Up on a big flat screen, in front of my Mercedes-Benz AMG Driving Academy classmates, were my lap and track segment times, video of my “flying laps,” as well as a line graph of my precise speed and braking force at each corner of the race track, superimposed on the graphs of the much-faster instructor.
Here are all your driving strengths, peccadilloes and limitations plotted out and laid bare to you and the class.
It’s high-tech brutal honesty, using throttle, steering and braking data to show you where you’re fast and, most importantly, pinpoints what needs improvement.
This detailed feedback is a key aspect of Mercedes-Benz’s top “graduate” program in high-performance driving, a two-day program where the formula for speed is simple: pick from one of 12 provided AMG models, carve up the track as best you can, review your efforts, and repeat, but faster. The course is meant for graduates of its Mastering Performance one-day course, or those with equivalent on-track experience of at least one full-day course. It follows the global AMG curriculum, but with smaller class sizes, says lead instructor Danny Kok, each course capped at 12 students.
The AMG Driving Academy uses current-year Mercedes-Benz AMG models which, in this group, included an exotic SLS AMG gullwing, the C63 Coupe and sedan, the folding hardtop SL63 AMG and its smaller SLK55 AMG brother, the family-friendly E63 AMG sedan and wagon, plus the slinky CLS63 AMG four-door. These range in price from the mid-$60,000s for the C-Classes, all the way up to more than $206,000 for the SLS. Every last one of these machines is fast out-of-the-box. Our job was to make them faster, by sharpening our own abilities, pushing them closer to their lofty limits.
This started with an arranged drag race down Canadian Tire Motorsport Park’s long back straight, where we had to accelerate to a finish line and then stop as hard as we could, swapping cars back and forth to get a feel of the braking and acceleration forces of each AMG model.
To help break down the trickier sections of the track, we parked the cars on the hilly circuit and walked the corners, the instructors providing helpful tips on where to look and point the nose, gravitational forces speaking much more clearly to the driver on his feet than in a car.
Most of the driving was in small groups of three behind the instructor, who would push as fast as the driver behind could keep up, each student swapping spots for a stint directly behind the instructor’s unadulterated best line around the track. After a few laps, you’d come in, switch cars, and head back out.
With no assigning of specific cars to each driver, there was surprisingly little dashing for seat time in the SLS, the clear star performer of the fleet, as there was plenty of seat time over two days to hop into each of the vehicles available. In case you’re comparing two-day driving schools in Canada, this contrasts to BMW’s two-day course, which uses M3s with the DCT for its duration.
Once you’ve switched around in a few vehicles, then comes the tests: hop into a specially prepared car, with an instructor in front of you equipped with a rear-facing camera mounted on its trunk. It’s time to prove what you’ve learned – or haven’t. Returning to the tower, the video and performance graphs are combined while you’re having lunch, in preparation for the classroom analysis – where it all hangs out.
Your times and video from day one are compared on day two, with the video and track times available on a leather-bound memory stick afterward, which make for some cool high-revving Facebook or website uploads. That is, if you’re comfortable with that level of full monty disclosure.
In a quick poll of the class, while half enjoyed the SLS and its brutal track and helmet-pounding capabilities the most, there was much admiration for all the cars, the SLK55 garnering a few notable mentions, and even the E63 AMG wagon, though it was a step behind the others in the dynamics department. Cars have been bought straight out of these fleets by attendees smitten with one of these AMGs, says Kok, and it’s not hard to see why.
At $3,995, the course is not inexpensive, but it includes an overnight stay at a local hotel, dinner and catered meals at the track. In fact, the same cars thrashed about on the track are used to transport you to dinner that evening, highlighting the fact that AMG vehicles are not track beasts that beat you up on public roads. Plus you don’t have to own an AMG or even a Mercedes-Benz to enroll, in this AMG course or any other Benz driving program.
Yes, there are less pricey ways to sample AMG models on a track or closed course, such as the introductory $395 Driving Experience half-day course, which also features an SLS and perhaps another one or two AMG models, but on a smaller parking lot course. The full-day Mastering Performance course will put you on a race track, with a few more AMG cars, for $1,695. Exact 2013 Mercedes-Benz course dates and prices haven’t been set yet, except for Benz’s Winter Driving Academy, which runs for $795 for a full-day of slip-sliding instruction in January or February.
The vehicles offered in the Winter program range from the Smart fortwo and new 2013 B-Class compact hatchback, all the way up to the S-Class, with a healthy dose of SUVs and 4MATIC all-wheel-drive models. It’s not nearly as enthusiast-tempting a vehicle lineup as the AMG course, but the contrasting exposure to front-, rear- and AWD models, slick conditions and the same patient and capable instructors may offer the most real-world safety benefits when you hop back into your own car.
Course dates and locations on all these programs is available online at Mercedes-benz.ca/drivingacademy, or will be once they’re available, with the winter course dates confirmed for Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary.
But for enthusiasts looking to hone their own driving abilities, along with pulse-pounding high-speed thrills, the top AMG course is something special. It offers a wide selection of AMG’s fastest cars, the most seat time of any Mercedes course on some of the best tracks in the country, and helpfully precise and unflinching data-driven feedback on all your high-speed driving habits.
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