Face-to-face with the IWC Racing Team's iconic Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing at the 14th Arosa ClassicCar
A chilly 8°C and persistent rain made the 14th edition of the Arosa ClassicCar hill-climb both extreme and exciting. Against the splendid backdrop of the Swiss Alps, surrounded by the constant buzz of drivers, collectors, and above all hordes of enthusiasts, I was delighted to discover the IWC Racing Team's Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing.
At the 76th Goodwood Festival of Speed members' meeting in March 2018, IWC Schaffhausen announced the launch of its very own motorsport team with F1 driver David Coulthard behind the wheel of a spectacular Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing debuted during the race.
Already present in motorsports since 2013 through its partnership with the F1 team Mercedes AMG Petronas, the watchmaking brand IWC now takes a step into the classic car world by participating in select stages of the international historic racing circuit. Backed by its IWC Racing Team and the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupé, the Schaffhausen brand plunges clients, journalists, classic car buffs and thousands of enthusiasts alike into one-of-a- kind experiences.
The 14th Arosa ClassicCar hill-climb
Late August marks the start of the famous Arosa ClassicCar Graubünden Alpine hill-climb. Participants cover a route of 7.3 kilometers, which twists its way from the village of Langwies to the Arosa ski resort, located at an altitude of 1775 meters. The main route taken by the race meets all the protection standards for the hosting of such an event.
The track contains no less than 76 bends and an altitude difference of 422 meters. It's quite a climb, and I was lucky enough to ride in the passenger seat next to Karl Marti who was at the wheel of a 705 HP car. It's a short, albeit seat-gripping, 5 minutes 40 seconds long. The film may not be up to Steve McQueen’s Bullitt standards, but let's just say I had to hang on to my iPhone throughout the ride.
The Arosa ClassicCar 2018 hill-climb: Marco Gabella occupies the passenger next to Karl Marti
The cars do not parade as they do in a Concours d’élégance; instead they compete in the actual race. When you think of the cost of some of these classics, it makes the stakes even more formidable. These historical races have a risk-taking element about them that spurs the owners of such beautiful machines into competing and (sometimes) crashing these great vehicles. Undertaking such a feat has a whiff of heroism about it, but, most of all, it makes you want to indulge in their passion and to see these legendary cars given a "new life."
The Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing driven by the IWC Racing Team
My first encounter was a virtual one, namely on the Instagram account of the supremely talented, Ted Gushue, which I stumbled upon the morning of the first day's racing for the spectacular 1955 Mercedes 300 SL coupé Gullwing driven by the IWC Racing Team. I'll leave you to imagine how Ted managed to handle this classic motor car.
Back in the IWC Racing Team paddock, I discover not one, but two, Mercedes 300 SL Coupés. The first is the one generally used by the IWC Racing Team for events and publicity stunts. Its restoration and upkeep were entrusted to HK-Engineering, a workshop founded by Hans Kleissl, aka the "architect" of the magical Mercedes 300 SL, both in the Coupé and Roadster versions. A renowned collector, this classic car enthusiast set up a vast garage space back in 1984 dedicated solely to this particular Mercedes model. It comprised various specialist workshops ranging from mechanics to upholstery and employs no less than 40 people.
The second 300 SL Coupé in the IWC Racing paddocks captured to a greater extent its original state thanks to a partial restoration that retains the red leather upholstery of the time with the contrasting iconic silver grey color of the Mercedes competition cars.
With a production run of 1,400 units between 1954 and 1957, the Mercedes- Benz 300 SL Coupé is undeniably the sports car most ahead of its time. In the early 1950s, Daimler-Benz witnessed a growth in its activity and nurtured a dream of returning to motorsports. The decision gave rise to a racing programme, which aimed to rival the new Ferraris. The latest technological developments applied to the Mercedes offered Daimler-Benz overwhelming supremacy on the track.
Barely a year after the racing programme was introduced, the expertise acquired thus far led to the making of the legendary l Mercedes 300 SL Coupé. In a music analogy, I am put in mind of Pink Floyd's legendary live performance of Dark Side of the Moon. Likewise, the Gullwing was the culmination of many visionary refinements, and innovations gleaned out on the track. In a bid to reduce its weight and enable the use of the old 3.3-litre engine, the makers opted for a welded tube chassis weighing in at just under 82 kg. This architecture made it obligatory to design roof-hinged doors, literally cut out of the car's body. Having an aluminum body, the 300 SL Coupé weighed only 1,295 kg with a 215 hp engine, which enabled it to reach the giddying speed of 240 Km/h, phenomenal for the time.
Interview with Karl Wendlinger, IWC Racing Team driver
Competing in the IWC Racing Team for the 14th edition of the Arosa ClassicCar race was Karl Wendlinger. I had the chance to sit down for a brief chat with the Austrian professional driver, who first made a name for himself in the F1 world in the early 1990s. He belongs to the new young generation of drivers, who took over the reins in motorsports, notably competing in endurance racing with the Sauber-Mercedes C11, including Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Mauro Baldi, and Jean-Louis Schlesser. He is currently an ambassador for Mercedes-AMG and driver with the IWC Racing Team.
MG: Why did you join the IWC Racing Team?
KW: It all came about quite naturally. For many years (Editors's note: since 2004), IWC has been working in partnership with Mercedes AMG, for whom I'm an ambassador. Having been on track on several occasions and in contact with the brand and its clients, naturally, I was delighted to accept the invitation to join the IWC Racing Team.
MG: How do you feel when you're driving a car as legendary as the Mercedes 300 SL Coupé?
KW: Basically, when you're in the driving seat, you don't think much about legends. It's an extraordinary vehicle to drive, even though standards have evolved these days. But what with the racing conditions up in the mountains, the rain and the aquaplaning, it's not much about enjoying yourself (laughs), you tend to stay focused on arriving at the top.
MG: What's your view of Formula 1 today?
KW: It's all far more technical. Obviously, it still all hinges on the driver, no question about it. But technology has changed the relationship between the engineers and the driver. In my time, the driver was more involved in the fine- tuning adjustments, because telemetry was not so advanced.
Finishing in 7th place at the Arosa ClassicCar 2018, Karl Wendlinger put up a great performance behind the wheel of the IWC Racing Team's Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing. After the race, the friendly driver exchanged a few kind words with the public and guests, and was more than happy to share his racing experiences and anecdotes.
Watches and cars at the Arosa ClassicCar 2018
During the event, we were able to snap a few IWC models on the wrists of the drivers and get a few shots in-situ of the spectacular IWC Racing Team's Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupé.
IWC asked Mathieu Bonnevie to cast his expert filming eye over the car and driver and snap a few candid shots on the hoof. The results were pure magic…