMG at bay as its rear fidgeted under power out of the turn. A quick dab on the brakes set it up for a quite shallow line through Sunset Sweep with high entry speed, DC deftly correcting any skittishness mid-corner before powering through.
Again his entry speed into Barbeque and through the Esses surprised me, Coulthard managing the entry-understeer with minute corrections before blasting up to WesBank.
I again found myself flung against my harness as he braked on the brow at the last second, quickly turning into the double-apex corner before rapidly building up speed downhill.
Flat out through the Mineshaft sweep we went, my body straining against the high G-forces. At well over 200km/h the bellowing beast still felt stable, the aero devices keeping it planted on the road…
With no in-car comms in was impossible to talk over the din of the mighty V8, but I’m sure Coulthard heard my squeals of delight as he swept through the remaining corners.
On the main straight he gave me a quick glance and thumbs up, and I responded with both gloved thumbs high, while shouting inside my helmet: “Go for it!”
He must have felt my excitement, because he did, winding up the GT3 to close on 260km/h before I had to brace again as he punched the brakes.
For the remainder of the lap I could again appreciate his skills; his hands and feet transforming the anarchy and chaos of the disrupting forces inside and under the car into high-speed calmness and serenity…
All too soon it was over, but as we coasted into the pits I did manage to get his summation of the track and car: “The track is great,” he said, “The surface is really smooth, and with a variety of slow and high-speed corners it is very technical.
“Also, with different approaches and lines possible in some of the corners it will take time to really get to know it well. It’s quite challenging and fun to drive,” he said.
And the car?
“Well, its bullet-proof, isn’t it," Coulthard exclaimed. "It has good front-end grip, changes direction well, and there’s good downforce in the high-speed sweeps. It’s quite predictable too, and that’s what you want in a customer racing car…”
Besides DC’s skill, what impressed me most was the AMG’s front-end responsiveness, its stability at high speed, and man, the stopping power of those brakes.
And after being around Kyalami with Coulthard in the AMG GT3 the normal GT road car, a muscular machine in own right, felt pretty mundane in comparison…
I can’t wait to see a full grid of growling GT3’s lined up on the grid at the new Kyalami…
*The Festival of Motoring at the Kyalami Grand Prix circuit is still on until Sunday.