Gross-Dölln, Germany: a Cold War throwback, 4.3 kilometres of concrete, 1.5 metres thick, situated a short hop from Berlin. Arriving, the trees surround you like a timber barcode, the dense forest planted to slow the progress of tanks. Just a few miles into East Germany, 55,000 Russian soldiers used to call this place home. All that bomb-resistant concrete was poured to create two runways, though changed politics leave Gross-Dölln quiet and empty today. Communism's retreat is my gain, though, as the place makes for a perfect automotive testing facility.
I'm here to drive a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3. A proper, front-running GT3 racing car. And it's not just a brand-building, message-promoting journalist's jolly either; this is an event for customers. Wealthy customers, admittedly, but, if you've got about Dh22,000 to spend and want a race car fix, get in touch with Mercedes and it will strap you into an SLS AMG GT3 worth more than Dh1.5 million. It's a proper drive, too, not a five-lap "experience" or taster; you get some serious time and training in the cars.
Naturally, there are a few provisos. First, you need to pass a medical. The woman holding a monitor to my heart has just looked at it with a puzzled expression and said "nicht gut". Even with my rudimentary German I know what she's saying. Thankfully, Patrick Simon, my instructor for the day, explains that the connection was bad and I need to be tested again. I pass, though the other medic suggests that I'd be advised to dodge cakes and pies for a while. Evidently, I'm no racing snake.
Getting into a racing car is never an easy exercise. Roll cages, thick, multi-strapped belts and tight-fitting seats make it a challenge for fit, thin, experienced racing drivers, and downright troublesome for the bulkier built - like myself. The seat fits though, and I can reach the pedals. I pause for a moment to acquaint myself with the car I'll be driving tomorrow.
Today is all about that medical and a chat about the car's many controls and switches. There are 39 buttons to worry about, number 13 being the one I hope never to press. It fires the explosive hinges to allow escape from the gull-winged racer should it roll onto its roof. The others are fairly obvious, though I'm assured that my instructor will deal with anything other than the steering, throttle and brakes. They'll be enough for me to contend with.
We do a few laps in a standard SLS AMG to learn the surprisingly undulating, twisting track that's been cut out of an area at the east end of the 4.3km runway. It's a tricky circuit, with a very long, fast straight, though there's run-off - plenty of it. Good thing, too, given the mixed level of experience. You could conceivably arrive here and get in an SLS racer having never sat in a racing car ever before.
While the road car was quick and huge fun, the SLS GT3 promises to be a completely different experience. Nestling in one of the bunkers built to protect MiG fighters from spy plane cameras and bombs are eight Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3s awaiting us. Parked in formation, doors open, set high on their pneumatic jacks; it's quite a sight. Up front is an example still wearing its red livery and numbers from its recent outing at the Spa 24 hours. It achieved a podium. Serious stuff.
Before being let loose on the circuit itself we're off to the runway for some braking exercises. Why? We'll be left foot braking, and teaching your left foot not to treat the brake as a clutch is tricky. Not so difficult as you'd think in a racing car though, as, however hard you push the pedal, it isn't ever hard enough. Rushing up the straight then stamping on the brakes has your leg straining and the seat belts digging in tightly as the SLS AMG GT3 goes about the task of washing off its easily gained speed with utter impunity. For the car, that is. I'm already exhausted and we've only been driving for a few minutes.
Trepidation best describes my first proper run on the track. Sure, I've experienced the car and the circuit, but both together fill me with more than a little bit of dread. Patrick fires the engine, the GT3's stark interior filling with a cacophony of sound from the 6.2L V8 engine. It's putting out around 550hp; that's less than the road car, thanks to a regulation-sanctioned air restrictor, but it's still a huge amount of power by any measure. Over the intercom my breathing sounds like a phone pest, while the V8 engine rhythmically flares and drops with a lumpy idle. There's a clutch for first and, thankfully, I don't make the typical novice error and stall it as it judders away from the pit.
Racing cars don't like going slow and the SLS AMG GT3 is no different. Shunting down the narrow pit lane I have to feather the clutch in an attempt at smoothness. A quick pull of the right-hand paddle selecting second gear settles it. It's a short pit-lane and, as I select second, I move my left foot from the now unneeded clutch to cover the brake, where it'll be doing all the work.
The level of grip is mighty, while the performance, though amazing, doesn't surprise like it does in the road car. The noise certainly intensifies the experience, but its raw speed isn't so shocking. In the GT3 it's all about the brakes and the cornering speeds. They're incomparable to the road car's. In the GT3 I'm standing on the brakes late, yet I'm still too early. Even later and harder is the message I'm getting, keeping the accelerator pinned to the floor and pulling the paddle for more gears past the road car's braking points.
Speed through the corners is just incredible. Turn the steering wheel and the SLS's nose immediately responds, darting towards the apex with authority. There's no delay nor roll, which combined with masses of grip allows mighty exit speeds. Each lap feels faster than the preceding one, which is something I'll be able to check via the telemetry after my first stint. There's a chance to improve, too, with the data specialist pointing out where I could gain time by braking harder, accelerating earlier and cornering faster.
Simon is the perfect instructor on track, giving small pointers without bamboozling and distracting my attention from the 550hp I've got under my right foot. He's quiet most of the time, allowing me to settle into a rhythm with the car and enjoy its incredible ability. It's massively absorbing and feels surprisingly easy but, then, I'm guessing I'm barely scratching at the surface of its talents and I'm not dealing with other cars aggressively trying to get by.
Twenty four or so laps later, I'm ruined. As friendly as it's proved to drive, how people pilot cars like these for 24 hours is a mystery; the mental and physical intensity it provides is like nothing else I've ever driven. As driving experiences go, it's the best I've ever had, and when you consider how much it would cost to officially test such a car with a race team, it's a bargain, too. Just make sure your heart is up to it though, and lay off those cakes.