One of the trickiest stretches of racetrack in the world is right here in the U.S., 2,300 feet up in California’s high desert. Together, turns 8 and 9 at Willow Springs comprise a troll’s riddle, a thorny, sum-of-all-fears sequence that demands intellect, situational awareness and guts of billet steel.
Normally, that’s where I’d motion to the busboy for the check, and he'd roll his eyes at my ill grasp at how the whole restaurant thing works. Today, however, I’ve decided to bag the metaphors and meet these two ill-famed corners, you might say, head on.
To do that, I have employed two secret weapons: the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series and a pro race driver, whom I will follow guilelessly into the fray, like one of the idiot extras in Braveheart who left his sunglasses on during the Battle of Falkirk. Let the terror and effluvial palm-sweat commence herewith.
The SLS Black Series is the perfect car for this exercise. It wears AMG’s top level of road-car tune, incorporating a higher redline and more horsepower from the 6.2-liter M159 V8 – now in its final hurrah – with quicker steering and racing goods adapted from its GT3 racecar. The latter include lighter-weight versions of various components, like a carbon-fiber torque tube and titanium exhaust, but also tractive-force enhancements like adaptive coilovers, a trick electronically-controlled differential locker, two-piece carbon-ceramic brakes, lightweight forged alloys and supremely grippy Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s.
The aim is to alter dramatically the character of the SLS, known as much for its ructious, naturally aspirated V8 as its hood length, gullwing doors and ease of long-distance cruising. As a result, the Black Series is less grand tourer than track-focused sports car, well in league with Porsche’s 911 GT3 or Ferrari’s 458 Speciale. In fact, while the Black Series costs around 100 grand more than the GT3, it's also around 50 grand less than the Speciale, with an MSRP of $275,000.
The gulf between the base SLS and Black Series is striking, with the Black immediately revealing from the first sketchy Willow Springs corner that it is sharper, more nimble, more neutral handling and more fun to toss around a road course than either the base SLS or SLS GT.
The models we drove recently at Willow Springs arrived with the optional carbon-fiber aero kit, comprising a hand-adjustable rear wing instead of the standard deflector, and CF appendages on the front skirt that direct air to heighten downforce rather than merely optimizing cooling airflow. It’s a pricy upgrade, but does serve to enhance stability on a high-speed, heavy-braking track like Willow Springs’ “Big Willow.”
The pro driver and corner-sherpa is Maxi Götz, winner this past June of the Spa 24 Hour in an SLS AMG GT3. For those of us from the East coast, who drive “Big Willow” quinquennially at best, Götz is a stroke of luck in the form of a supremely skilled 20-something who happened to beat Sebastian Vettel and Adrian Sutil in the 2003 Formula BMW championship.
Naturally, the kid drives his ass off. And that’s good news, because I’m convinced someone designed turns 8 and 9 as a prank: A high-speed sweeper, 900 feet in radius, that goes on for days, straightens out, and then, as if remembering it had a previous engagement in Utah, cuts dazzlingly inward. In a final act of civil disobedience, the entire thing pivots elbow-like into a drainage trough. They might as well have topped it off with a pair of hands slow-clapping.
Get 8 and 9 right, as some do, and as you accelerate onto the front straight toward a western-Mojave moonscape of sagebrush and creosote scrub, you’ll be counting all the extra seconds you’ve pocketed. Get them wrong, as many have, and barrel rolling across a parched crescent of sand is only the second-best outcome. I’m not even going to mention the third-best, but it involves intubation and a ride on a MedeVac copter. Men have died here. That’s no joke.
Track regulars say the 8-9 run gets even more dangerous the better a driver knows it. With confidence comes complacency, they say, and if one thing 8-9 loves, it’s to show a complacent driver who’s holding whom by the follicles. I’ve always just figured not knowing it was the safest thing of all. And I’m only half kidding.
Maxi explains that, in the Black Series, getting 8-9 right looks something like this: Lots of speed accrued in a downward run through turns 6 and 7, a brush of brakes into the sweeper, maintenance throttle, then delicate braking at a slight steering angle to chop down tens of miles per hour in a hundred feet, waiting beat after excruciating beat for the final turn-in, and finally tracking out triumphantly onto the straight. Because turn 8 is a bit bumpier than standard, we’re doing this with the dampers set in the SLS’s less-stiff mode.
That’s a bit different from how I’d been doing 8 and 9, which was more like this: Charging down the rollercoaster chute of 6 and 7, throttle pinned, laughing maniacally as the Black Series sprints to 140 mph, then pegging the anchor-like carbon-ceramic brakes so early, I wind up creeping into the sweeper at a ducklike 25 mph. Getting back on the gas violently, I throw the tail out, turn in, ask stability control for a cigarette, stop for directions, and then track out, precious track-seconds gone forever like the band Dishwalla. Apparently, when the lead car is now in your rear-view mirror, you’ve left a few on the table.
(Uh, yeah. What's that called, "pre-braking"?)
And so now, I’m following Maxi, who’s just swung into turn eight at 130 mph, still leaving a few tenths’ margin, even though he's in an SLS GT, not a Black. I’ve again scrubbed speed a bit too early, dipping down to 115 or so into the back straight separating the turns, then further boring the carbon-ceramic rotors to tears by overbraking into the tightening nine. But with a close eye on Maxi’s corner entry, I can salvage the line and squeeze through, mostly on apex. Fewer seconds lost this time, but Maxi still has to ease back to let me catch up on the straight. It’s ok, though; he was napping anyway.
Better, but I’m still slower than the rusted out Model T statue by the track’s front gates. What’s missing? Turns out, it's the rational mind. Here's where sometimes you have to give yourself a talking-to. If you're braking right and visualizing the corner line correctly, and the guy in front of you in the same car can do it, and — oh yeah — you know enough to feel that the car under you can handle it, then probably you can do it too. So let's cut the shit and just do it, shall we?
And that’s the true grit one must embrace with the Black Series, with its massive grip from a set of Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s (275s in front, 325s in the rear) sticky as warm molasses, and the rotational force allowed by AMG’s super-trick, electronically controlled rear-axle differential lock. Once I know the sequence and give in to the car’s capacity, it lets me in on a little secret: I can do it. One of the best bits of advice on this comes from a fellow writer: "Dive into Turn Nine as if you’ve never seen anyone crash there.”
And so, again following Maxi’s lead, I stop scrubbing so much entry speed and dangle 128 or so into the sweeper, braking at a slight angle. Turning in, the Michelins are practically suction-cupped to the pavement, while the rear’s easy to balance on the tip of the throttle and above the safety net of ESP Sport mode. A beat passes, then another, and the turn. The SLS rotates into the apex and with a V8 blat, we’re out. A sphincter-clenching moment thawing into loose, absurd, cackling-at-the-moon fun.
It’s not perfect, but it’s better, and the car’s intact. I still don't have 8-9 completely wired down at race pace — that'll take far more track days than this East-coaster will get at Big Willow. But that little bastard, the one that insists "no, you shouldn't" when all the evidence indicates the contrary, has been silenced another day. Check, please.