Picking up a Porsche 911 R, Touring Mercedes-AMG, and Nürburgring Hot Laps: Playing Collector for the Weekend
Mega-collector Andrew Zalasin had the Porsche factory customize his rare new 911 R. I went along for the ride—and hit another couple bucket-list stops along the way.
Right after Porsche made the controversial decision to turbocharge its entire 911 model range, the wünderkind engineers in Stuttgart blunted the blow with another, happier announcement: The company would produce an ultra-limited-edition, lightweight 911 R with a naturally-aspirated 4.0-liter six cylinder, rear-wheel drive, and 500 horsepower. Of course, the entire allotment was snapped up by the Porschephiles basically upon announcement.
So I made a call to my friend and co-conspirator in all things high-end automotive, Andrew Zalasin, a man with extensive knowledge and deep connections in the exotic and high-performance world. Zalasin is a longtime venture capital guy who made his bank on investments in a number of now-household-name tech companies; most recently, he's teamed up with Porsche's former head of R&D, a pioneering Silicon Valley engineer, and a former Fortune 50 CEO to establish AutoFund Ventures, a fund focusing on investing in innovative transportation start-ups. Zalasin has a collection to make any speed junkie envious—there are few contemporary supercars he doesn't own—but he's also remarkably generous with and unpretentious about his sheetmetal. And so, my not-so-simple request: I knew he was going to score the new 911 R, I knew he'd have the factory customize it, and I wanted to tag along when he accepted delivery.
"Absolutely!” was his generous (and laudably succinct) answer.
Experiencing the VIP Treatment at Zuffenhausen
Fast-forward several months after the initial phone call to Zuffenhausen, Germany, Porsche engineering's Ground Zero. My husband, Bob, and I arrived a day ahead of Andrew and his partner, Monique, and we therefore had the guilty pleasure of assuming his role as a Porsche VIP—at least for an evening.
I picked up a bright blue 911 4S Cabriolet press car at the factory. From there, we headed to the Schlosshotel Monrepos, 15 minutes away. Porsche had apologized to Andrew that their usual favorite hotels for VIPs were all full that night. We lowered our expectations—needlessly, as it turned out.
The hotel was set on 250 hectares of rolling land that included a palace, a lake, and equestrian trails. After settling into our minimalist, wood- and marble-swathed suite, we sauntered across to the 150-year old castle where the hotel’s formal restaurant, Gutsschenke, is located. The avante-garde French cuisine has already earned one Michelin star for 2017, and 16 points in the prestigious Gault & Millau guide. We dined like thieves on the likes of venison with porcini and pickled peach with Champagne-lavender ice cream.
The next morning, we packed up the Cabrio and shot back to the factory. Andrew and Monique met us in the lobby of the VIP customer delivery center—as it turns out, not an easy place to locate—where an expert led us up a flight of stairs and into the hand-over gallery.
As we entered, Andrew’s black-on-black 911 R made itself known immediately. The matte black stripes conjured a stunningly fresh take on the R's "normal" livery, with red wheels (evocative of Andrew’s 1973 Carrera RS) highlighting the yellow brake calipers that are Porsche's signal that carbon-ceramic brakes are present. It's a one-of-a-kind for Porsche—so much so, in fact, that the company commissioned a limited run of 500 1/16 scale die cast models for sale through their Exclusive shop.
Even for a guy who can own pretty much anything he wants, the expression on Andrew's face was priceless, somewhere between the look a father gives his newborn child and the moment a guy figures out his blind date is a supermodel.
Our delivery specialist wasted no time in taking photos of Andrew and Monique with the car, and then presented Andrew with the key. He climbed inside the houndstooth-upholstered cockpit (everything is about weight savings) and fired it up. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the other delivery cars on either side of the R—one a Macan Turbo and the other a Carrera 4S—and their respective new owners startling at the R’s raucous snarl.
The custom matte-black stripes and red wheels weren’t the only touches the factory added at Andrew's request. He also opted for the single-mass flywheel that, in addition to the magnesium roof and carbon-fiber hood, sills, and front fenders (as well as the lack of radio, nav, or air conditioning), further reduced the weight to just under 3,000 lbs. With 500 horsepower and 338 lb-ft on tap and a six-speed manual to hand, this extra-light 911 R is an old-school fire-breather in a thoroughly modern suit of armor.
After a few minutes, the delivery expert reappeared and handed Andrew a presentation box containing a hardcover book with his photo already embedded.
Porsche VIP customers are treated to a three-course lunch at a private dining room across from the factory museum, but like most Type As, Andrew wanted to get out and drive. So we jumped into our respective Porsches (my blue Cabrio reminding me that, nice though it is, all Porsches are most definitely not created equal) and away we raced, Andrew in the lead, the R making unholy noises that shattered the surrounding stillness.
Inside Mercedes's Bonkers AMG Division
This part of Southern Germany, like the Bologna area of Italy, is brimming with high-end automotive talent—Porsche and Mercedes are here, with an Audi factory to boot. From Porsche we went straight to AMG, Mercedes’s in-house performance arm in the hamlet of Affalterbach, a mini-industrial park surrounded by farmland, just 15 minutes from Stuttgart.
Andrew unabashedly parked the R right under AMG’s banner sign; people poured out of the surrounding buildings to take photos. In Germany, all great cars are appreciated, brands be damned. We were met by AMG executive Roland Geistlinger, who graciously offered us an insider’s view of what makes AMG so incredible.
We first toured the customization boutique, and a workshop filled with semi-completed G 500 4x4 Squared vehicles. In another building we found the surgically sterile engine shop, where we met Mike Kübler, the engineer responsible for lovingly hand-building customer and factory race-ready powerplants—as well as the incredible twin-turbo V12 that moves the Pagani Huayra.
Our nearby hotel for the night was a four-star boutique facility with five guest rooms, a private park, wine cellar, and an indoor pool. The caretaker checked us in, then handed over the front door key and left for the night. Upon Andrew’s insistence, Bob and I took the master suite. I felt vaguely guilty. (It didn't last.)
In the mood for comfort food, the four of us drove into town for a quick pizza dinner, then returned to the empty hotel. We found the switches that activated a starry constellation of pinlights over the pool, opened some wine, and began some serious “training” for the next day, when we were scheduled to put in some hot laps on the world-famous Nürburgring.
Touring the Green Hell
After a breakfast feast, we packed up and took off, Andrew and Monique in front—a sight I was growing accustomed to—windows down (AC adds weight), and engine rasping and screaming (who needs a radio?). We hit the Autobahn and ran hard all way to the ‘Ring, transforming all the cars we passed into a colorful blur. Bursts of rain made the left-lane sprint exciting at times, but no one lifted.
Everywhere we stopped, even when parked in a sea of other Porsches, Germans surrounded the R, knowing a rare beast when they spotted one. My Cabrio? Not so much.
We arrived in the historic town of Nürburg at dusk, in the rain. From our rooms in the Hotel am Tiergarten, less than a mile from the entrance to the ‘Ring, we could hear the wails and whines of all manner of machines, all trying to have their way with the largest public racetrack on earth. (The 'Ring has 12.9 miles of impeccably-maintained course, which anyone can drive during the frequent open-lapping days for around $35 a lap.) Night fell along with more rain, and we opted for an early dinner at the hotel’s Pistonklause restaurant, where you can search the thousands of signatures on the walls to find Ayrton Senna’s, among countless other greats.
The next morning, we were all up early; it was a holiday in Germany, so we figured we’d hit the circuit before last nights’ revelers awoke.
There’s an adrenaline-induced frisson I always feel when I’m about to get on a track. That morning, having rained all night, even the tentative sun wasn’t enough to warm the chilly air or dry the wet areas of the ‘Ring, so my heartrate was even higher than usual. We got to the ticket office, bought ten laps each, and proceeded to the starting gate.
Andrew took the R out for a series of warm-up runs. I followed behind him, trying to remember the numerous curves, curbs and elevation changes the ‘Ring is famous for. Finally, we met up in the parking lot at pit-out, and the moment came: “Ready to drive?” Andrew asked, dangling the R’s key.
I slid behind the wheel, getting whistles and thumbs-up from the gathered crowd; apparently even in Germany seeing a woman on track is still a novelty. Andrew jumped in next to me, Snapchat at the ready. I adjusted myself in the hard bucket seat, tested the gear pattern, dropped it in first and edged through the crowd to the track entrance.
“It’s still damp in places,” Andrew said, the only sign of paternal worry he showed.
I immediately felt the epic chasm between the capable Cabrio in which I had been lapping and the R. The rare, lightweight 911 eagerly charged into corners with razor precision and immediate response. The car’s balance and agility were astonishing—and intoxicating. I pushed it harder, Andrew encouraging from the right seat. The six-speed manual snicked through the gears easily, the short throws making each movement seamless. After a few laps, we pitted unscathed—to more hoots from the thick crowd. I reluctantly relinquished the left seat to Monique for her laps of the vaunted Green Hell. It was clear from the grin on Andrew’s face that he derives nearly as much joy from watching others experience his cars as he does driving them himself.
After a few more laps, it was time to say good-bye to Andrew, Monique, and the handsome R, which had stolen my heart and my senses. I had fooled myself into believing for a moment that it was somehow mine. But it wasn’t, and in a blink Bob and I were back in the blue Cabrio, driving back to reality. Funny how quickly a brilliant, $125,000 sports car can suddenly seem slow and imprecise.
All images courtesy of Alok Paleri.