Join The National behind the wheel of the road-going version of the Formula One safety car
Driving the Mercedes-AMG GT S: F1's safety car
As 20 cars Formula One cars hurtle round Yas Marina Circuit at speeds of up to 300kph-plus during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this weekend, it would be easy to miss one very important, if only occasional, four-wheeled addition to the pack.
The F1 safety car fulfils a vital role – in the event of a serious accident or particularly inclement weather, it leads the field at (clue in the name) safe speeds until any crashed cars and debris have been cleared or the conditions improve.
But unlike the multimillion-dirham machines driven by the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, you can actually own a road-going equivalent of the F1 safety car: the Mercedes-AMG GT S.
Mercedes-AMG Petronas driver Hamilton himself owns a GT R, an even quicker GT variant inspired by the infamous Nurburgring Nordschleife racetrack, also known as the Green Hell.
“I have one,” the current world champion tells The National. “The new ‘Green Beast’ that just launched this year, which I drove Usain Bolt out in [circa this year’s United States Grand Prix]. That’s the best. The best car Mercedes make. It’s fricking awesome.”
But today, I’m in the GT S coupe, the closest you can get to the race-tuned safety car that will be at Yas Marina Circuit this weekend.
And it’s quite a vehicle, with a 4.0-litre V8 that pumps out 510hp and will scramble to 100kph from standing in a very respectable 3.8 seconds, which is very evident from the moment I pick it up from Emirates Motor Company. And should you have the (legal) space to hit its top whack, then it will trouble Hamilton and co’s maximum speeds, at 310kph.
If the Mercedes-AMG SLC is a fun two-seat runaround, then the GT S is an older sibling that has grown up and spent a few years in the gym building muscle mass. You still get the on-a-sixpence feel when chucking it round bends, although the cockpit is roomier – surprisingly so for a car sans anything as spacious as a back seat. My test car, which has a few additional features such as a panoramic sunroof, tips the till at Dh684,000. And it looks fantastic, without shouting too much about it – aside from that jet-black rear spoiler jutting out from the eggshell-white paintwork. It is even sufficiently self-confident to not worry about having the smallest gearstick known to man. A micro stick, if you will.
The history of the F1 safety car is an interesting one. Mercedes has supplied them since 1996, with the GT S replacing the gull-wing-doored SLS AMG two years ago. And for most of that time, it has been steered by Bernd Maylander, a successful former touring-car racer from Germany who took the job in 2000.
The first safety car was a yellow Porsche 914, which was used in the 1973 Canadian Grand Prix, although it wasn’t a smooth introduction: confusion followed after the safety car slotted into an incorrect position and inadvertently left part of the field a lap down.
It wasn’t until 1993 when the safety car was made a permanent fixture, however, and since then, various promotional cars have also made cameo appearances, from a Lamborghini Countach (Monaco) to the rather more middle-of-the-road Open Vectra (San Marino).
Kate Prior, a doctor for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, is also well-versed in dashing round the Abu Dhabi circuit in a tuned German car. She is part of the four-person team that travels in a Mercedes-AMG E 63 S, the F1 medical car that is first on the scene if a driver is injured in a crash.
It is piloted by Alan van der Merwe, a South Africa pro racing driver who has fulfilled the role since 2009, the year F1 first came to Yas Island.
“Abu Dhabi is anti-clockwise circuit, which is unusual and the other big thing is it’s a night race, so it starts while the Sun is up and finishes when it gets dark,” Prior says. “Working under floodlights is a different challenge if anything happens.
“This year I think it will be a closely fought race. We all hope that nothing bad will happen, but if it does, we’ve got a multinational team and we will respond appropriately. We’ve worked together for a long time and most of the team has been together since 2009.
“Abu Dhabi is definitely safer than some of the older circuits. It’s in the support races where things are more likely to happen.”
Back in the GT S, meanwhile, it might not be quite as impressive a sight as 20 F1 cars careering over the black-and-blue kerbs of Yas Marina Circuit, but should the safety car be deployed, you will notice that it flies around corners and gobbles up straights nevertheless.
Enjoy it while you can, though, because this season, F1’s governing body, the FIA, has already raised the question of a driverless safety car. For the GT S, that would ruin the fun rather irretrievably.