The right seat is a place where I’m not very comfortable. It just doesn’t feel right to be in a car but not calling the shots.
I am a pretty conservative driver—I don’t spin, seldom put a wheel off, and rarely even have the back end sliding. So to be riding shotgun with someone who seems to be taking more chances than I do feels edgy and uncomfortable, even slightly crazy.
But there are times in life when you have to embrace the lunacy. My opportunity came recently at Laguna Seca in California test-driving the new Mercedes AMG GT S with a group of car writers who are also all experienced track drivers.
Fourth in line, alone in the supercar, and trying to learn this challenging new track, I could not keep up with our leader and the two other journalists in front of me. Their version of a “warm-up” lap and mine were quite different, and their hot laps were blazing. I soon found myself hopelessly far behind the group.
How was I going to learn what this stupendous car was capable of if I couldn’t even get up to speed? The consequences of messing up one of the brand new cars were too great for me to throw my natural caution out the window.
A couple rounds of this was just too much. My job there was to get a feel for the car’s handling to write my review but all I was doing was trying to learn the track so I wouldn’t have a messy spin.
So if I wasn’t quite up to the car and track, why not let the expert show me? I asked Bernd Schneider to take me for a ride. He was the driver leading the super fast hot laps and is an extremely successful touring car racer who is now a Mercedes AMG “brand ambassador”.
Strapping in beside him, I noted his car was a little different from the ones we got to drive. Not only did it have a sexy green and black zebra stripe paint job, it had carbon-fibre racing seats and possibly a few extra unspecified goodies.
We peeled onto the track, followed by the three journalist cars, and by halfway through the first lap I was bracing for all I was worth. Schneider was holding nothing back.
Under full throttle we hurtled up the massive hill that leads to the infamous Corkscrew corner. Over the rise the braking forces were tremendous, throwing me into the seatbelt, then instantly sideways into the door as the car darted into the 90-degree left. As we started the rapid descent through the right-hander so precipitous you cannot see the apex, I felt a moment of weightlessness and was convinced we were going airborne.
But with a deft and firm application of throttle the car settled and accelerated down the steep hill, through the wide left-hander and 90-degree right, leveling out at the bottom.
About here, Schneider looked in the rearview and realized he’d lost his tailing group of writers. Most racers tone it down a little when’s there’s a passenger. I think he dialed it up to 11 for me.
And I appreciated it. Aside from a little nervous laughter the first time through the Corkscrew, I was mostly in awe of his driving and the car’s phenomenal speed and handling.
Maybe I’m just getting more comfortable at speed— no matter who’s at the wheel—or maybe something about Schneider’s obvious delight in what he was doing inspired me with confidence. Either way, this was a ride to remember.
Although I’m not completely sure what made the difference, riding shotgun has suddenly changed from something to fear to a chance to learn. When a pro like Schneider has the confidence in a car to throw it around the way he did with me in the right seat, you just have to trust he knows what he’s doing.
And when you are given the chance to soak up some of that skill and bravado from a close-up observation, “no” is not an option.