Chris Harris vs the F1-engined Mercedes-AMG One
Can an F1 engine really work in a road car? Chris packed a pair of brave pants and went to the Nürburgring to find out
Somewhere within the relationship between promises and hindsight probably lurks a human truth that could rid our species of its more worrying traits. It might be presented something like this: don’t overpromise, because when you fail to deliver you will be left with two potentially paralysing choices – hold your hands up and say you were too ambitious, but that the potential glory was worth the risk of failure. Or just try to blag your way out of it. Most of us defer to the latter. What does this have to do with a Mercedes sports car? Bear with me.
Until very recently I had no expectation of ever driving the AMG One. Since upsetting the previous boss I’ve been off the Christmas card list and would be lying if I said this worried me at all. The brand is still capable of brilliance, but has recently regressed to the kind of crowd pleasing that undoes its amazing history. Then a WhatsApp message arrived from the editor saying we had five hours with the car and this could be used to make a film for the television show and a story for the magazine. The message made me smile – I have been fascinated by the One since it was first announced. A genuine attempt to put the fiendishly complicated Mercedes Formula One powertrain into a road legal supercar.
Photography: John Wycherley
There was a dash of JFK’s “we do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard” about the Mercedes announcement back in 2017, and I loved that. I still love that sitting here wondering how best to explain the confusing day I spent with the One. But there is also the suspicion that the individual who made the decision to announce a road car with an F1 engine hadn’t asked the people who actually designed the Formula One engines if such a project was even possible before making that public utterance. Given the use of a time machine, I’m not sure that individual would make the same decision again.
Because the AMG One has become an industry case study in how painful car development can be. Stories of its troubled genesis have regularly filtered into my conversations with engineers. And when you hear these stories as a car obsessive and as someone who earns a living driving and commenting on them, you have to decide whether you will scoff at the apparent arrogance of promising something and failing to deliver it on time – remember the One is three years late – and tweet about it not being fast enough. Or you double down on your belief that the large foreheaded fraternity will be able to fix anything using your personal insistence that the world is a better place with a Mercedes F1-engined supercar. For the avoidance of doubt, I’m in the second camp. I’ve already written about this – I want the One to be great.
Off to the Nürburgring, then, to join a group of people lucky enough to sample a machine that has over 1,000bhp and active front wheelarch aerodynamics. A couple of those other people are still lurking around, presumably fascinated by the comically large crew needed to make televison. I’m given a brief overview of the car’s controls by the project chief and then a crash course in the steering wheel and how you change the many chassis, powertrain and aero settings. All of which leaves me nodding confidently while inwardly thinking, “Didn’t get much of that”. The One is the most complicated car I’ve ever driven. It has so many different modes I can’t really explain them here, but they are roughly split into road and track whereupon the driver can then choose the level of performance versus battery depletion and ESP/traction intervention. There are nine settings of traction control alone and three modes of ESP. At least that’s what I’m told at the time, only to receive a message from someone a few hours after leaving the circuit telling me there was a fourth ESP setting called ‘Pro’ that might have been useful. You know a day is strange when people tell you crucial stuff about a car after you’ve finished driving it.
A quick interlude now to explain or remind just how complicated this car is. At its heart sits a 1.6-litre single turbocharged V6. The turbo is effectively split between the intake and exhaust and this allows a 121bhp electric motor to sit between input and output, this is what F1 commentators call the MGU-H and it effectively reduces turbo lag. On the back of the internal combustion engine, which produces 566bhp, is a bigger 161bhp electric motor (MGU-K, to F1 commentators) and these both drive the rear axle. Each of the front wheels has a 161bhp electric motor, which F1 commentators don’t have to worry about. Peak power is a claimed 1,049bhp and no torque figure has been published because it is too difficult to calculate. Given that half the work is undertaken by electrons, we can probably summarise it as ‘plenty’.
The basic structure of the car is made from carbon fibre, as is the bodywork. The transmission is closely related to the F1 car’s and built by Xtrac. The suspension is a complicated pushrod set-up and the car has substantial heaters to prewarm the cats before start-up. Add to this a beautifully trimmed cabin, the usual suite of Mercedes luxuries and even an electric steering column and you begin to understand how the One has bloated to 1,695kg. That isn’t enough to make its four-figure power output appear mean, but it does drag the car’s power-to-weight ratio back into the clutches of far less exotic machinery. Mercedes’ claims of 0–62mph in 2.9secs, 0–124mph in 7.0secs and a 219mph maximum still seem pretty seismic to this old man, but they make it no faster than a 765LT McLaren. Having said that, the McLaren feels uncomfortably fast at times and I’m not sure how much faster a car needs to be, nor at which point we need to judge everything by how fast it is. After all, most £2 million cars will get annihilated by a £35k motorcycle.
But back to the Nürburgring where the engineers and support crew for the One remain engaging but seem a little nervous. First up is a ducks and drakes learning session behind a GT Black Series driven by DTM legend and AMG ambassador Bernd Schneider. He tells me his tyres will take time time to warm up then immediately sets off at a pace that would probably result in a decent qualifying position in a GT3 race. There’s a lot for me to take in. I’m in street mode, no aero deployed, but I have full power available. The steering weight is delicious, the brake pedal feels weird, the noise is painful. That’s right, the car everyone thought too quiet at Goodwood is, from the inside, the loudest car I’ve ever driven – the V6 combining with all the other bits to produce something that burrows behind the eardrums into your skull. For the first half lap it makes me grin, then it hurts. The car understeers, but maybe that’s just tyre temperature. We pile down the main straight, the Black Series already holding up the hypercar. The One’s transmission is in automatic mode and as it auto blips from third to second gear the V6 just cuts and a warning flashes on the dash. I come to a stop, radio Bernd and as we exchange words the engine gargles back to life without me touching any button. Weird.
Back in the pits the laptops are out in force and some faces are grimacing. We go back out again after 10 minutes – the same thing happens halfway into the first lap when I really attack a braking zone and the engine uses all available revs for the downshift. More laptops, a bit more head scratching and then an engineer takes the car for a spin himself and rolls back with a forlorn look: “I have the same problem”. The solution I’m initially offered is to be more gentle on downshifts – but I’d been letting the car do those – how could I be more gentle? “Maybe use gears one, two, three only?” Not really interested in doing that.
“He has been driving the car much harder than the others,” says someone from Mercedes – no wonder yesterday’s super influencer is so chummy with AMG. It would seem they just potter about in cars and watch the ‘likes’ roll in.
We have the beginnings of a stand-off. A Mercedes supercar needs to be driven properly, as in flat-out. I’m not driving it at 60 per cent, that’s just pointless. Are the 275 people paying £2.3 million going to be asked to do that? A second car that was to be used for some extra shots is nominated. The TV crew reinstalls all the cameras from one to the other, which takes 30 minutes or so – that five hours to shoot a film is now two and a half. I’ve completed one fast lap of the Nürburgring GP circuit.
This, er, One, is a little more ‘development’ – a little rougher. Cameras installed I head out, this time not behind Bernd. Halfway around the first lap the car hits 90mph and a speed limiter cuts in, with a warning about aero parts coming up on the dash. Another laptop session and now some very furrowed German brows. The issue is a sensor on the rear spoiler that isn’t communicating well with some control unit – a fix is made, tested and doesn’t work. Then someone concludes that if the car runs in Race mode with all the spoilers already deployed, the speed limiter won’t need to get all shirty. And they’re right, because the car zings around an entire lap with no issues. Now there are 70 minutes to make a film. And for me to try to untangle what I think of this car that doesn’t seem to want to work properly.
Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter. Look out for your regular round-up of news, reviews and offers in your inbox.
Get all the latest news, reviews and exclusives, direct to your inbox.
Forget everything you’ve experienced from a normal super-hypercar powertrain. This may not be the fastest thing out there, but it’s intense and plain wonderful and, crucially, unique. The engine is frantic above 9,000rpm, but upchanges sound slovenly, albeit without any sense of acceleration being clipped. Turns out some KERS is deployed between changes to sustain momentum. The chassis is supple in Street mode, but firm as hell in Race. All I can prise from the car is understeer – whatever I try to do the front pushes and the rear axle seems to have crazy traction. The noise is now too invasive so I pop in some earplugs. Time to concentrate on the brakes, which have a full suite of regenerative technology in them. They really aren’t easy – the initial thump of deceleration is logical, but keeping them on the edge of the ABS from 100mph to hairpin speed is tricky. And that must have something to do with the driving position, which is just plain odd. I don’t know how a ground-up design ends up with barely enough legroom for someone 5ft 7in tall, and a bucket seat hewn from the chassis that has very little lateral support. It’s bizarre – nearly as bizarre as fitting a weedy hi-fi to the world’s loudest car. And a Bluetooth phone – I mean really, don’t even bother.
And now you’re thinking “He hates the bloody thing – he’s just trampled all over it”. You couldn’t be more wrong. I’m utterly intrigued by the AMG One. I suspect one of the most interesting and rewarding cars ever made might lurk under all that, dare I say it, not quite finished technology. ESP Pro?
I have no idea what was going on that day. Not only did I find out about other modes after the event, but I’ve now been told that a later chassis calibration eradicates all that understeer. But I can only report what I experienced. The F1 motor is beguiling, I like the way it looks, I adore what it represents and I strongly suspect that the whole five-year struggle to get the thing to this point has been so traumatic that the company just wants to deliver the cars and move on to simpler tasks. This will be remembered as one of the great automotive follies, but also one of the most fascinating machines ever made. One day I might have the chance to drive one properly and really understand it, although maybe not after writing this. Did Mercedes hold up its hands, or try and blag it? Probably a bit of both – but for the most part the AMG One confirms what I’ve always suspected – that the greatest cars aren’t always very good.