In 2009, during my tenure at WIEL magazine, I travelled with our Racelogic testing equipment to Upington. There, I met up with adventurer Hein Wagner, the Carte Blanche crew and the owner of a certain Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG Black Series, the late Lolly Jackson, to set up the equipment for Wagner's attempt to set a new blind land speed record.
The setting only adds to the atmosphere created by the pumped-up SL65 AMG Black Series. We are standing on one of the longest airstrips in the southern hemisphere, its newly laid tarmac and vast, surrounding yellow fields in stark contrast to the pearl white, high-performance Mercedes-Benz. Upington, situated 850 km north of Cape Town, is not only one of the hottest places in the country, but being a semi-desert, it's also one of the driest. All this makes it one of the best places for this record attempt. Hein Wagner, who was born blind, will attempt to be the first blind man to break the 200 mph (322 km/h) land speed barrier.
A couple of years ago, he and his navigator Ray Wakefield hit just under 270 km/h in a Maserati, but this time he not only wants to better that record, but achieve 322 km/h and bring the car to a standstill within the 5 km length of the airstrip. The engine is idling while its occupants look focused, if a little anxious. After all, they are gunning for a record and do not want all the hard work of the past weeks to evaporate into thin air.
The previous day in 30 degrees Celcius afternoon heat, doing trial runs, the car’s owner reached an indicated 319 km/h with a passenger. Now it's 6 am and only 15 degrees Celcius, a temperature much better suited for the 493 kW and 1 000 N.m torque of the 6,0-litre V12 biturbo engine in the Black Series. The car is fuelled for only a couple of runs to save weight while the wing mirrors have been folded back. All SL65 AMG Black Series cars are restricted to 320 km/h, but the limiter can be removed, as has been done with this car.
A Racelogic VBox has been attached to the car, which makes use of satellites to accurately determine the car’s velocity. On the trial runs, it seemed the SL’s digital speedometer was only a little out. Ready to go and with the record button pressed, we wait almost halfway up the runway. We can hear the car approach from a distance, although very softly. By the time it flies past us (around 40 seconds after its driver first pinned the throttle) it is travelling at 298 km/h.
Even at these speeds, the photographer snaps the car while the sun is rising in the background. Wagner has a further 20 seconds to keep the throttle to the floor while Wakefield navigates him along the central line of the runway. Wagner moves no more than a metre or two off it.
After doing two runs, one each way, they pull over and we download the data. Within seconds, we have the graph in front of us and his first run proves to be the fastest. Just before Wagner got on the brakes the car was travelling at precisely 322,5 km/h. Hein Wagner is officially the fastest blind man on the planet!
In the passenger seat
There is still some fuel left in the car and the owner quickly invites me for a passenger ride – it's an opportunity too good to miss. Even at 800 metres above sea level, this SL’s performance seems totally unaffected. With the throttle pinned and the ESP switched on, the AMG struggles to put all of its power onto the ground. Pushed back in the carbon-fibre seat, first gear is over in an instant, the upshift paddle is pulled and as second gear engages there is another twist from the car’s rear. Grip becomes less of an issue at higher speeds as the sound of the turbos begins to dominate, while wind noise also starts to feature – although less than one would think as we approach 300 km/h.
It is only at this speed that the acceleration really starts to become less fierce. The car feels totally solid as we slide past 322 km/h to 323 and 325 km/h, and as we hit 327 km/h we are immediately on the brakes. Given that there was ample space at the start and end of the runaway, we could potentially have cracked the 330 km/h mark.
The SL65 Black Series might have one of the hardest suspension set-ups of any AMG, but in terms of looks, sound and acceleration, it's up there with the best.