Stage coach - Classic Adelaide

It's Saturday morning at the Classic Adelaide tarmac rally, and an overly keen competitor (who shall remain nameless) in a Ferrari 360 Challenge rips into a right-hander "a bit too hot". Out steps the tail, then in goes the nose as the Fezza ends up impaled into a tree.

More embarrassed than disconsolate, the driver remarks to the attendant crash crew that rather than allow his "brain fade" to end his weekend, he'd simply select another Ferrari from his collection and come back on Sunday. Out comes a 250 Lusso, and it's on with the job.

This illustrates the unflappable spirit of the participants - typically around 200 of them - who each year head to South Australia to fang their fine cars on some of the country's best roads. Some take it very seriously and are earnestly going for victory, while others are simply there to enjoy themselves. The magical motoring menu features many of the usual suspects plus a few curios. The likes of Porsche, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, Maserati, Ferrari, BMW, and Lotus are all well represented, along with the odd De Tomaso and Jensen ... all copping an unholy belting.

Wheels is here as a guest of Mercedes Australia. We'll cycle through a handful of V8-engined, AMG-tuned Mercs, a day at a time. In this nanny nation, where political correctness and speed limits are enforced with an uncommon zeal, how sweet it is to get the nod to smoke the bags and, within reason, tear up the tarmac on both sides of the double-yellows.

We're in the untimed Thoroughbred Tour category, meaning our aim is to have fun rather than stress about trying to win every stage. Our eminent team-mates for the event are Sir Jack Brabham, piloting an SLK55 AMG roadster, and former Formula One and Indy Car racer Vern Schuppan, steering an SL63 AMG.

Arriving fashionably late for the last two of four days will be five-time world motorcycle champ, Mick Doohan, these days as happy on four wheels as he always was on two. Like us, Mighty Mick will sample some of the most spectacularly sporty cars ever to roar out of Stuttgart.

Sharing my four AMG brutes is co-driver Lauren, a greenhorn in the world of CAMS officials, rally controls and special stages, with a slender driving portfolio barely extending beyond urban commuting at the wheel of her trusty Toyota Echo.

In this case, 'co-driver' is a literal term. The loose plan, unless intuition and anxiety signals a revision of our approach, is that she will spend some time at the wheel each day, initially on the liaison stages but, if I'm comfortable and still alive, we may, perhaps, let her loose on a special closed-road competitive stage.

The question uneasily posed and yet to be answered is whether a modern, hi-po car with a colossal amount of power and torque is safe in the hands of a neophyte more accustomed to 60kW/121Nm at the front wheels.

Before we go any further, let's confront the nepotism issue. Yes, Lauren Susannah McKay is my daughter. She's 24, an interior designer who has next to no interest in cars or driving. With family (unfortunately for her) I can be more brutal and less diplomatic with my instructions. There may be no time for niceties.

On the first day, we're starting at the upper end of the Merc range, in terms of grunt and price, driving a $401,235 SL63 AMG with its 386kW and 630Nm of ripping V8 power. This car is worth more than Lauren's Sydney apartment. No pressure, then. Someone at Mercedes-Benz clearly has a sense of humour. At the start, we're lined up behind Schuppan's similarly gleaming, yet sinister black model.
Vern has a reputation for going hard, and, being Adelaide born, putting his home-ground advantage to good use.

The SL's stability control comes in three levels - fully on, Sports mode and fully off. I take the cautious middle option on the opening special stage. Lauren gets into the spirit of things, calling the hazards and tight corners and midway through the stage I hear a "woo-hoo" when I light up the SL's rear tyres out of a hairpin.

At the end of the stage, Schuppan and I confer. "I'm turning the ESP completely off," Vern says. "It'll be easier to flick out the tail in the slower corners." I defer to his wisdom, and for the rest of the day we have a great time playing with oversteer and wheelspin. It's mainly a blur of languid transport stages followed by a countdown and a mad tyre-smoking blast through eight wonderful specials. Lauren's loving it and happily calling the cautions and other hazards noted in the road book. She's ecstatic when I let her take the wheel on the easy journey back to town at the end of the day.

The field of entrants is remarkable for its diversity - of cars and drivers. Mixed among the rich world champions and wealthy business titans are ordinary folk with a passion for sporty cars and grand roads. Adelaide's Craig Haysman did the Classic Adelaide the previous year in his Falcon GT-HO, with pal Neil Gibson, but the pair failed to finish. They're back with a target of getting to the end on Sunday afternoon. "Just being able to drive fast on roads we normally motor on around here is pretty special," says Haysman.

At the end of the opening day, the serious Classic Tour class seems to be a tight battle between previous winner Kevin Weeks and NSW wheat farmer Bill Pye, both in Porsche 911 RSs, Ian Wilson in a Triumph TR7 V8, Jim Richards in an '88 Porsche 944 Turbo Cup and pet-food king Tony Quinn in a Ford Sierra 500.

For the second day, we're in the muscular C63 Estate. This must be one of the world's great Q cars - a luxo hot-rod offering ample room for prams and pets. With 336kW and 600Nm channelled through a seven-speed auto, it gets the same mechanicals as its saloon sibling. It also benefits from Merc's new three-stage ESP system, which, in its least intrusive 'Sport' mode, allows for a fair amount of sideways stuff before intervening.

The weather looks threatening as we hit Coromandel, a great stage to kick off the day. Merc's flamboyant PR chap, David McCarthy, has given express instructions to leave a couple of fat liquorice strips any time there are spectators to entertain. Well David, they're your tyres. We turn off the ESP and light up those 19s for a noisy, smoky departure.

Dynamically, there doesn't appear to be any discernible difference between the wagon and sedan variants. However, the load lugger is 0.1sec slower zero-100km/h than the saloon's 4.5sec, due to the extra 65kg it totes.

The varying weather, with damp and greasy patches on the bitumen, and the challenging nature of today's route, catches out some - there are three rollovers on the 13th stage, Hindmarsh Falls Reverse. Mercifully, no-one is hurt.

Between stages there's time to chat to other competitors. In an older, scruffy-but-quick Nissan GT-R are Matthew Sims and his dad, Dennis. It's their first motor racing event of any kind. "It's been fantastic, and I'm glad that Matthew is driving," says Dennis, obviously a gent of impressive faith. The car is a kosher GT-R but with a single blower.

"I intended to use it for drag racing," explains Matthew.

It consequently has a bit of turbo-lag, but is still damned quick. "It's just an unbelievable experience. The people have been really friendly, and the roads are amazing," adds Dennis.

Mick Hone, the former motorcycle champ (and co-driver for Peter Brock when he crashed and died in Targa West in 2006), is sharing the driving of a classic Ferrari Daytona with the car's owner Ray Delaney. Hone is having a coffee at the end of a long, sporadically wet day; he looks like a train wreck and explains that the Daytona, not blessed with power steering, is no sweet thing to drive. "And the deal seems to be that Ray drives it when the weather is good and I get to drive it when it's wet..." The wipers, Hone grumbles, work only when they feel like it.

Day Three. Mick Doohan has jetted in overnight in his Cessna Citation and, as becomes quickly apparent, he isn't one to hold back, neither on the lurid burnout starts, nor on the passage through the stages. Meanwhile, Lauren and I have moved on to the CLK63 AMG. With 354kW/630Nm underfoot, it's got better numbers than the C63 and it feels livelier and more compact. I love the CLK, despite the fact it's the only Merc available to us with a stability system that can't be turned off.

Between stages, Lauren disappears into the bushes for a nature stop. "I can't believe how many times I've needed to go to the toilet," she remarks as she jumps back into the passenger seat and belts up. It's called nerves, dear.

The poor weather arrives for the Kersbrook stage, and we have a great time sliding around as much as the ESP allows. We even catch up with the C63 Estate, its driver courteously waving us through. Near the end of the stage Lauren mischievously suggests we quickly swap seats when we get to control, so that my fellow journo in the wagon thinks he's just been overtaken, in the wet, by a slip of a gal with little experience. "Um, we'd better not. Don't wanna be responsible for a suicide," I tell her.

It's still drizzling when we start the famed Norton Summit. Damn. More skating with the stars. Suddenly, we're confronted by frantic spectators urgently flagging us down. Something nasty's happened, I think to myself. And sure enough a red '68 E-Type, a glorious hardtop example that we'd admired earlier, has had a slide, clouted an earth bank and flipped onto its roof. Doohan is already out of his car, offering assistance. One occupant has crawled free; the other is still trying to extricate himself. No injuries, but the car is, ahem, no longer pristine.

There are more great driving roads in the afternoon. Lauren is an ideal passenger, too naive to be scared. On some stages, I tell her to toss aside the road book and just enjoy it. We later enjoy a wonderful evening at Magill Estate, home of the Penfolds Grange and, yes, we did have a few sips of the '95 vintage. Purely in the interests of research, you understand.

It's the C63 AMG sedan for us on the final day but Lauren is offered the chance to do a stage sitting alongside, and calling the notes for, Doohan in the C63 Estate. In a heartbeat, she's belting up alongside the former motorcycle champ. So much for blood being thicker than a brush with fame. Multi-tasking, she calls the notes while videoing Mighty Mick at the wheel throughout the 7.8km stage. Sliding around a corner near a spectator point, Doohan observes drily: "People have nothing to do if they can sit on the side of the road all day and look at cars."

Later, there's a hold up at Paris Creek for the most bizarre of reasons: there is a report of someone firing shots along the route. We sit tight for a bit until the all-clear is given, then to celebrate the lack of gunfire (friendly or otherwise) up ahead, Doohan gives the spectators the longest, snakiest, most spectacular departure from control. His tyre smoke is still hanging in the air when we take off 30 seconds later.

The final day is significant for one other thing - to give Lauren the chance to drive the special stage called Chapel Hill. Having been briefed that the slightest of scratches on the C63 will mean removing her from the will, long-term alienation from her male parent and shame being heaped upon the McKay family, she calmly pulls on the helmet and adjusts her seat and mirrors. "Is the ESP on?" she asks, sounding like a kid looking for reassurance that the training wheels are fixed to her bike. That's a definite affirmative.

The control official counts her down. She sucks in a big breath. There's a lot of sweaty tension in the cabin, but it's mainly on my side. We take off. Lauren uses the road sensibly, apexing in roughly the right places and using her noggin over the blind crests. She backs off appropriately when the needle hits 130km/h. Alongside, I'm all unruffled serenity as I whisper instructions at roughly 140 decibels. "Easy ... easy ... EASY! Brake ... BRAKE! Good."

"Cool it, dad. Take a Valium," she mutters subversively.

Actually, through my discomfort, I note she's quite smooth and apparently quick enough. The hot-rod Nissan GT-R behind us didn't sight us on the stage, which suggests she wasn't hanging around. Smiles all round then, especially from Bill Pye, who is declared the winner of the outright Classic Tour category.

Sadly for Bill, the smile was well and truly wiped off his face 10 days later when the victory was overturned on appeal and local Kevin Weeks, who'd led for much of the event, was named the winner. Weeks had stopped to help out a fellow competitor who'd crashed on one of the stages, but after informing the officials about what had happened, they gave him a new time which elevated him to first. That's the Classic Adelaide Rally for you, surprising right to the end ... and beyond.

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