What It’s Like Driving a $2 Million Mercedes in a Rally Race
(Bloomberg) -- If you want to know what your relationship is made of, brave a car rally with your significant other.
Rallies, loosely, are multiday competitions made up of 10-, 12-, or 14-hour drives set according to a spiral-bound notebook and multiple km counters, timers, and stopwatches like the kind your dad’s track coach used. They can stretch up to 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), and some cross multiple continents. And, as is often the case with international travel, they tend to bring to the surface what’s already lying underneath. For better or worse.
It would be my first attempt at this type of car racing, and my boyfriend’s, too. It also marked roughly a year since we’d started dating, and his birthday to boot. More than one person who helped us prepare told me a little too gleefully, “I’ve seen couples in tears by the end of it!”
We joined 200 other vintage vehicles—everything from a 1980s-era G-Wagen to 1970s-era Porsche 911s and prewar Bentleys—to cover 800 kilometers over three days of mountain passes and bovine-dotted pastures. And we did it having arrived the night before on a red-eye from New York and subsequent three-hour drive into the Alps.
Rule of thumb No. 1: If you want to try a rally, give yourself at least a day to acclimatize to your new location and sleep off some jet lag.
As you’d imagine, that left scant time to familiarize ourselves with the opaque rulebook (me) and the multimillion-dollar car (him).
But oh, what a car. The Mercedes-Benz Classic Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, lent us a 1955 Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing for the race. With a hulking black two-seat body and black interior, blacked-out hubcaps, and those famous doors opening skyward, this was a car to love. With a roaring six-cylinder engine and numbed brakes that responded if, you know, they felt like it in that moment, it was also a car that required total focus and a deft touch to drive.
Our plan was that he would take the wheel—Magnus drives better than anyone I know—and I would navigate and handle the time book. If you asked me who had the harder job, I would say I don’t know. On the one hand, he was solely responsible for piloting a 3,000-pound metal art object on hundreds of the world’s tightest hairpin turns (did I mention standard auction prices for these puppies hover near $2 million?) in rain and heat and fog so heavy it felt like a chain mail suit.
He had to maneuver a wide beast with no power steering through tight Austrian parking lots and up tiny single-lane streets filled with BMW M1s, Jaguar E-Types, and Mercedes Pagodas, not to mention dozens of Lycra-clad cyclists climbing the Alpine roads, their faces twisted in oxygen-debt anguish. One false move could mean a totaled Gullwing, or worse.
Sometimes his hands got so sweaty from the July heat that they slipped on the steering wheel. Other times the rain beating inside the car soaked his pants and shirt. Magnus is a tall man who’s taken to wearing a cowboy hat, so the additional space issues were no treat, either: Every time he got in and out, the steering wheel on the 300 SL had to be detached and swung up so he could get his knees underneath it.
On the other hand, I had to sort my way through a spiral-bound route book filled with indecipherable hieroglyphics (German) lined in columns next to kilometer distances and to-the-second time trial numbers that might as well have been a bowl of Frosted Flakes for my purposes. This was our literal road map for the next three days, denoting directions to the specific points where we had to check in and get an officiant’s stamp, or hit a certain time that we had to figure out depending on the hour, minute, and second of our start. For instance, each day was broken up into stages, and we had, say, 87 minutes to complete the first stage from the time of our start to a small Austrian town 85km away. The second stage might be 130km to be completed in 121 minutes, and so on.
Then there were the special timed segments of each rally—maybe three or four per day, set at random places along our route—where for a distance of, say, 100 meters, or up to 9,000 meters, we had to make a certain time. That’s where the stopwatches came in—I counted the seconds out loud as we cruised forward.
Without Google Maps or online navigation, which were useless anyway because we had to follow a specific route going a specific speed, one wrong turn would severely hamstring our progress. That is, if we even realized we’d made a wrong turn. The true danger was driving for miles out of our way without realizing it, obliterating any hope of reaching our goal time and destination. (For safety, every car had a black-box transponder tucked inside, so if we got seriously lost in the mountains, someone could find us. If it came to that, we’d have bigger problems than hitting our mark.) Sometimes we’d see other cars in the rally, up ahead or turning behind us; we saw some take wrong turns multiple times and determined to focus only on our own progress.
As anyone who’s driven with a significant other in a strange city—or even just in rush-hour traffic—knows, giving and following directions can be … tense. Lord knows I’m not perfect at following even Google Maps. Reading directions in German off a notebook felt like trying to interpret Morse code.
Rule of thumb No. 2: Request instructions in English, or whatever language is easiest for you.
The first morning of the race was exciting. Hundreds of people—a handful of whom wore lederhosen—packed the tiny town to watch us leave. They ate long sausages on white bread and waved red and blue flags at the starting line while some sort of music blared in the background—I can’t, for the life of me, remember what kind. I think I was in a zone, too focused on not messing up the start.
Each car commenced a rolling basis at 30-second intervals from the starting line. Since we had No. 25, we found ourselves most often positioned between Car 23—a red Mercedes 1960s coupe commandeered by a tanned Italian man and a jolly British writer—and Car 26—an ivory G-Wagen driven by what might as well have been Ernest Hemingway’s twin. Car 24 was a green Mercedes sedan with a silent couple of indeterminate relationship who often took the aforementioned wrong turns. (Yes, most of the people involved in the rally were European men, though a handful of women drove or navigated.)
At the opening meal prior, Magnus and I had wondered about all those calculators and sticky tabs and special clocks that many of the other entrants sat hunched over, muttering to each other in German between bites of veal. Could they really be so vexing?
We soon found out.
Turns out you can figure out most of the distances and times you need to hit before even starting the race, which saves time and confusion while on the course. Who knew?! We discovered it the hard way, after I failed to start a timer that would set the day’s pace and then had to rush some quick calculations on the back of a notebook to sort us out.
Rule of thumb No. 3: Most mistakes on a rally are minor and correctible. Just go with it.
I’m happy to report that the bulk of our driving, even from the start, remained uneventful. The average speed required to hit our goals usually stayed around 40 mph, which left enough time and space to decipher the road book before making a wrong turn. We drove past caramel-colored cows chewing cud in the road and children cheering as we crossed train tracks. In between timed stages, we ate at designated stops at mountain resorts plentiful in fresh bread and cheese and cold cuts (no beer or wine, since … driving). We saw ancient Swiss castles and hopscotched the border a few times at Lichtenstein. We played Johnny Cash and Oasis on a tiny Bluetooth speaker we charged each night before driving.
There were minor mishaps: The windshield wipers quit the morning of our second day, which was especially ironic because that’s when it rained. And we’d happened to start that day with the windows out. (The side windows in the Gullwing are panels that you store in the back of the car and must latch either completely in or out—they don’t roll up and down.) Suffice to say, we got wet. It was great.
In fact, such inconveniences illuminated the most about us: two strong-willed, natural-born competitors who, it turns out, are also soft enough inside to hold kindness, freedom, and a sense of adventure as even higher ideals than being right, being first, or being perfect. Minor discomforts and uncertainties are so much smaller than the overall journey—and I’m not just talking about the rally. We were focused on a much bigger picture.
That said, yes, we nearly ran out of gasoline in the middle of the second day, an error that occurred because we had taken the car out “for photos” (joyriding) after the end of our first stage the day before. That was a rookie move—gas stations in rural Austria are not plentiful. And we sped past wood shops and cafes we would have liked to explore.
Rule of thumb No. 4: If you like to see new places at your own speed, and follow the wind wherever you like, don’t do a rally.
These suckers keep your nose to the grindstone, er, stopwatch, for the bulk of the day, after which you’ll be so stiff from hours in the car that the only thing you’ll want to do is stretch out on a plank.
Which brings me to our biggest savior of all: We made time to decompress each night in the hotel sauna, a treat with the practical application of soothing tired muscles and allowing us to reconnect as we dissected the day’s events. The myriad steam rooms, saunas, and hammam-style baths of the Löwen Hotel nestled at the base of the Montafon Alps provided this respite.
Now, demanding rallies like Mille Miglia will not afford the time for this, but the total times required for Silvretta were not exceptionally fast—the emphasis was to have fun. If you can find the time and space for an evening bath and tea on rallies that do, it does wonders in prep for the next day.
Rule of thumb No. 5: Do as much self-care as you can on these things, such as applying sunscreen and drinking lots of water and doing yoga or getting massaged before and after. You’ll do better if you feel good.
At the final stage of the last day of the rally, we all pulled back into the tiny town of Montafon and drank cold beer, glad-handing one another with grins and lots of photo ops. Then we rode up a steep gondola to a lodge high atop a mountain, complete with a big dinner served by ladies in dirndls and more cold beer and lots of cheering. There were even men playing horns like the kind in the Ricola commercials.
The results? Magnus and I finished in the middle of the pack. I’m pretty sure we were more thrilled than the winners.
Next year we want to try the Mille Miglia—in that Italian summer we won’t need those windshield wipers, anyway.
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