On the trail of the Carrera Panamericana with the AMG SLS

The Carrera Panamericana, made up of 8 stages and spanning 3,100 kilometres from Tuxtla Guttierez in Chiapas to Ciudad Juarez in northern Mexico, is a gruelling and now legendary race. In 1950, Mexico’s Transport Minister dreamed up this insane event to celebrate the completion of the highway linking Mexico from north to south. Competitors came from far and wide: Juan Manuel Fangio, Alberto Ascari, Giovanni Bracco and many other famous pilots took part, representing such brands as Ferrari, Lancia, Jaguar, Maserati, Chrysler, Buick, Lincoln and so on… In 1952, two of Mercedes-Benz’s famous 300SL W194 Gullwings, with Karl Kling and Hans Klenk in one and Hermann Lang and Erwin Grupp in the other, were victorious. Fifty-eight years later, I had the privilege of reliving a part of this adventure at the wheel of the new AMG SLS…

As a young boy, I was fascinated by the comic-book adventures of Michel Vaillant by Jean Graton. That was how I came to hear of the Carrera Panamericana, when my comic-book hero won this race in volume six of the series. This childhood memory, combined with the chance to personally experience a part of auto racing history prompted me to travel to Mexico City, then to Puebla, where our adventure with the SLS began.

Even as the plane was descending, I could see that Mexico is a country of contrasts and that the parts of the country where I’d be driving had nothing in common with Cancun and Acapulco. The people here are poor but proud and, naturally, we’re uncomfortable about driving across their country in exorbitantly priced cars that they’ll never see in this neck of the woods. It’s a whole other world...

To ensure that our adventure goes smoothly, officers from the Mexican Policía Federal lead the way in their modified Dodge Chargers. With the police lights constantly flashing, we frequently hit speeds of 200 kilometres per hour on straightaways and surpass 250 km/hr when we needed to catch up to the convoy indiscriminately overtaking slower vehicles that are lining the highway. It’s a strange feeling to have the police leading the way at high speed for our small group of journalists. Usually, it’s the other way around.

The vast countryside is breathtaking, the sky is immense and the harsh sunlight gives everything an almost dreamlike colour. We pass one small village or town after another, and one “control militar” after another, where very young soldiers armed with machine guns search Mexicans’ cars looking for drugs. At each of these controls, I feel like a character in the film Traffic, although in our case, it’s the cars that the soldiers are interested in and not their decidedly unsuspicious drivers.

On Mexico’s often uneven roads, the AMG SLS proved very rigid, but I still noticed slight noises from the body when passing on particularly bad roads at very high speeds. The power is phenomenal, the shifting is very fast, and the handling is limited only by the vehicle’s very considerable weight. For a complete summary of this exceptional car, please read the text by my colleague Denis Duquet who was in attendance at the AMG SLS’ world launch. You’ll find it on our site.

Upon our arrival in Oaxaca, AMG was unveiling a brand new model in the line, and speculation was running wild in our small group of journalists. Would it be the SLS convertible, or even an AMG version of the E-Class coupe? So it was somewhat surprising when the bigwigs at AMG unveiled the AMG SLS GT3 race car that will compete in sprint and endurance races all over the world in the hands racing teams lucky enough to get one to take on the likes of the Audi R8, BMW Z4, Lamborghini Gallardo and Aston Martin DBRS9.

It’s the logical next step for AMG since rival German brands Audi and BMW are already taking advantage of this limited market segment by producing GT3 race cars for their customers. Plus, there’s the fact that some AMG customers who have taken part in the brand’s numerous performance driving programs have expressed the desire to make the jump to competition. Why not offer them an AMG race car instead of sending them directly to the main rivals? The price of the AMG SLS GT3 is not yet known, and the brand’s managers simply announced their intention to complete the car’s approval process over the course of 2010 so that they might deliver the first cars to clients before the start of the 2011 racing season.

With Mercedes-Benz giving the AMG SLS GT3 the go-ahead in 2010, they have come full circle: It was exactly sixty years ago that the powers that be at the German brand decided to produce prototypes of the 300SL Gullwing in order to participate in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Mille Miglia and the Carrera Panamericana. Developed in nine months, the 300SL Gullwing race car was built on a space frame chassis with an aluminium body and powered by a six-cylinder, 180-hp engine paired with a four-speed manual transmission. Its success in auto racing led Mercedes-Benz to produce 300SL production models that are today among the most coveted vehicles around for collectors. Today, 60 years later, AMG is introducing its race car, also developed in only nine months, and also built on a space frame chassis with an aluminium body. It has a 6.3-litre V8, whose power will be determined by the FIA in keeping with their performance balancing principle that ensures a level the playing field for all of the cars competing in the various GT3 championships throughout the world.

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