The Weekend Read: Mad Mex

In the 1950s, Mexico’s infamous Carrera Panamericana was the world’s most dangerous road race. We retrace its course in Merc’s mighty SLS to find out why

Mercedes-Benz SLS Carrera Panamericana

YOU ARE hauling along on one of the finest driving roads you have ever experienced. It’s an opera of second- and third-gear bends, many blind, mixed with hairpins and also faster curves that almost, but not quite, open into genuine sweepers.

About 30 minutes ago, you reached that point where you can hear your passenger speaking but no longer bother answering. You’re in the zone. You, your car and the road have bonded. In the curious way that sometimes happens on roads you’ve never seen, you hit a corner-to-corner rhythm that can’t be broken.

This is perfect.

Well, not quite. Let’s kick it up a notch. The car you’re driving in this optimum scenario is a sporty number, obviously. But it could do with more force, so factor in another 100 kilowatts – all the way up to 420 – most of them just now launching you out of a sweetly-cambered right-hander onto a short straight.

A sequence of lights on the dash graduates from orange to red. Grab the next gear. Then the next, and the next, all the way up to seventh. So long as we’re dreaming, we may as well add some track-style equipment to our fantasy. And, while we’re at it, how about gullwing doors?

Nobody said dreams have to be logical.

Let the dream continue. Now you arrive at a hairpin that didn’t look like a hairpin 100 metres ago. It’s tighter than Japanese immigration laws, but you’ve got brakes so powerful that working the left pedal for too long can actually send you backwards in time. You peel out of there, waiting for the next light to cue upshifting the 6.2 litre V8, and…

There’s an old, smoking VW Beetle in your lane. It’s dawdling uphill towards a blind curve, so you don’t have a chance to safely overtake. That’s alright. Ease off for a few minutes. Nudge the gearbox from paddle-controlled manual into full auto. Breathe. An opportunity will soon turn up.

But it doesn’t. The road becomes yet more twisty and oncoming traffic is suddenly, infuriatingly, abundant. You know that beyond this Beetle lies at least another hour of driving heaven but you just can’t get at it.

You’re contemplating the sort of overtaking move that you used to pull when you were in your 20s when something frightening appears in your rear-vision mirror. It’s a big, black police cruiser. Lightbar flashing red and blue. Reflector shades glaring from behind the windscreen.

This dream has taken a grim turn. Sweat appears on your brow. The temperature seems to have leapt by 10 degrees. It isn’t surprising. After all, you’ve just been hauling for hours at an average speed at least double the posted limit. Your peak speed has sometimes tripled it.

And here are the cops, who’ve been following you for God-only-knows-how-long, about to drag you in and subject you to the local vivisection penalty for extreme velocity abuse.

Then the police cruiser suddenly overtakes you on the passenger side, filling the emergency lane, and runs up hard towards the Beetle’s right-rear guard. For a second or so the cruiser menaces that old Volkswagen as though preparing to tag him, NASCAR-style.

Alarmed, the Bug jumps across and out of your way.

A friendly arm extends from the police cruiser’s window and waves you to pass. Go right on ahead, it telegraphs. We have neutralised the slowpoke and once again the road is yours. So you kick it down three gears and clear the area like a sprint-capable Mafia don granted parole.

Your passenger looks across and asks: “Did that really happen?”

This is where the dream ends. It really did happen. The roads, the curves, the speed, the Beetle and the police. In Mexico, when Mercedes invites journalists to hustle 11 SLS AMG coupes across hundreds of deliciously serpentine public roads, anything can happen.

Mercedes clearly has huge confidence in its SLS to figure 11 of them can emerge unscathed after two days of high-speed punishment on Mexican roads. While the country’s drug gangs commonly behead their rivals, Mexican roads attack the lower regions. Low-slung Italian rivals would be chalk outlines after Oaxaca to Huatulco. Why, they might not even make it to San Pedro Jose Ayutla Quetzaltepec Escondido del Rio.

Not that the SLS isn’t low-slung. It is, but it’s also built to Tonka tolerances when it comes to potholes, collapsed road edges and general Mexican asphalt abominations.

Which is why we were in Mexico in the first place, by the way. This is where the first Gullwing, the W194, won the Carrera Panamericana road race in 1952.

The Carrera, run on many of the same sections of public road we use in 2010, was so dangerous that it was abandoned after just five events run from 1950 to 1955. Just consider that for a second. This race was believed too dangerous for Mexico in the 1950s, when life expectancy for locals was just 49 years. To experience the same Carrera-level of danger today, you’d have to wear a ‘JIHAD IS GAY’ T-shirt in the Tora Bora mountains.

Another sign of Mercedes confidence: the company wheeled out the very W194 that won at Le Mans 58 years ago and allowed journalists to accompany the priceless car on a few joy rides through Mexican back roads. This felt wonderful but wrong, like using Michelangelo’s David as a toboggan, but it served to demonstrate the DNA connection between Gullwings old and new.

The link extends beyond birdlike doors (which in the case of the W194 are so membrane-thin that they flex visibly upon opening; a single SLS door, by comparison, could serve as a bridge staunchon). There is also the sound. Both 1952 and 2010 Gullwings play the same intoxicating engine soundtrack when clicking down through the gears, a raucous fireworks session on overrun.

It’s the type of song you anticipate from a race-tuned straight-six of the W194’s vintage. You’d think, however, that by 2010 engine management systems would be fancy enough to overcome this sort of thing – and you’d be right. So the overrun crackle of the SLS is engineered in. AMG’s engine geniuses have programmed their hand-assembled V8s to receive an extra taste of fuel when you get out of the throttle, just to provide the world’s most perfect sound this side of Scarlett Johansson saying “Yes”.

After the first full day of driving, from Puebla – a couple of traffic-choked roads from Mexico City – to Oaxaca, the engine’s glorious sound is the overwhelming aural impression.

YouTube footage of German DTM champion and ex-F1 driver Bernd Schneider conducting an SLS around the Nurburgring features a prominent amount of tyre noise, however. This proved nearly impossible to generate in less racy hands.

Even pushing the SLS to what seemed like very serious corner speeds simply left the tyres mute. Other pressmen, much faster than me, reported similar silence. I asked some of the Mercedes engineers if Schneider’s Nurburgring SLS was equipped, as were our press cars, with Continental tyres.

Yes, they replied. Identical. So now you have a failsafe means of measuring SLS corner pace. If you hear those tyres talking, you’re either Bernd Schneider or you’re about to meet some trees.

My, but you’d have to make some unusual directional decisions before reaching that point. The SLS’s engine is entirely behind the front axle line and set low, thanks to a dry sump. Combine that with a rear-mounted gearbox and it results in 48/52 weight distribution. It’s primed for precisely neutral handling. In another signal of Mercedes confidence, the suspension is non-adjustable.

The closest device to the SLS might be the front-engined Panoz endurance racer of a few years ago. That thundering machine easily ran with mid-engined cars during several seasons of competition, despite its relatively simple stock-based Ford V8. Schneider, who is with us for the Mexican fun, and his Mercedes associates become visibly animated when the Panoz is mentioned. One of them quietly said how much he’d like to get his hands on old Panoz race telemetry. There are obviously secrets yet to be unlocked about the magic of a front/mid-engine design.

Its real-life worth is no mystery. Free of imbalance vices, the SLS just goes exactly where you point it. There’s a trace element of understeer somewhere in the mix, but only at urban background radiation levels. It can be measured, if you have sufficiently sensitive equipment, but it isn’t going to affect anything.

A point of debate about the SLS: is it a sports car or a grand tourer? Those arguing for the former category point to the extreme dynamic finesse plus a two-seater cabin that is surprisingly snug, given the car’s width. Driven even at five-tenths, though, the SLS is a continent-eater.

The sports/GT question was resolved for me on a sustained left-hand bend which changed radius slightly about three times. By pure chance I’d arrived at an almost ideal speed for the first section, then was able to cover the following radius differences with ludicrously tiny throttle movements. The engine’s flyweight internals make it minutely responsive, so you can hover at a traction premium eternally, given the right corner. Very few street-legal engines offer this level of telepathic connection.

It’s a sports car. Live with it, grand tourer dissenters (and you can, quite easily, in seats that initially feel unforgiving but which after a 400-kilometre jaunt still leave you fit to slouch casually in a Mexican bar full of literary types and pretend you’re an expert on obscure novelists who write about ‘magic realism’).

Of course, it is vaguely possible that some may be attracted to the SLS simply because of its awesome looks. Again, however, there is an opinion divide. Most agree that the SLS’s gaping grille and panther-like frontal aspect work. The functional air vents aft of the front wheels are also pleasing, as is the Sahara-sized bonnet with its simple raised central section.

But folks who are unable to deal with issues of automotive proportion – I know; Australian psychiatric wards are absolutely full of them – might struggle with the way that the SLS’s taut cabin resolves into a too- truncated, er, trunk.

Onlookers were impressed, though. Almost fatally so. Dawdling slowly through one small village, the driver of an approaching ute caught sight of our silver SLS and veered slightly to his right while under a Gullwing trance. At the same time, an elderly woman was making her way along the same section of road on foot. At the last possible millisecond the ute driver swerved away, although not in time to completely avoid contact. The woman’s left arm was clipped as the ute swung by. He immediately stopped to make certain the woman hadn’t been badly hurt.

So you’ve got 11 300km/h Gullwings in the country, with foreign drivers of various abilities behind their paddle-equipped steering wheels and an all-clear on speed limits from the local police – and the most dangerous moment involves a busted-arse old ute and the village matriarch. Something to think about there.

Actually, there was one other dangerous moment. Mexican roads are infested with what are called topes. These gigantic speedhumps most usually appear within townships and on the roads immediately leading to them. Usually they are signposted. Usually there are abundant warnings of an upcoming tope.


The warnings are necessary, because we’re not talking about your common Australian suburban traffic-calming device here. These babies can be a couple of feet high, with approaches so abrupt that they’d stall a trials bike. And no two topes are alike. It’s easy to be tricked into thinking you’ve mastered the topes after a couple of less-severe examples, then a few metres later you’re climbing the Matterhorn.

Ground clearance wasn’t a huge priority for the SLS’s designers, so we treated every tope as a potential drive-ender. The standard strategy was to basically make a complete stop before advancing at an angle to avoid expensive undercar scraping. Even so, there were a few times when skidplates – the SLS does have a couple, surprisingly – were put to work.

That’s fine, when you’re moving at matriarch speed. But at one point I happened upon Mexico’s most evil tope of them all: the highway-dwelling Invisible Tope of Mystery.
I’d just overtaken an old truck and was about to move back into the right lane when the ancient Golf some distance ahead signalled via left indicator that the road ahead of him was clear. No problem. A few seconds of AMG V8 would deal with that.

We were doing 170km/h when my passenger – another Australian journalist – began screaming: “There’s one! THERE’S ONE!”

Now, a few issues were at play here. For a start, I was primarily concerned with the possibility of oncoming cars, which is a big mistake in Mexico where one should consider the possibility of absolutely anything (kidnapping, vulture attack, the bloody vengeance of furious Aztec gods) occurring at any time.

Also, my passenger had earlier that day spent some time at the side of the road experiencing the debilitating after-effects of Mexican tap water. The previous night he had turned a hotel bathroom into (his words) a “cave painting”.

There were no cars heading towards us. I seriously thought he was hallucinating. Then I saw the tope. It was a monster.

I might have dragged the SLS down to about 60km/h when we hit, which means only a tiny amount of braking time from those colossal discs. Reflexively, I got off the brakes just before impact so the nose might be a few millimetres higher. As if it was going to make much difference.

But somehow we vaulted over the Great Tope of Legend without any metal-on-tope action at all. We must have hit a sweet spot or been blessed by an authentic Mexican miracle. Later, nervously confessing to one of the Mercedes officials, I was startled when he laughed it off. “You should have seen the Japanese guys,” he said. “One foot of air between the car and the road!”

There’s that Mercedes confidence again. They truly believe their car is immortal. They may be right.

Some want to take this test again. Schneider has driven at Monza, Le Mans, Spa and the Nürburgring but was absolutely taken with Mexico’s curves. One morning he bumped into some of the friendly Mexican police during a coffee break. He asked about the sort of fines that would usually be handed out for our levels of speed. The police misunderstood. No, no, they reassured him. You won’t be fined here. It’s all good.

Schneider tried again. “What I mean is,” he said, “what if I come back here for a holiday?”


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