184 classic cars, 25 electric, hydrogen and plug-in hybrid cars and the stunning mountains and passes in the Austrian Montafon area provided the ingredients for the 2016 Silvretta Classic and E-Auto Rallye.
We joined the E-Auto Rallye with two different but equally interesting Mercedes-Benz (hybrid) electric cars and joined the last day of the Silvretta Classic Rallye with the famous ‘Rote Sau’ Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3 AMG.
This year marks the 19th edition of the Silvretta Classic Rallye and the 7th edition of the E-Auto Rallye that tests the capabilities of various types of electric cars. The Silvretta Classic Rallye runs over three days covering 700 km across Vorarlberg, Tirol and Switzerland with a total of 19 time tests and several secret timed sections.
The E-Auto Rallye 2016 runs across two days with a total of around 200 km across Vorarlberg from the Montafon to Bregenz on the shores of the Bodensee. The E-Auto Rallye is not as competitive as the Silvretta Classic and has only 7 time tests across the two days.
Our first day starts with a small briefing in Schruns, and having done the Mille Miglia last year I had an idea of what to expect in regards to the time tests. This being an electric car rally I did expect some efficiency tests but to my surprise there weren’t any, so it is basically just a normal rally with electric cars. Running out of power would still result to penalty points though so keeping an eye on the range was recommended.
Prior to the start all participating electric and hybrid cars gathered on the main square in Schruns, Austria. Mercedes-Benz brought by far the largest fleet with everything from the full electric B-Class and SLS Electric Drive to plug-in hybrid versions of the GLC, E- and S-Class and even a Hydrogen version of the B-Class.
The cars that other teams brought included several BMW i3s, Teslas, a Fisker Karma and my personal favorite; a 1979 Volkswagen T2 bus converted to electric drive.
We received the keys to a brand new Mercedes-Benz E350e which combines a four-cylinder petrol engine with a 65 kW electric engine. This is the latest version of the Mercedes-Benz electric motors and comes paired to the new 9-speed automatic gearbox that is said to push levels of comfort and efficiency to new heights. The electric range (30 km) it delivers on paper should not be enough to cover the 79 kilometers of our journey today but we will do our best.
As we set off in full electric mode the E350e quietly does its thing. The first thing goes uphill immediately and the range quickly drops with only kilometers range to spare towards the top but on the way down it regenerates a lot of energy and by the time we get to the first time trial the range indicates 40 kilometers.
The time trial is quite straightforward; in the route book it says the distance and the time you have to complete it; per example 100 meters in 15 seconds. After some quick math we learn that we have to drive 24 km/h. The timing starts as soon as the nose of the car passes through two laser gates or the wheels drive over a line on the road. Later there is another gate where the end time is recorded. For every 100th of a second you are too late or too early you get one penalty point. The team with the least penalty points at the end of the rally wins.
We used a stopwatch that counted down to drive exactly at the desired end time across the end of the trial. That this is easier said than done showed in the rankings as we were more than half a second off on the first few trials. It made some of the results from other teams look super-human as they hit it near spot-on time after time.
The route leads across some of the nicest roads of the Montafon valley all the way up to Partenen, the last village before the famous Silvretta pass road, which is sadly not part of the E-Auto Rallye this year but is on the program for the Silvretta Classic Rallye on Thursday and Saturday. On a few occasions our route crosses that of the Classic Rallye and it is great seeing these priceless cars drive up the hills.
We finish a mere 70 kilometers later in Schruns again after five time trials. The E350e drove without the petrol engine for 50 kilometers including some downhill segments. Certainly not a bad score considering the limited battery size and the benefit of having unlimited range thanks to the petrol engine. It can go up to 130 km/h on pure electric power and go from 0-100 km/h in 6.5 seconds. The E-Class itself is like a slightly smaller, and even more advanced version of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class flagship.
On the second and last day of the E-Auto Rallye a surprise was waiting for us at the start line: a bright electric yellow Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive. For the route from Partenen to Bregenz this would be our car. The limited edition SLS Electric Drive was released in 2013 and built in a very small quantity with a price tag of over 450,000 Euro.
The four electric engines produce a combined output of 740hp and 1,000 Nm of torque. First thing you will notice when you start the SLS Electric Drive is that you hear nothing. No drama. Nothing.
The only way to tell if the car is on or off is by looking on the lights on the dashboard. Put the car in drive and you are ready to go. There are three modes: comfort, sport and sport plus. In each mode a different level of power is available – up to 60% in Comfort, up to 100% in Sport and 100% + an additional boost in Sport Plus.
I drive off the start ramp and follow the street to the main road. Here is the first chance to accelerate a bit and it puts a smile on my face instantly. This is unlike anything I have ever driven and today we will have the perfect roads for it!
Compared to the normal SLS AMG the characteristics are completely different. Not only in the way the power is delivered but also in terms of steering and handling. Steering is significantly heavier, you can feel there is something connected to the front wheels. There is a clear desire to understeer and the turning circle seems a bit worse than in the normal SLS. Having said that it might not be as dynamic as it’s petrol brother – it truly has a wow factor and gives me goosebumps as it whooshes up the mountain.
Every village we pass people stop in their track and their heads turn as we drive past with only the sound of our tires rubbing the asphalt. The color alone does a lot to its appearance. Under the bonnet all you can see is a large carbon fibre cover with just two openings to adjust the front suspension. Inside it is carbon fibre that surrounds nearly every inch of the driver and passenger. The paddles behind the wheel are carried over from the SLS AMG but since the Electric Drive accelerates from 0 to vmax without any gear changes they don’t serve a purpose anymore.
The top performance of our new vehicle also inspired our time trial performance and on the first two tests we score a joined first place with only 11 penalty points. At lunch we stop in the beautiful ski village of Damüls. The last stage is very relaxed and at lunch we have exactly 50% battery left which should be enough for the last 60 kilometers to Bregenz.
The acceleration feel of the SLS Electric Drive can best be compared to a catapult. The near instant push you feel when you dare to open the throttle fully in Sport Plus is breathtaking.
The E-Auto Rallye edition 2016 finishes at the Illwerke in Bregenz, the local energy supplier that is also one of the main partners this year. After one last time trial the award ceremony sees a BMW I8 take the trophy home to the disappointment of the Mercedes-Benz teams but there can only be one winner. We come 4th of 25 overall but most importantly we had a blast driving the E350e and especially the SLS Electric Drive across some beautiful mountain roads.
But the end of the E-Auto Rallye 2016 was not the end for me for the 2016 Silvretta yet. The next day I had the honor to drive the 1971 Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3 AMG ‘Rote Sau’ with ex-F1 driver Karl Wendlinger as co-driver as Team 22. This car marked the start of the company from Affalterbach that raises the pulse of Mercedes-Benz fans around the world: AMG!
The original Rote Sau, or Red Pig in English as its nickname is, was sold after its racing life in the 70s and no longer around but AMG built a replica that comes very close to the original – with a few differences: unlike the race car it has two seats which comes in handy during a rally where a co-driver / navigator is a must. It also has a 6.3 liter engine unlike the 6.8 liter version in the original race car.
Firing up the 6.3 liter V8 engine it rumbles to life and we are good to go. During the third day of the Silvretta Classic Rallye the weather is not as good as the previous days but since the car has no fans – let alone air conditioning – it is not that bad that it is raining a bit today. From Partenen we immediately start the ascend to the top of the Silvretta pass. A stunning toll road that connects the valley of the Montafon with the Ischgl / Galtür valley.
The 300 SEL race car has extremely wide wheels on the front which makes it a bit nervous on roads with deep tracks but Karl steers it up the Silvretta with ease. Overtaking a few slower cars the 6.3 liter engine provides a wonderful soundtrack.
The Silvretta Classic Rallye is clearly much more competitive, not only are there 184 participating teams in comparison to just 25 in the E-Auto Rallye, there are also twice as many time trials and a dozen secret time trials across the three days. Sometimes one time trial starts before the previous even ended demanding maximum concentration from driver and navigator to get a good result.
The speedometer in the Rote Sau is not accurate anymore since a recent change of gear ratios so during the time trials we can only drive on time and instinct. My feeling said we did quite alright but the times would not be announced until the evening. The next time trial was followed by two secret time trials that took us by surprise.
Despite the weather there are people watching and cheering on the Silvretta Classic as we make our way to Sankt Anton am Arlberg. The Rote Sau is clearly a fan favorite as cameras flash and young and old applaud the car.
As we climb the Arlberg pass the first bit of blue sky shows, after a morning in the rain this is more than welcome now. We stop for lunch in Stuben where we are joined by Team 21 with Klaus Ludwig, German race driver and three time Le Mans winner, and Johannes Reifenrath from Daimler. They drive a beautiful 1969 Mercedes-Benz 280 SL Pagoda which will be sold by Mercedes-Benz Classic Center after the rally.
After lunch we continue down back towards the Montafon with the 280 SL driving with the top down after lunch. Karl Wendlinger became a brand ambassador for AMG a few years ago and has a lot of passion for the vehicles from Affalterbach, it was a pleasure sharing a car with him.
After a few more time trials we finish with a drag race Silvretta Classic style in the town of Vandans. Together with team 23 we battle for the best timing over 40 meters and with just 0.140 sec of the desired time we beat them hands down. After the time trial we return to the hotel as I have to get going but later in the evening a text message reveals that our efforts were not bad at all. During the award ceremony the timings for day 3 are released and we managed to get a 31st place of 184 participating teams, not bad at all!
Special thanks to Mercedes-Benz, Mercedes-Benz Classic and the Silvretta Rally team.