A Special Day In A Special Car
It was one of those hazy, sunny days in the south of France when nature draws inspiration from an Impressionist's palette and the landscape's shimmering warmth invites a leisurely pique-nique and a liter or two of chilled Chablis. On that day, though, there was no wine or fromage. Instead, there was the embrace of a spectacularly endowed sports car: the 2009 Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG. My body seemed surrounded by an almost clairvoyant presence that anticipated and responded to my needs and desires in ways that went beyond the merely mechanical. On that day, the hyperbolic yet suave sports car also performed the devoted task of every Mercedes-Benz, enveloping me in luxury.
I spent that halcyon day driving along the Cote d'Azur west from Nice, inland overn the steep, narrow roads of le Massif des Maures and then onto Circuit Paul Ricard's immaculate test track at Le Castellet. I cannot remember when I've enjoyed a day of driving, or a single hour on a racetrack, more than that gleeful tumble of motion and noise. I became positively giddy from the exhaust system's sonorous rumblings and from the g-loads that molded my ribs to the sports seats' side bolsters and colored my every sense of a performance car hard at play: the ever-changing horizon; the chorus of hisses, squeals and thumps from the tires; the rapid- fire chatter from the steering wheel; the mlange of heated fluids and disintegrated compounds; the virtuoso dynamic balance; the stunning equilibrium and selfpossessed explorations to the edge.
I'd started with a standard SL63, then climbed into a model with the Sport Package, which turned a remarkable car into an amazing piece of track-ready kit by adding a limited- slip diff with a locking factor of 40 percent; lighter, one-piece 19-inch forged wheels; staggered tire sizes of 255/35 in front and 285/30 in back; larger (15.3-inch) front brakes; stiffer suspension tuning; and a smaller-diameter flat-bottom steering wheel. At the end of the session, I moved to the right seat for several laps with Bernd Schneider, former F1 driver, DTM champ and, at 38 years old, still a weapon in AMG's competition arsenal.
Heading back to Nice, Schneider was sitting shotgun, the controls now in my hands. Actually, once I'd watched him horsewhip a track that I'd spent an hour slapping in the face with a lace handkerchief, I felt humbled and had no desire to explore any more limits. Besides, I was thoroughly embroiled in French traffic. If roundabouts elsewhere are efficient alternatives to crossroad congestion, in France they're oval tracks. The grid, always moving in one long running start, was composed of old folks in chugging diesels, youthful Type-As in uncorked Asian coupes, the usual mixed bag of tour buses and surly men in the ubiquitous white delivery vans that keep France's commerce flowing.
One such van led us out of a roundabout at two o'clock and proceeded to carve the quickest line down a road that looked like a stage in the Monte. It was daunting to watch. I lifted off the throttle and squeezed the huge vented rotors, giving the van room to carom off the cliff and catch fire without catching us out too. Schneider, one ear to his mobile, flashed an upturned thumb and twirled a finger around his temple. He may be a crazed maniac on the track (how else can anyone win DTM championships?), but he was as awestruck as I by the crazy-fast delivery van, shredding apexes like a white skier on black snow. Jacques Freakin' Lafitte in overalls.
The SL63 AMG is a newcomer to the family, but it has the physique and brutish potency of an infant raised by wolves. There's nought but a big, brawny naturally aspirated V8 under the hood's power domes, the chrome-tipped twin exhaust roars like a true alpha male when excited and burbles on over-run with the contentment of a freshly satiated carnivore. Mountain roads gave way to high-speed autoroute, so I pulled the shift paddle for a lower gear from the seven-speed gearbox and mashed the accelerator as if the engine could deliver an infinite arc of response. Over the commotion of the 525 horses I'd just unleashed, my passenger shouted: "That's what I like." We grinned at each other like the first monkeys to peel a banana.