DRIVEN: Mercedes-AMG GT R

Almancil, PORTUGAL – Halfway through my first lap of Portimão, I’ve lost sight of DTM champion Bernd Schneider in the leading Mercedes-AMG GT R. Every few seconds, I catch sight of his Green Hell Magno-hued Benz just as it crests a hill before dipping into a melee of switchbacks and disappearing further into the abyss.

I’ve already succumbed to my inner doubting Thomas and switched the GT R’s traction control from ESP sport handling mode – the setting recommended by the AMG boffins on hand – to ESP-on because the track is damp and I don’t want to die in Portugal, thank you very much. But, despite having driven this track before, as I have other sportscars on other raceways, having the safety net active doesn’t do much for my confidence. The car feels lively and the track too challenging to instantly push the R.

The GT R in Bernd’s hands

I quickly devise a plan. “Bernd, can I drive shotgun with you, to see how you do it?” Expecting a sigh and a reluctant yes, he smiles, nods his head and gestures me to jump into the racing bucket beside him. What a guy.

Not a minute later, Bernd chucks Benz’s sportiest car into the first series of bends with an utter disregard for the laws of physics. I’m prone to carsickness, but there’s no time for the synapses to reach my stomach and issue a command of “vomit, now!”. The pace is simply too intense. The GT R clings to the racing line on its semi-slick Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s, but only barely, while we’re carrying a speed that I didn’t dare think the car could handle just minutes earlier.

Bernd is doing all of this with just one hand on the Dinamica-clad wheel to both change direction and flick the magnesium shift paddles, while the other controls a two-way radio to signal instructions to the next set of hapless journos disappearing into the background. And he has a smile on his face. A smile.

“Terence, this car is incredible,” he enthuses. “The front-end grips and grips, and you can trust it completely. And the traction-control system allows you to set it up just so, as does the suspension. There’s a nice bit of slip on the rear axle.”

I start to relax and absorb this once-in-a-lifetime experience. And Bernd wasn’t postulating; from the passenger seat, the GT R feels astonishing. It’s composed, spectacularly quick, raw in its vocal intensity and jaw-droppingly exciting.

Mere minutes later, we’ve completed four full laps and I unclasp my cramped right hand from the door handle. My grin couldn’t be wider; I’ve just had first-hand instruction from a driving genius piloting a supercar around one of the world’s most perplexing racetracks. If Bernd says the GT R is the best sportscar Benz has ever made, who am I to argue?

The GT R in my hands … FAR away from the track

But I simply do not have the nerve to tackle Portimão again. Instead, I walk over to the amiable German managing Benz’s fleet and request the key to a GT R to take it onto Portugal’s wonderful – and deserted – mountain passes to try the newest AMG on my terms. He kindly obliges and hands me the fob of a matte-grey GT R waiting patiently on the friendlier side of the pit building.

I fold myself through the door opening into the standard AMG Performance racing buckets, leave the gaudy GT3-inspired bright yellow traction knob below the quartet of air vents well alone – the racetrack has proven I don’t need nine grip settings – and press the tactile starter button. The twin-turbocharged 4,0-litre V8 takes a split-second to crank before firing to life and settling to a busy idle. I tug the stubby AMG gearlever rearwards into drive, caress the long-travel accelerator pedal and point the 15-slat Panamericana grille towards the track exit.

Before I leave the racing complex, I pause for a few seconds to set the powertrain to race mode, leave the damping in comfort and dial up the exhaust to anti-social mode. Oh, and I click the “M” button into manual to maintain full control of the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

Within minutes, I feel far more comfortable pushing the GT R, the V8’s 430 kW and 700 N.m just about keeping the 325-section rear tyres honest without overwhelming traction. And what I notice most acutely is the race-inspired, adaptive coil-over suspension’s incredible wheel control, the system absorbing cringe-inducing dips and crests without chucking the coupé off-line. My abiding memory of the GT S during Performance Shootout 2016 was the busy ride that forced you to concentrate at all times. The GT R, however, has composure to spare. And that allows you to relax slightly behind the wheel, reading the car’s responses without constantly expecting rabid behaviour.

Soon we’re into a flow, the GT R hugging the tarmac but feeling like it’s floating ever so slightly above it. The sensation reminds me of a Porsche in its ability to shelter the car from the worst hits, but without a hint of looseness.

Of course, I had to get cocky. Exiting a slow third-gear corner – there’s such a surfeit of torque from 1 900 to 5 500 r/min that third and fourth gears are all you need – I dump the throttle and the back-end steps out. Waaaayyyy out. I correct the slide just in time, but the GT R has clearly wagged its finger. This is a car to master, to take time to explore and grow familiar with.

Lesson duly learnt, I spend the next two hours getting to know the intricacies of driving the GT R, gradually coaxing it quicker into corners, climbing onto the optional carbon-ceramic brakes slightly later, revelling in the pops and bangs emanating from the exhaust system so ferociously that they’re felt through the super-stiff structure.

I park the car back at the Portimão pit building, taking a moment to reflect on one of the best drives I’ve ever had in a car. In one of the best cars I’ve ever driven. Had you asked me before I departed for Portugal which Benz has thrilled me most in my decade-long career in motoring journalism, my answer would have been the SLS AMG Roadster. That’s no longer the case … the GT R has ascended to my number-one spot.

Fast facts

Model: Mercedes-AMG GT R
Price: R2 705 746
Engine: 4,0-litre, V8, twinturbo-petrol
Power: 430 kW @ 6 250 r/min
Torque: 700 N.m @ 1 900-5 500 r/min
0-100 km/h: 3,6 seconds
Top Speed: 318 km/h
Fuel Consumption: 11,4 L/100 km
CO2: 259 g/km
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
Maintenance Plan: M6/100 000 km

Available from May 2017.