Less than 24 hours after the Petronas Malaysian Gran Prix had ended at the 5.543km Sepang International Circuit, the tranquillity was broken yet again by a whole new rumble. The sky was clear and the morning had not yet reached the heat levels of the day before. Most Formula 1 support teams at the paddocks were still feverishly working on packing equipment needed for the next race weekend in Melbourne, Australia less than 2 weeks away. The Philippine Mercedes contingent led by Felix Ang was well on their way back to Manila. I’m pretty sure they revelled in the peace and quiet on the plane cradled by the serene fact that they had left a member behind for one last experience on the circuit. That obnoxious clown was none other than yours truly and last experience in Sepang was unlike any other.
I extended my trip to participate in the first of ten AMG Ultimate Experience Asia events staged in Malaysia, China, Indonesia and Thailand. Thus far, Mercedes Benz / AMG and their extremely wealthy financier have no concrete plans to bring the lifestyle event to the Philippines. My pleading fell on deaf ears. This is unfortunate but understandable. The AMG Ultimate Experience Asia is an exclusive series of lifestyle-oriented events aimed specifically at sports car enthusiast in the Far East. Everyone from individuals passionate about motorsports to clients of large corporations will be able to compete behind the wheel of the 35 identical uncompromising AMG sports cars. This is all great but for the loaded financial master behind the scenes, he must recoup his considerable investment by charging at least US$1,750.00 per driver per event. It’s speculated that the figure is in fact even underestimated. So you can begin to understand why our chances of having an AMG series here, even next year, are slim at best.
Mercedes-AMG plans to launch a limited-edition road-going model based on the SLK55 AMG Ultimate Experience Asia in the near future. The custom-designed AMG vehicles are not registered for road use and so far will only be driven on controlled private racing circuits. However, the sale of these vehicles has prompted AMG to meet the numerous demands for purist-oriented high performance cars.
To make the event even more exiting, I was informed weeks before that ex-Formula 1 and current DTM driver for Mercedes-Benz Jean Alesi and current F1 Safety Car driver Bernd Maylander would be initially giving co-drivers for every participant. Then, if time permitting, self-drives may be possible under the ‘guidance’ of the racecar drivers. The event was principally for VIPs such as Dato Mokhzani Mahathir (Chairman Sepang International Circuit) and his associates but a few select journalist were allowed to run during the morning session, one of them being the jolly ESPN Star Sports’ veteran motorsports commentator Robin Kung. Robin reckons that motorsports in Asia is growing rapidly and feels that Asia is where the future is. According to him, during our hilarious lunch where our table somehow got the impression that I was the porn king of the Philippines, Asians make up more than 63% of the supposed 350 million viewers who watch Formula 1.
I was inclined to believe that only a handful of cars of the total 35 would be driven on the track; to my huge surprise there were 8 completely identical SLK55 AMG racecars resting on the main straight. The emphasis on ‘identical’ must be made because to make the series as fair as possible between competing participants, great effort was made by the AMG factory to build the cars to even tighter exacting measures. Bernd piloted a black Mercedes C55 AMG to lead the slower 2nd set of 4 cars while Jean lead the faster 1st set of cars with a silver CLS55 AMG.
The track hadn’t been completely cleared yet by Sepang and Formula 1 officials during the early morning session, so the two main straights had a depressing 40 km/h speed limit. Shockingly, quite a few drivers still ditched their cars into the run-offs, so I guess it was prudent to slow the first groups down. Excitement and adrenaline was running high as temperatures continued to rise contributing to some really sloppy driving by a discouragingly alarming number of drivers.
I finally got my turn after 5 groups had finished their 2 laps each. Jean motioned that I take the first SLK55 AMG just behind him with a playful grin. I could tell that he had been getting anxious behind the wheel and wanted to release some pent up frustration. Keep in mind that the initial program with co-drives had been scrapped so every driver had to learn their car and the circuit on their own while learning the proper racing lines from either Jean or Bernd, if you can keep up that is. If a group were really slow or perceived to be getting out of hand, both drivers would slow the pace down accordingly. Passing was not allowed, then again how the hell could you ever pass Bernd and Jean in the first place?! Obviously, it applied to the participants because this wasn’t a race but more of a demonstration of the event.
I can’t begin to articulate the overwhelming euphoria of driving on the entire Sepang circuit the day after the Formula 1 race. With the fresh sights and sounds of Formula 1 imbedded in my psyche, I walked toward the baking cars. Everyone was required to wear a provided helmet; with my luck as usual, the free-size half-face helmets were a couple of sizes too small! All the cars are right-hand driven, yet another reason for the choice of event territories. I waited for a couple of minutes as the other drivers settled themselves behind us, which gave me some time to study the spartan interior of the specially prepared SLK racecar. The steering wheel was thick, very purposeful and dressed in black Alcantara leather for maximum feel and grip. In place of the audio system was a two-way radio. The a/c was working but at half-mast; it just barely cooled the cabin. The system is meant to cut off the compressor as soon as engine speeds become spirited.
The dominant note in the interior is the practical look and feel of a racing car. The Recaro fiberglass-reinforced plastic racing bucket seat with a six-point belt and fireproof fabric cover provides optimum lateral support, though my helmet would bang on the roll cage during ingress and egress, and from time to time, as I laughed silly from driving like a hooligan.
Mercedes-AMG developed the more uncompromisingly sporty SLK 55 AMG with further modified suspension, brakes and a cooling system that have been specially tuned for the planned AMG Ultimate Experience Asia lifestyle event; plus numerous lightweight construction features which provide the best handling dynamics of the SLK. The design of the 360bhp V8 roadster is based on the SLK 55 AMG safety car, which ensured maximum safety throughout the 2004 and 2005 Formula 1 seasons. This meant that it had an appropriate roll cage, fire extinguisher, kill switch and a myriad of other required measures.
The most recognizable difference that these cars have with the commercial variety is the fixed striking hardtop made entirely from carbon-fiber composite that replaces the heavy folding roof of the SLK. Dramatically, around 25kg have been saved simply by using the carbon-fiber roof with its plastic rear window and dispensing with the vario-roof mechanical and hydraulic system. These measures lower the vehicle’s center of gravity, helping to improve handling dynamics thanks to slightly improved aerodynamics, reduced body pitch and roll combined with higher cornering speeds. The unpainted, silk matt black roof with its visible carbon-fiber structure is a highly attractive and effective feature.
Additional lightweight construction measures, an optimized AMG sports exhaust system, discarding insulating materials, fitting lighter door linings as well as a fiberglass-reinforced plastic racing bucket seat compensate for the extra weight of the larger racing braking system, the larger 80-liter racing tank up from 70 liters, the roll cage and the fire extinguishing system. The kerb weight of the SLK 55 AMG Ultimate Experience Asia is considerably less than 1500kg.
The suspension, wheels and braking system on the SLK are based on the F1 safety car. The tuning with firmer spring/damper and harder torque strut bearings at the front axle is essentially the same as that used for the 2004/2005 official Formula 1 safety car. The wheel/ tire combination with Pirelli Pzero Nero 235 / 35ZR19 front and 265/30ZR19 rear tires was likewise taken from this car. The ultra-light 19-inch AMG light-alloy wheels produced using sophisticated forging technology are new and weigh around a third less than conventional cast-aluminum wheels and are supposed to further-enhance handling.
The braking system uses 14.2″ composite brake disk with six-piston BremboTM fix calipers up from the 13.4″ steel rotors on the standard SLK55 AMG with special brake pads provide the deceleration at the front axle. Thanks to the innovative composite design with a grey cast iron brake disc connected to an aluminum bowl, peak temperatures can be avoided extremely effectively, giving the brakes outstanding fade resistance in harsh racing-circuit conditions. Having ran as hard as I could on the track I can attest that they work as advertised! The 13”steel brake discs with four-piston brake calipers used at the rear axle are the same as on the standard roadster. All the discs are internally ventilated and perforated; the front brakes, which have to deal with particularly high stresses, have specially designed cooling ducts.
Modified especially for the racing circuit, the modified and more responsive AMG Sports exhaust system with two twin-chromed tailpipes at the rear provides a more dramatic sound experience at the racetrack, although it doesn’t actually improve power. An auxiliary AMG front apron, another engine oil cooler (right) and a transmission oil cooler (left) have replaced the standard-fit fog lamps. Side openings are supposed to allow the warm air to be dissipated more effectively. A more powerful cooling system for the power-steering oil pump and an active cooling system for the rear axle differential have also been added. These measures ensure trouble-free operating temperatures whatever the weather conditions. And on that particularly hot day, the SLK needed every possible bit of help in keeping temperatures down.
The 7G-Tronic II transmission control system has also been specially configured for the racetrack. The gears are shifted entirely using manual mode. There are two manual modes available: M1 and M2, which allow even faster gear changes, about 12% quicker than the standard SLK55 AMG roadster, which already boasts a 30% better response than the SLK350. Steering-wheel gearshift paddles, now the norm in motor racing, have also been fitted with arrowed toggle buttons found on the steering wheel itself.
Optimized weight distribution is another decisive factor in producing handling closer on par with a dedicated racing car: by moving the battery from the engine compartment to the boot and fitting the 80-liter racing tank in the boot, the weight has been distributed more evenly between the front and rear axle (52:48). The racing tank with its typical foam inserts also prevents fuel from sloshing from one side to the other, the ideal setup for minimum body movements on fast S-shaped bends. The filler has also been relocated from the right rear fender to the trunk.
The way the V8 responds to the throttle is in another league with its throaty roar. The roadster can accelerate to 200km/h in 16.5 seconds, slightly edging the 3.8-liter Porsche 911 Carrera S. If not electronically limited, I reckon the roadster would touch 290km/h. The great chassis of the standard SLK meant AMG only needed to modify the legs to lift its handling to match the higher performance. Predictably, grip and body control were excellent and tight until you reached the limits of the Pirelli road tires. The ESPN still intervenes annoyingly, though I admit it reacts pretty close to the sweet spot between having a ball and having the ball thrown at you, but given the present driver’s capabilities of the day I’m thankful. The SLK55 AMG does not fell nose heavy even with the big V8. I feel the chassis could still handle more power but the suspension could still need finer tuning. The enhanced AMG modifications have also tightened the steering, making it feel more direct and more accurate than any other SLK ever made.
On my first couple of laps in the morning, I stuck close to Jean to learn the proper lines; it was my first time on Sepang and what better instructor than a former Formula 1 driver! Lap after lap our progress got faster and faster, I found myself concentrating harder and smiling a whole lot less. Jean had meant business and clearly wanted to explore what little talent I had. After a few more laps, we had lost the other 8 cars on the track as they had pitted early. Actually, we lost sight of them after our very first lap. On our last lap in the morning, we were running so tight and fast that I had miraculously blocked out the engine roar that I had fallen in love with and really kept the pace.
Jean’s CLS had clearly reached its limits and had begun to feel its weight through the corners. By halfway into that last lap we were power sliding at every corner, and at turn 7 Jean’s CLS had drifted into the dirt ever so slightly but unnerving nonetheless. The last thing I wanted was to plow into him so I slammed on the brake and gave him room to pitch the huge coupe back on course. This minor mishap may have annoyed him because after that I couldn’t come closer than three car lengths especially in the final straight where the mighty force-fed 500bhp engine of the CLS walked away from me even when I carried so much speed through turn 14 that I almost tasted my breakfast!
By the time lunch was done, all the journalist had left leaving the VIPs alone to enjoy themselves. Jean, within the limits of the rules of the event, had been asked to make sure that I thoroughly immersed myself in the SLK55 AMG so that I could review the car properly. We went out again for the afternoon session until it was time for me to break away with the last private shuttle to my hotel an hour away in Kuala Lumpur. I’m left with the total admiration and respect for Jean and Bernd, the incredible track, the people behind the organization, and finally the car. It exceeded my expectations. The new automatic transmission was so good that it was dangerously close to performing like the SMG system on the BMW M5. The car is wickedly fast, it attacks corners with authority, and it’s very composed.
I’m very confident that if Mercedes were to really sell this car commercially that it would be an outstanding success. All throughout the surreal experience the car felt tired and always felt like it was a Mercedes. The SLK55 AMG racecar is elegant, desirable, and the biggest compliment yet, the most fun I’ve ever had in a Mercedes not counting my high school formal, but that’s a whole different story best read in MAXIM!.