Driving fast in the rain is like running into a bear in the woods. All of your instincts are wrong. Neither fight nor flight is an appropriate first response. Instead, try to do the one thing you cannot possibly do: remain calm, don’t panic. Any sudden movements spell certain disaster.
For any new driver, the rain is intimidating. Even for experienced ones, a major downpour is cause for concern. Luckily, today, we have a master of the art of driving in the rain to show us how it’s done in Mercedes’ most powerful new sports car.
“Stay off the racing line, off the racing line,” Bernd Schneider’s voice crackles through a walkie-talkie. The five-time DTM racing champion is driving the car ahead, leading us around the high-speed Hockenheim Formula 1 racetrack in Germany. It’s raining in sporadic and torrential bursts, creating puddles and little rivers on the track. The racing line is coated in a fine layer of burnt rubber, making it nearly as slick as ice. In slippery conditions, you must pay more attention but don’t white-knuckle the steering wheel. Breathe.
It’s not the lack of grip that’s most terrifying, nor the feeling that the car might snap sideways without warning. It’s the fact that, following Schneider’s car, it’s impossible to see anything. He’s kicking up a rooster tail of water, not unlike what you’d experience on the highway in a downpour. Out the front window is a thick grey soup. Only glimpses of the world peak through, such as the red flash of brake lights. In such conditions, Schneider advises backing away from the car ahead to get a clearer view. Be patient.
To state the obvious: These are the worst conditions in which to sample AMG’s most hardcore new sports car. With 577 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque, the new top model in the refreshed AMG GT range isn’t any more powerful than last year’s GT R. The new “Pro” version – limited to 750 cars worldwide – is a track-focused special, similar in spirit to Porsche’s GT3 RS or BMW’s M3 GTS.
The GT R Pro gets new three-way adjustable dampers from K&W, stiffer suspension bushings and oodles of carbon-fibre aerodynamic addenda. The car has roughly 100 kilograms more downforce and is 25 kg lighter.
It’s nice to think the extra downforce helps as we tiptoe at 200 kilometres an hour around Parabolika, an endless left-hander. Maybe it’s helping, but every fibre of my being is fully clenched and on high-alert.
Schneider’s reassuring voice comes through again with more sage advice: “We’re going to take it easy, brake early, softly.” If you go into a corner way too fast and the front wheels slide out – understeer – there’s nothing you can do; you’re a passenger at that point. So, as Schneider says, in the rain you must start slow, gradually increasing speed as you figure out how much grip the tires have.
Schneider avoids shiny, reflective patches on the tarmac. They indicate standing water and you really don’t want to drive over those. If you must, do so with as little input on the car as possible: straight ahead, neutral throttle. Look at the road more carefully to spot hazards.
Through one tight right-hand corner, the GT R jumps sideways without warning and recovers itself in a split-second. The stability control system saved the car before I knew what happened. The lesson here is, please, do not think you are the second coming of Ayrton Senna; leave the electronic safety systems on when driving in the rain.
You learn a lot about yourself while driving fast in the rain, less so about a car. Schneider was driving one-handed while holding a walkie-talkie. I felt like I’d overdosed on espresso: adrenalin pumping, heart pounding, eyes wide. Every moment of every lap in the GT R Pro was at or near its limit of grip. Every moment was like meeting a grizzly bear. To all the novice and nervous drivers: you do get used to it. With each encounter, you gradually learn to ignore your instincts and trust what you’ve been told: remain calm, don’t panic.
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