Wobbly legs. This is the abiding memory of my experience as David Coulthard's passenger in the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. Even hours later--having safely ensconced myself in the bosom of a hospitality suite at the Paul Ricard Circuit in France--I was still struggling to come to terms with the knee-trembler I'd received from the Formula One star. It was my own fault really. When the question "Who would like to ride shotgun with DC?" had been asked, I hadn't hesitated in shouting "Me, me me!" like an over-excited adolescent. You would have done the same, though, for this was about more than merely witnessing one of the world's greatest drivers at work; it was about seeing one of the most powerful road cars on the planet handled as God intended.
We've all read countless articles about how "mouthwateringly quick" the SLR is, but in reality, most of the journos who wrote these stories were too scared about the consequences of denting the thing to properly put their foot down. Here was an opportunity to experience just how brutal this 200 mph monster really is. And who better to show me than Coulthard? Having had a personal hand in the development of the car, the Scotsman is more familiar with the SLR than most.
Easing my way underneath the inviting gullwing door, the sumptuous leather passenger seat wrapped itself seductively around my hips, briefly lulling me into a false sense of security. This veneer of sophistication and refinement was replicated by my superstar chauffeur: The black Hugo Boss shades and characteristically chiseled jaw bely a demon lurking beneath. The door was closed; my ass was his.
The acceleration of this silver bullet is difficult to put into words; suffice to say it took off up the main straight like a stabbed rat, accompanied by a deep, rumbling soundtrack that was akin to a WWII fighter plane. But it's not just the ridiculous take-off speed of the SLR that defies belief. As Coulthard hurled the runaway beast into the first corner at seemingly impossible speeds, a sharp jab of the dinner plate-sized discs brought it back under control in a second.
This might well be the first truly practical road car to have bona-fide racecar performance, but isn't it a bit wasted on DC--a man for whom 210 mph is just another day a the office. "For sure, there's not as much of the 'yahoo' factor for me," he admitted candidly. "But this is a real driver's car, and to be able to thrash it around properly like this is an absolute pleasure."
To prove he wasn't lying, a quick yank on the steering wheel persuaded the back end to step out, tires wailing in protest. With each lap of the French circuit, Coulthard seemed to be enjoying himself more and more. The well-behaved professional sportsman I'd met initially was now being replaced by a naughty schoolboy with a new toy."With other so-called driver's cars there's still an inherent amount of understeer to keep you out of trouble, even if you turn off all the traction control systems. But the SLR has been designed to have very little understeer, so it's really easy to get it out of shape if you don't know what you're doing," he told me as we careered sideways down the back straight at well over 100 mph.The staggering thing about this awesome automobile (apart from the obscenely expensive price tag), is that you really could use it to nip to the mall. The sizeable trunk and varied torque range provide a tangible level of practicality that you just won't find in other supercars (which the SLR will happily blow away). In short, you don't have to drive it like a thug in order to appreciate it.Practicality was the last thing on Coulthard's mind, however, as we began another lap of the circuit. By now, he was really getting into things, a broad grin taking over the Scotsman's face. If one of the gull-wing doors had opened as we rocketed down the main straight, I swear the SLR would have taken off. This was unadulterated, motoring pleasure in it purest (supercharged) form. Even DC was getting over-excited, overshooting the first corner in his quest for more speed. "Sorry about that," he said, scooping it all up, "I forgot we're not in an F1 car!"
We might as well have been, though. While the SLR's good looks may well be reminiscent of the classic Mercedes SL road cars of the 1950s, underneath the sensible skin it's more 21st-century F1 McLaren than anything else.The chassis is made from sophisticated composites, making it the most rigid road car ever built, while underneath the front grille there's a Formula One-style splitter to keep it sucked to the ground. As with the McLaren Grand Prix cars, the SLR is lubricated by Mobil1 (the track day was celebrating the oil brand's 30th anniversary), ensuring it really does run like greased lightening.
Indeed, this particular model had more special features than most: It came complete with my hand print etched into the red leather grab handle...