Coffee with CAR: an interview with Tobias Moers

Published: 26 May 2020

► Coffee with Moers in Affalterbach
► Just months before his switch to Gaydon
► A snapshot of AMG's plans

Tobias Moers is now the CEO of Aston Martin, replacing Andy Palmer in the hotseat at Gaydon. It marks the end of a six-year tenure for Palmer, but also the ending of an almost thirty-year partnership for Moers and AMG. Earlier this year, we spoke to Moers in Affalterbach. 

A single word to describe AMG’s cars, particularly when you shut down the nannying electronics and switch through the drive modes from benign to brave? The barrage of noise. The giddying, almost hyperactive agility. Lateral grip to re-arrange your organs.  Towering power, at once smooth and furious like the face of a 100ft wave. And that almost granular, explicitly mechanical quality that all AMGs share. 

An interview with Tobias Moers - pre Aston

In a single word? Intense. A single word to describe CEO Tobias Moers, 25 years an AMG man and the pre-eminent architect of the firm’s metamorphosis from uncomplicated tuning shop to 21st century performance engineering powerhouse, in F1 and on the road? Intense.

Nevertheless, some things you have to ask, and why not start with the awkward one? Like where on Earth is the One, AMG’s long-overdue hypercar and hybrid tour de force? Moers, relaxed and chuckling as he leans against a replica of AMG’s first race car, the beloved SEL-based Red Pig, has clearly come to terms with his halo car’s apparently endless setbacks.

‘You know, we’re making good progress now. We had a delay, no doubt, but we are back,’ says Moers. ‘Back in the spring of 2019 we had the tipping point regarding getting the car street-legal, meeting the emissions targets and so on. We’re confident now that we’re going to make it.’

Seems even for AMG, makers of the hybrid powertrain that’s now claimed six back-to-back F1 drivers’ and constructors’ championships, teaching an F1 engine some road manners is challenging in the extreme. ‘Regulations got harder than we expected,’ continues Moers, a man with whom you suspect the concepts of under-achieving and being late don’t sit comfortably. 

‘It’s not easy putting an F1 engine on the road. Take the idle speeds. On the F1 car it’s 6000rpm. For a street-legal car it should be 1000rpm, maybe 1200rpm. And on the F1 engine combustion is great at high revs and under load but it’s not so good at low revs, the conditions you must run under for the emission test cycles. It’s taken a lot of effort to get things where we need them. 

AMG’s diversification under Moers has been remarkable, the halo One and core V8s bolstered now by a swarm of 53s, 45s and gateway-drug 35s. Volumes have headed skyward accordingly, from 20,000 units in 2012 to 70,000 in 2015, and more than a 130,000 in 2017.

'AMG was totally different when I joined,’ says Moers, who’d studied engineering and dabbled in motorsport, both spannering and helming, when he got the call from one of AMG’s founding fathers, Hans Werner Aufrecht. 

‘Back then we disassembled cars. We disassembled engines, increased the bore, put them back together – proper tuning. We did chassis work too of course, though it was not comparable to what we do today; no kinematics [computer modelling of chassis behaviour], no suspension arms, just springs and dampers. Mercedes’ ownership began in 1999 and then things changed. When I joined we were 120 people, with most of them in the workshop. Now we’re 1800 people and engineering-driven.’

The only complete cars built on the 18,000-square-metre Affalterbach site are GT3 and GT4 AMG GT competition cars, now among the most popular and widely adopted off-the-shelf GT machines. Instead AMG builds engines – the V8s, and the new M139 four-cylinder found in the 45s – in an award-winning new facility, and tasks its ranks of engineers with research and development.

Those hand-built engines, once complete, are then packed off to Mercedes factories, where they’re dropped into cars built on the same lines as non-AMG cars. The rest of the engineering required to turn these chosen few into AMGs – suspension, brakes, interior, exhausts – also happens on regular Merc production lines, which is as graphic a demonstration of how interwoven the two companies have become as you’ll find.

‘It really is the best of both worlds,’ smiles Moers. ‘We have a lot of capability, but we also have a lot of freedom. We can use the toolbox of Mercedes if we need to – proving grounds, crash testing, wind tunnel – and of course we have the production set-up. It’s not easy for them incorporating, for example, an AMG A45 S onto their production line. So we are always in there early, discussing the challenges. We often give them a hard time but their dedication to our products is great. It’s a big part of our success story.’ 

This almost symbiotic collaboration extends to R&D. ‘The development work going on here is almost exclusively for us but we do conduct R&D work for Mercedes, on some engines [the V12 and the S550’s AMG-based V8], and everything is linked, like with the next-generation SL – it could be a shared platform with the next-generation GT...’

Last time I spoke with Moers, a couple of years ago, he suggested that the two-door GT sports car, AMG’s flagship until the One finally emerges from development hell (we’ll see it next year), had a couple of years to live.'

Where are we in the lifecycle of the GT? Just in front of the peak; Black Series. It’s a 2020 car. For us as a sports car manufacturer, Black Series is everything. It is the pinnacle of driving performance. And there is a huge difference between this car and the Black Series cars that came before. The improvement over everything else we’ve done before is that high – totally different league. Honestly, you don’t expect it from us. 

AMG Black series: spy shots

‘For us, now that AMG stands for almost everything – with the 35 cars as the door into AMG, honestly a kind of lifestyle approach – Black Series is absolutely mandatory. AMG GT R is setting the bar high, higher than we managed with any previous Black Series, but the new Black Series will be even better. And you know, the demand from customers is there. I get a call every week from somebody: “Can I get one?”’ 

Bang on cue a Black Series GT prototype rolls past, studious engineers just visible in its snug cockpit, its exhaust note distinctive, hard-edged and serious like an endurance racer wearing plates and stripy zebra camouflage. Moers grins, then chuckles like a proud father. ‘There it is, GT Black Series. The sound is totally different to the other GTs...’

His phone rings, and with an apologetic wave he heads for a door through which we can’t follow. Instead he chucks me the keys to an SL65 Black Series: no spring chicken, sure, but a graphic demonstration of how far AMG will go to make sports cars of even unlikely Mercedes. 

On its introduction, the SL65 Black Series was the most powerful series-production AMG. Oddly, though, it isn’t the engine that twists your brain inside-out. The tweaked V12 delivers 651bhp courtesy of bigger turbos and revised intake and exhaust systems. A massively powerful AMG engine: so far, so normal. No, it’s the money-no-object attention AMG lavished on the rest of the car that takes this far beyond the SL. 

There’s a fixed carbon roof with integral rollcage instead of the SL’s wobbly folding hardtop. Faster steering rack. Track-spec coil-overs. Re-engineered suspension, including new hubs. Carbonfibre bootlid, bumpers and bonnet. On start-up the engine is oddly meek, and there’s profound disappointment when you realise it’s hooked up to an antiquated five-speed auto (because nothing else would cope with the 12’s torque kick, already capped at 738lb ft). 

But, from there on in, the SL in the SL65 Black Series melts away, leaving behind a shining example of the highs Moers’s obsessive attention to high-performance engineering can hit. On rough rural roads the 65 shimmies like a DTM car and feels twice as wide. But the poise is supernatural, as is the front end’s rate of response. You expect to have to wait, and to be fairly detached from the process, but neither could be further from the truth. Instead the Black Series pivots as if mid-engined. 

So you go on slinging this slightly batshit weapon of mass contradictions through corner after corner with a confidence and relish entirely at odds with its power, its value and the greasy conditions. With revs and effort the engine comes alive too, drowning your world in profoundly wicked acceleration and a storm of turbo heave and hiss.

When Moers reappears – and I’ve stopped babbling – I suggest that, on this evidence at least, the next SL is in safe hands. ‘The new car will be kind of the rebirth of SL, more sporty. For the current car, the word “cruiser” is a good expression. The new car will take the SL back to its roots. It’s kind of a burden to be responsible for the SL [such is the weight of expectation] but we have to make sure this iconic car has a bright future. Everything is new this time, and all-aluminium.’

Encouraging stuff, both for the SL and the next-gen GT with which it will share hardware. Expect the next-gen GT to also offer hybrid powertrains and at least optional all-wheel drive when it arrives in 2021. You look at Moers, a car guy who honed his skills at the wheel drifting his Opel Kadett on the snow-covered roads of his native Black Forest, and you look at AMG, a company whose coat of arms includes a cam, valve and valve spring, and it’s easy to think they’re about as excited about electrification as newspapers are about the internet.  

But as Moers points out, the battery-electric SLS Electric Drive ‘was a long time ago’, and AMG’s crushing dominance of F1’s hybrid era has established it as an e-performance icon, even if the current road-car line-up still looks very combustion-engined. ‘There’s a whole portfolio of purely electrically-driven Mercedes coming out, and there is no reason there should not be an AMG derivative of a lot of these,’ says Moers.

‘The guys in our neighbourhood [Porsche, also in Stuttgart] have a great new car, electric-driven. So we are creative.’ And before then, hybrids – albeit hybrids on AMG’s terms. ‘We won’t have to replace all the V8s with a down-sized engine and hybrid system – it will depend on the market segment. The first hybrid was supposed to be the One. Now it will be the hybrid 4-Door GT, before the end of 2020.

‘I’m excited. You have instant throttle response, additional power – what’s not to like? We’ll use an additional motor on the rear axle, with a totally new design of rear axle, but we still have engine, gearbox and shaft to the rear axle, so we can combine power, run purely electrified or, say, on the motorway, use the combustion engine alone. The problem with the engine on one axle and e-motor on the other is that AMG as a brand stands for “always power”. With that solution, if your state of charge is low you have no power on one axle. With our set-up there is always power.’ 

Mercedes SL; what we know

Fanciful to suggest there’s any direct trickle-down of tech from AMG’s F1 hybrid V6 to the production car system? Not at all, insists Moers. ‘We’ve learned a lot in F1. Take for example the electrified turbocharger [spun up by an e-motor rather than exhaust gases] – this you can see in the future on AMG’s engines. Also the hybrid battery. Our F1 battery is directly cooled, with fluid moving around the cells – our production hybrid battery will use the same technology, with cylindrical cells within the battery better suited to direct cooling.

The thermal situation is very easy to handle with this system, which means in turn that we can recuperate more energy back to the battery. This is going to be the future – a very efficient, high-performance combustion engine together with hybrid technology, giving us additional performance and a certain electric-only driving range.’ The new, stonking 45 turbo four-cylinder, in combination with a powerful hybrid drive – that’d be a pretty exciting and relatively lightweight combination, I suggest.

‘Let’s leave that idea there,’ smiles Moers. ‘I’ve read all the rumours, and maybe not every rumour is wrong.’ He’s more open on engineering that tangible but tough-to-articulate AMG feel into his cars. It’s obvious in cars like the SL65 Black Series. But I put it to Moers that even the A35, which isn’t a ‘proper’ AMG (its engine is a modified Mercedes unit), feels like an AMG; somehow grittier, more direct and more overtly mechanical than the on-paper almost identical Volkswagen Golf R. It is, I suggest, almost as if AMG deliberately engineers in character at the expense of outright refinement. A big smile.

Mercedes-AMG A45 S review

‘I think every car should have a personality. Every car that comes out of AMG should feel like an AMG. So yeah, for sure, I’m some-times personally compromising something so that the car feels like an AMG. We can always put our stamp on things – we must do this – but it needs dedication and accountability from everyone in the team. And it’s really important: it’s why I’m driving all the time. It’s not just sign-off, either. I’m involved in the whole process. I join the team once a month at a track somewhere, driving with our calibrations guys, just to make sure we’re there.

And just recently, with the A45, we put in hours on the roads, also on the track. Back and forth until, for example, the shifting feels like an AMG, you know? And somehow on the team we all know what that feels like. It sounds stupid but that’s the truth.’ And after 25 years, how does AMG’s CEO and hands-on CTO stay enthusiastic, motivated in what is now a dynamic and very challenging arena? ‘Maybe there have been no other opportunities! No, it’s because we’re still chasing – we can still do a better car than we’ve done before. That’s what keeps me here.’

A timeline

‘I’ve been with cars always. I did an engineering degree, and my first car after graduating was an electric car, the Hotzenblitz. We would call it a start-up company now. It was funded by the chocolate people Ritter Sport. When I arrived they only had a rolling mock-up. I established a team, did the car, but after two years the project kind of broke down. It used lead-acid batteries – there was nothing else around then!’

‘I have two jobs. I am CEO; financials, marketing and sales, digitisation. It’s great – there are a lot of opportunities. I present our ideas to Ola Källenius, to the board of Mercedes. Ideas like the 4-Door GT, like the entire GT line-up – that’s all us. And I’m still CTO. I’m involved in all of it. I drive every day

Always racing  

‘I’d been involved in a Formula 3 team before university. I did hillclimbs also, engineering and driving. So I had connections to motorsport. Then, in ’94, I got a call from Mr Aufrecht – he still owned AMG then. I guess I was head-hunted. AMG was so different then. I went in as a project manager. We had just started co-operating with Mercedes. My first car was the V8 E50.’

By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three