“Okay? Let’s go,” crackles the voice over the radio, that of Thomas Schneider, five times DTM champion, one time F1 racer. Nice guy, but ruddy fast, as we’re about to discover. Today, we’ve got the 4.69km of undulating tarmac that makes up the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve (or, if you’re not Portuguese, simply ‘Portimão’) to play with. And the new Mercedes-AMG GT R, spawned from the GT S, but with its focus very much on the track.
From the Fifties Carrera Panamericana SL-aping front grille to the big rake-adjustable wing positioned high on the boot lid, the GT R is dripping in track-intent. Bigger air intakes around that classic front grille cool both the 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 engine that powers the GT R and the massive brakes that stop it. They also manage the airflow more effectively than on its GT S relation.
There’s an active aerodynamic element under the more prominent chin, too, forcing air to rush under the car to create a Venturi effect, exiting through the vents under the boot lid. Its acceleration underneath helps keep the transaxle and exhausts cool, as well as the GT R stuck to the tarmac. There are active vanes in those front intakes, too, opening and closing in a second to feed air for cooling — or control it to maximise grip. The net result of all that airflow management is some 155kg of downforce, yet no increase in drag over the lesser winged GT S. Visually, then, it’s a riot, a mix of AMG’s GT3 racer and the standard GT S. Undoubtedly, the GT R is AMG’s rival for that other omnipresent Nürburgring track rat, Porsche’s 911 GT3 RS.
Like it, and any other car with track aspirations, there is weight loss here. Fifteen kilograms overall, which might not sound like much, but a lot has been added. That active aero adds 2kg for starters, while a new rear-wheel steering system, a wider track with larger wheel and tyres and coil-over suspension all bring obvious benefits, but add mass. To reduce the weight AMG has applied carbon fibre extensively, from the front wings and wheelarch inserts, to the torque tube that runs from the front of the car to the back. That latter item is aluminium in the GT S, and it’s 40 per cent lighter in the GT R, yet stiffer. The additional carbon fibre bracing at the rear adds seven per cent to torsional rigidity, there’s a lithium ion battery and the wheels in forged aluminium are as light as possible. AMG boss, Tobias Moers, is particularly proud of them at the trackside display, lifting them with one hand. With an exotic mix of strengthening and lightening materials, extensively applied, the GT R’s focus is obvious, as you would expect.
Naturally, there’s more power, the 4.0-litre turbo engine pushing out up to 577bhp and 700Nm of torque. Not quite the 604bhp and 850Nm the same base engine delivers in the new E 63 S, but still a sizeable leap over the standard GT’s figures. To achieve it, the hot-v-mounted turbochargers are significantly revised, boost pressure rising from 1.2 to 1.35 bar as a result. The compression ratio has been changed, as has the engine’s breathing and internals to suit. Moers says that the twin-scroll turbos of the E 63 S unit, as well as the additional intercooling required, would have meant too much weight for the GT R. “There’s always the possibility of more, though,” he laughs when pushed about it. AMG’s birthday next year certainly raises the possibility of an even more extreme GT Black Series model...
Not that 577bhp seems lacking when you thumb the big engine starter button in the pit lane in Portimão. It’s found on the wide transmission tunnel, alongside the various buttons for the exhaust, dampers, transmission and ESP system. It’s a bit of a convoluted affair setting it up just how you like it, as there are Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and Race modes, within which you can choose how loud and uncouth you want your AMG. Even with those exhausts at their quietest, AMG’s 4.0-litre V8 is a vocal thing, firing with a rousing flare before settling down to something approaching a civilised rumble.
The tyres have been pre-warmed, so Schneider suggests Race mode for the first few laps. I’ve sat in the car before, only in the passenger seat, for a couple of laps around the Nürburgring with Thomas Jäger driving it. It was developed there, and back then AMG’s people told us that it’d do something like a 7 minute 20 second lap. They were sandbagging, as only last week it achieved 7 minutes 10 seconds. Quick then. Seriously.
To help every driver extract the most from it, there’s a nine-stage traction control system that’s a direct lift from the GT3 racer. Jäger says that around the Nürburgring, setting six is about right, otherwise you lose too much speed through slip.
Doing so increases the angles possible coming out of some corners, revealing a chassis that’s very benign...
The yellow dial in the centre of the dash for those nine settings will, for now at least, remain untouched. Race mode gives the ESP its most lenient limits and it needs to be turned off completely before the nine-stage traction control can be explored.
Responding to Schneider’s quick radio command I push back the awkwardly positioned automatic lever to drive, then press the manual button as we slowly rumble down the painted tarmac that marks out Portimão’s pit lane. Determined not to disgrace myself behind one of Germany’s most famous and talented racing drivers, I remind myself he’s driving the same car, so mine can do it too. From previous experience his ‘warm-up’ lap will be at a pace that some might consider worthy of timing. That’s true today, as well, Bernd keeps relatively quiet on the radio so as not to distract attention away from the task in hand.
Keeping him in sight that is, rather than keeping him honest, as there is no way even in my wildest dreams that I’ll be pushing him around here in a car he helped develop on a track he’s been driving around for weeks now. What is obvious, other than his mesmerising speed, is just how different the GT R feels in comparison to the GT S. There’s a disjointedness to a GT S that’s just not apparent here; the steering in particular is clearer, its weighting better (if still light) and the response more predictable. That wider track and those new suspension settings all help, as does the low unsprung mass, which is even less here given the optional carbon ceramic brakes. Then there’s that active rear steering, which effectively shortens the wheelbase for agility at lower speeds. Above 100kph, the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the fronts for increased stability.
The front and rear axles feel like they’re working together, rather than the conflict that’s sometimes apparent in the GT S. There’s a thicker, tubular anti-roll bar at the back, while spherical ball joints (instead of regular bushing) increase the precision at the rear axle. In the first fast right-hander, even at warm-up speed, those chassis changes are clear, and welcome. The nose turns in with greater urgency, the rear following faithfully, even if, as is often the case around Portimão, you’re trail braking into a bend.
There’s greater stability, too, the GT R’s front axle far more confidence inspiring, likewise the rear, which delivers huge traction when exiting the bend. Up that speed and it does all that and more, teetering on the edge of grip and slip without any spikiness, remaining very controllable when its high limits are eventually breached. The ESP reins things subtly in when you do that, though both Schneider and Jäger suggest disabling it, and instead dialling that traction control setting to about six to better enjoy the GT R’s limits.
Doing so increases the angles possible coming out of some corners, revealing a chassis that’s very benign, even at the massive speeds it’s so obviously and easily capable of carrying. That dial, rather than a gimmick, quickly becomes something to exploit, winding it around for more control in those trickier corners that have your behind chewing the bucket seat, and more liberal settings when you’re happy with the run off and want to showboat with some tyre-burning slides.
There’s no shortage of power to allow all that, thanks to the engine’s willingness to rev right up to its redline, adding masses of speed in an utterly intoxicating manner. AMGs have never been short of pace though; their most common failing has been in how it’s utilised. The transmission, here AMG’s seven-speed dual clutch, paddle-shifted automatic, changes with real speed and precision; it’s a significant development from its first installation in the SLS AMG. There’s still the occasional denied downshift if you’re too early with your finger pull, but otherwise it’ll not second-guess or override the driver, leaving you to enjoy the full breadth of the engine’s performance.
Do that and the GT R will reach 100kph in 3.6 seconds from rest, though that number does little to translate the ferocity of how it achieves it. That’s just one side to the GT R, a more immersive, engaging car in which the handling takes a sizeable step over its GT S relation. It retains AMG’s unhinged nature, yet delivers it with a sophistication that makes it a credible alternative rather than interesting diversion to its many and varied competition from McLaren, Porsche, Aston Martin and more. That’s true away from its natural habitat, too, as the GT R’s tautness and focus are not overtly detrimental to its usefulness on the road. Indeed, it’s arguably the better road car for the greater precision and more predictable responses it brings. That elements of its make-up will reach the GT S in time is a good thing, but for now the GT R represents the best of AMG, and gives its rivals something to worry about. And not just in lap times.