Oh Happy Days! Editors and addresses may change at MOTOR but the big picture does not.
So I’m en route to God knows where to analyse the most brutally powerful motor piece handy to management in circumstances totally unfamiliar to science.
Accordingly, I arrive in Melbourne without a clue as to why until Photographer Brunelli meets me at the airport with an outline of the adventure ahead and 1000Nm worth of twin-turbo V12 SL65 AMG that will take us to it.
Burbling away before us is surely the torquiest Mercedes ever made. Cristian swears the engine originally made 1200Nm but was dialled back in the interests of longevity. Of both car and driver I’m guessing. The remaining twist, however – plus 463kW at just 4800rpm – is quite enough to fascinate. If only briefly. Unless you’re commuting across the Northern Territory, naught-to-licence-loss takes less than five seconds and what happens in the remaining two-thirds of the speedometer awaits discovery by only the bravest.
That, mercifully, is not expected of us this time. We are, instead, to report on folly of an entirely different nature: the Australian Tractor Pull Championship to be held in Rokewood, 133km west of Melbourne. The first order of which is to determine who’s driving the Mercedes and that privilege goes to the one with the greatest number of currently valid licences. Cristian wins with one and, accordingly, I get to analyse life from the left.
Which is by no means dull. Indeed, adventuring is guaranteed by the pilot wearing steel-capped work boots and, from his first tap on the treadle, it’s clear even regular inhaling will require concentration.
Okay, the SL (Super Lightweight) part of the tag is a tight fit on its 1.9 tonnes but this car’s response to the throttle is still astonishing. And, in truth, the massive power on hand (or foot) is what the SL65 is all about. You could, after all, get most of the rest of it in the entry-level SL350 for half the price, but the 360km/h speedo tells you what you spent your half-a-million on.
And every assistance, including four ranges of Sport selection plus traction and suspension control is on offer to make that indulgence available for one’s savouring. For five seconds. Victoria’s noted intolerance of anarchy ensures Brunelli’s strict observance of the clock and, on lifting off with an alacrity that equally challenges breathing, he likens it to having a supermodel girlfriend who won’t let you go all the way. With any luck the rest of his road-test observations will reveal less of such longings.
Unsatisfying on a more refined level is its accompanying soundtrack. While restraint during cruising is both expected and appreciated, the melody during main course is well short of operatic. Indeed, unlike the arias from rivals, the Merc’s work-song is mechanical rather than musical. Disappointing indeed – if you can’t use the performance you should at least be able to hear it.
But these musings are replaced by an entirely new set as we roll into Rokewood in the middle of a heat wave and down a dirt trail into an unshaded paddock being ploughed level by a tractor. Surely that’s not what we’re here for.
And it isn’t. As we burble into the pit area an entirely unexpected world is revealed. There are tractors on this Earth and then there are TRACTORS! Tractors with engines beyond all belief running on tyres I had no idea existed. Tractors with airfoils for God’s sake! Tractors that tell you whatever happens here ain’t gonna be pretty. And in turn tell us why we’re here; to crash this colour-spread with the torquiest toy from the outside world.
And they’re right. From the moment we roll in we’re welcomed to join the party, commencing with a driver’s meeting that calls for an attempt at common sense and then blesses all hands with the wish of a good day’s pulling. And whilst that sentiment may be familiar in motorsport, this is clearly an uncommon variety of the game.
Born of farmers’ arguments about their tractor’s supremacy, it evolved as they tried different ways to prove it. I’m told they tied them back-to-back and nearly killed themselves wheelstanding, and raced them down the paddock, nearly rolling them over, before settling on the current format of towing an increasingly-weighted sled down a 100m course, the completion of which is called a Full Pull. But distance covered is the only scoring parameter and the burden is increased until a winner is found.
And that burden can be breathtaking. Up to 14 tonnes hauled by a span of engines, from single to multiple installations of radial or piston units, from virtually any source. The range of classes is initially bewildering but typical of the breed, all brute strength and back tyres, is the first one I see being prepared for launch. I’m told if we put our Mercedes against it over 100m, the tractor would win. Scoffing, I say we have 600 horsepower (463kW) on tap. Turns out this tractor has 2500hp (1865kW). Yep, this is the right place for MOTOR.
Another early eye-catcher is Australian Tractor Pullers Association vice president Brett Harris’s ‘Blown Income’, formally an Open Mini Modified but, to the untrained eye, an overgrown go-kart with over 2000hp (1492kW) on tap from its blown Chevy. Beautifully presented, it’s also impressively engineered, with an all-up weight, including driver, under the class limit of 900kg.
Even more ambitious is Ian Moerman, whose ‘Raptor’ is powered by three alloy Leyland/Buick V8s, together displacing some 15 litres and bragging about it through 24 open pipes screaming skywards. It is indeed an impressive effort and now only needs a 10kg driver from pre-school to make the target mass.
But towering above them all in the Open class is ‘Riverina Screamer’ created by Joe Cottam and, by any measure, a triumph of bush engineering. Cheerfully unconcerned about weight, this brute exploits the resulting traction with a Rolls-Royce Merlin V12 – of WWII Spitfire fame – displacing 27 litres, converted by Joe to DOHC and maximising improvement with two massive turbines.
And if the range of firepower is vast in this sport, so is the span of pilots. Drivers of both sexes today range in age from 16 to 74 and, to sow the seed, 8-16 year olds pull in junior competitions with ride-on mowers, limited to 16hp (12kW), fitted out with roll cages and motocross tyres. All of which reflects both the family spirit and splendid hospitality on offer as both host and visitor ogle each other’s toys and, in each case, are happy to try them on for size.
This culminates, as we wait for the show to begin, with me satisfying Cristian’s need for action shots of the Merc, the locals’ desire to see the thing in action and my own – purely scientific – interest in its driving ergonomics by trying it down the track. Several times. And so would you.
All of which merriment swiftly abates as the long sled each contender will pull is now prepared and the nature of its role becomes obvious. At the beginning of each run, the ballast is borne over its rearward wheels and, as the run progresses, this mass is winched forward to increasingly bear down on a flat-bottomed tray, thus raising the tractor’s workload throughout the run.
Elegant is an adjective which surely does not apply, as the competitors begin to fire their motors. There is no concern for niceties now and no call for silencers out here. This is a chorus of raw, rural power and, as the torque-fest begins, I subtly do the city-thing and slip earplugs in. Just in time. Because, at start of play the racket amply relays traction problems on the loose-packed surface. But with use the grip soon improves, as do feats of strength.
Notable is Blown Income’s early run, in which it takes off like the best V8 Supercar you’ve ever heard, then gets louder. It’s stunning. Enveloped in noise and dust, it keeps slogging forward, unbeaten, to register a Full Pull. Brilliant!
Next highlight is the triple-motor ‘Raptor’, which employs its own motorbike-engined contraption to start it and, trust me, you’ve not lived until you’ve heard all 24 cylinders suddenly explode into life. Even through earplugs it’s a force beyond nature. Way beyond. But not beyond the curse of dust that, dry in the aching heat, fills the air so badly driver Ian Moerman Jnr can no longer see where he’s going. Less than halfway through he aborts.
While no-one would debate that decision on safety grounds, Moerman Snr assures me it’s an uncommon one. “The three engines in ‘Raptor’ are locked together”, he tells me, “and if one breaks loose, the over-rev light comes on. But once it’s past the 60m mark we’re not backing off. We’ll let that engine throw a rod out, we’ll let it burn, and we’ll keep full throttle on. We’ll keep the boot into it. And then I’ll take it home and be very nice to the wife and raid the bank account and start building it back up again.”
No less determined to keep the show rolling, the marshals call a brief break to damp the track down, a task made no easier by an ambience of approx. 900 degrees in the shade. Except there isn’t any shade. That the ice cream man isn’t charging in gold bars shows he’s got no business sense at all but none of this concerns the ‘Raptor’ crew who blast off a second time and post a very competitive run in the high 90-metre range.
However, none of this prepares me for the mighty Merlin firing up. Twenty-four cylinders is one thing, but 27-litres is a whole ’nother. I swear, as it backs into the starting position, the earth shakes, increasing in its slamming pulse until the brute explodes from the start. Into silence.
One of the many systems that can only be checked under this load has failed. And it’s going to be hell in a heat wave to diagnose or fix. But bush engineering is as much about spirit as skill and, as the contest roars on around them, the Cottam crew labour through the afternoon until, in the last of fading light, the massive V12 finally barks back to life and powers to the start line.
Bugger it. I take my earplugs out. I’m rewarded as, just metres away, the monster erupts in a massive, Vesuvian launch and, firing vast clouds and clods into the sky, powers to a fabulous Full Pull!
Did it win? God knows. The scores are to be sorted as we leave and, in truth, that formality matters little. ‘Screamer’ has already won its biggest battle today and the other big winners have been us. Sent on a mission beyond all imagining, we have enjoyed it beyond all reason.
As we head home, the Mercedes now seems surreally civilised – stilling its engine at every stop and merely sipping fuel between them. And, as the rural road unfolds, the car invites us to contemplate the options it offers beyond the raw force that has themed this day. And I’m sure we shall on the night road ahead.
But right now Cristian has brought the SL65 AMG to a halt and is carefully pressing some buttons. We both know this is no normal road test. But, hell, for just a few, fabulous seconds.
Four out of five stars
Body: 2-door, 2-seat coupe
Engine: 5980cc V12, SOHC, 36v, twin-turbo
Bore/Stroke: 82.6mm x 93.0mm
Power: 463kW @ 4800-5400rpm
Torque: 1000Nm @ 2300-4300rpm
0-100km/h: 4.0sec (claimed)
Top Speed: 250km/h (limited)
Consumption: 11.6L/100km (claimed)
Emissions: 369g/km CO2 (claimed)
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Suspension: Multi-links, adaptive dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f); multi links, adaptive dampers, coil springs; anti-roll bar (r)
Tracks: 1597/1600mm (f/r)
Steering: electrically-assisted rack and pinion
Brakes: 390mm ventilated/drilled discs, 6-piston calipers (f); 360mm ventilated/drilled Discs, single-piston calipers (r)
Wheels: 19 x 9.0-inch (f), 19 x 10.0-inch (r)
Tyres: 255/35 ZR19 (f), 285/30 ZR19 (r) Continental ContiSportContact
Positives: Sublime ride comfort, wonderful detailing, power overload
Negatives: Sounds average, terrific thirst, for poseurs more than drivers