Back when evo India magazine was launched the official safety car of the Buddh International Circuit was the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. And we got our hands on it for our launch issue cover story
It’s early when we get to the Buddh International Circuit, not far from our private playground and similarly deserted. News coming in from our friends at the Cannon Ball Club is that it is raining in Delhi and maybe we should postpone the shoot. In Greater Noida there are spits of rain, 200 per cent humidity and dark clouds overhead. In the pits there’s a panic attack among the crew. And at the other end of the pits, in the Mercedes-Benz garage, sits a white SLS AMG, fuelled and ready to go. This is the AMG Driving Academy car – the very same car the lucky few who won our subscription contest rode around in – and rather than panicking over a cover shoot that might not happen we concur that the least we can do is scrub the tyres and bed in the brakes. For you.
One day, and I don’t see that day being very far away, there will be housing complexes and schools and shops and a million people riding and driving very dangerously but as it stands today the Buddh International Circuit is in the middle of nowhere. It is a monumentally vast complex that is even more intimidating because of its emptiness. Invariably locked down like Fort Knox the only human presence are the ubiquitous guards. Sneeze in the pitlane and the guards at the main gate say bless you. The silence is deafening. And all hell breaks loose when the SLS is fired up.
The circuit shakes on its foundations; every villager in the district and his cow braces for a deluge. It is the sound of thunder and is belted out by one of the finest engines to leave AMG’s hallowed gates. It is also the last of its breed; with Formula 1 moving to forced induction engines next year the final nail in the naturally-aspirated coffin has been hammered in. The benefits are indisputable but the fact also remains that turbo motors simply do not have the purity or aural appeal of a beautiful NA unit – like this 6.2-litre that growls a deep tenor roar that only a V8 free of forced induction can.
But first, the party piece, those gull wing doors. It, of course, harks back to Mercedes’ motorsport history, to the legendary 300SL which couldn’t have conventional doors as it would have eaten into the tubular chassis running through the bottom half. It’s a brilliant raiding of the history books and one that makes the R8 parked beside seem remarkably unremarkable. It also makes entering the SLS rather inelegant – though far easier than the high-silled 300SL I would assume. We finally realise the best way is to plonk oneself bum first, swing the legs in and then stretch out (and it is a proper stretch) to pull the door shut. Awkward but I wouldn’t trade it for conventional doors.
The interiors have dated quite quickly and there are bits and bobs from every Mercedes known to man. But who cares? The minute she exits the pits and the throttle is nailed the guard at the gate spills his tea and the mind gets focused. This is a hot rod. A German hot rod, but a hot rod nevertheless. The mid-front mounting of the engine means there’s a vast bonnet ahead of you, almost like a Corvette, and you sit on the rear wheels. The noise is properly deafening. And it moves with frightening alacrity.
With 571bhp from the 6.2-litre, dry-sumped V8, performance is never less than arresting. 0-100kmph is a claimed 3.8 seconds, three-tenths slower than the R8, which can safely be put down to the lack of all-wheel-drive. Does not matter. This hand-built AMG engine sounds ridiculous and is monstrously torquey with that big wave coming in from 1000rpm. Peak torque of 650Nm comes in at 4750rpm, peak power is at 6800rpm. The V8 piles on revs mercilessly from 4000 all the way to its 7200rpm redline at which point, if you are in Sport + mode, the twin-clutch DCT transmission will yank the next gear in 100 milliseconds.
The SLS AMG is unique in the layout - front-mid mounted engine mated to a rear transaxle connected via a carbon-fibre prop-shaft. The massive torque tube adds to torsional rigidity, there’s a limited slip differential and grip is, as you might suspect, very good. You could drive it clean and precise to extract a fast lap time but that would mean missing out on the surprisingly entertaining and lairy character of the SLS. Sitting practically on top of the rear wheels gives the driver a unique sense of how much grip is available and with all that power on tap you steer as much with the throttle as the steering. Pour the long bonnet into the corner to curb initial understeer, get on the gas early and there’s enough torque to overwhelm the massive rears; by the apex the rear will be turning faster than the front, Sport + mode permitting long and big slides before cutting in – a great way to show off without the fear of spinning out of control. With the 48:52 weight distribution the SLS feels well balanced and sitting so close to the rear axle also heightens the driver’s sense of riding on all that power. It’s entertaining and controllable – stab the throttle and the rear will hang out, feed in the throttle and it will drift gently and predictably from corner to corner.
Ultimately an R8, with quattro traction, will have the edge on a race track but the SLS makes up for it with a wildly entertaining character. There’s the noise, the tail happy attitude, the perfectly-timed blip and bark when you downshift. And when you finally trundle into the pits, heat pinging off the brakes and swing the door up and away, you will command ridiculous attention.