When we flew to the Phillip Island grand prix circuit to attend the media day of the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy, we came with relatively low expectations. After all, defensive driving courses are generally about as inspiring as watching Julia Gillard give a speech. But as we soon found out, these are far more than defensive driving courses and Mercedes-Benz views driver training as an essential part of its customer relations, not just because it intends to keep its customers (and therefore its cars) safe, but because it has always been at the forefront of safety technology, and that in itself requires constant education for owners.
To give you an example, the safety technology available in Mercedes-Benz vehicles today is worlds apart compared with the features on offer a decade ago. It’s no longer just a case of understanding how ABS and stability control works, the Mercedes vehicles of today are so advanced that they can see and help prevent potential crashes before they happen. This technology is generally so unfamiliar that educating owners is a crucial part of the ownership experience. The Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy consists of a number of different events.
First Gear - $95
The German-devised courses start with First Gear, a program designed for young drivers aged between 17-24. For just $95, Mercedes-Benz chief driving instructor Peter Hackett (one of the top driver’s in this year’s GT Championship in a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3) and a variety of other professional instructors conduct the half-day program on multiple occasions throughout Australia using Mercedes-Benz-provided vehicles. The idea is simple: teach new drivers skills that may one day save their lives.
Hackett, a 35-year-old Victorian who is teamed up with James Brock (son of legendary driver Peter) in this year’s GT Championship, is adamant that driver training should be an essential part of every driver’s education. He argues that it’s imperative that young drivers become familiar with the advancements in car safety technology, as they are almost certain to encounter the next generation of active safety features throughout their life. Systems like Distronic Plus, which provides automatic braking in the event of an imminent collision, have been available in the S-Class since 2005, but its exposure to the majority of buyers has been far more recent with its introduction in the rest of the Mercedes-Benz range (and the recent introduction of similar systems by other manufacturers).
The First Gear program exposes drivers to a wide variety of new technologies in a safe environment. It also accentuates and educates participants on the inherent risks of being in charge of a motor vehicle in varying circumstances (e.g. the difference in traction for wet weather driving) while teaching participants how to handle critical driving situations. The intrinsic philosophy behind this is rather simple: the majority of young drivers today have never performed a task as vital as an emergency brake test despite attaining their licence.
Hackett argues that it would seem absurd if airline pilots were under similarly relaxed rules, but driver’s have comparable amounts of responsibility as they put their own lives and those of their passengers and general public in danger each time they get behind the wheel of a car. For less than $100, it’s almost a crime not to send your young ones to attend. The only catch is that the program is open only to the children (and their friends) of Mercedes-Benz owners, and if you’ve bought your first Mercedes-Benz before the age of 24 then of course you can also attend.
Mercedes-Benz Driving Experience - $350
The Mercedes-Benz Driving Experience is the level up from First Gear and tailored for drivers over the age of 25. The program consists of dynamic handling and performance exercises that set out to challenge driver skills while showcasing the safety capabilities of the Mercedes-Benz range. Essentially, Hackett and his team make you realise just how little you know about the physics of car control and then go about changing your perception to be better prepared for the unexpected.
For this we got to experience the difference in grip in slippery and snow surfaces, thanks to specially designed plastic tyres attached to a C-Class coupe and a Vito van. We also performed numerous emergency-braking tests around Phillip Island racetrack to pin point the perfect pedal position to allow a vehicle to stop in the quickest distance but also better understand how ABS works and how it can be used to avoid an obstacle while under heavy brakes.
From there a side-by-side test was carried out to showcase Mercedes-Benz’s blind spot assist (which picks up a vehicle in your blind spot and prevents you from merging into it). We then let our test vehicle automatically accelerate and brake for a lap around the circuit using nothing but radars to follow a lead car before we tricked it into an emergency braking situation and watched it avoid a fake obstacle with ease.
The best part of Mercedes-Benz driving academy courses is the presence of professional racing drivers as your instructors. Unlike many similar-in-nature courses we’ve attended in the past, Mercedes generally provides one highly skilled instructor per three participants, resulting in a far more personalised experience. This allows you to have one-on-one training with the likes of James Brock, which is guaranteed to improve your driving skills.
AMG Challenge Drive Day – Prices vary and are communicated directly to AMG club members
Of course, it wouldn’t be the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy if the monsters that are the AMG vehicles weren’t allowed out of pit lane. The AMG driver days are open only to AMG club members only, making it about as exclusive as it gets. Although you have to own an AMG to attend the day, you don’t use your own car. You first need to complete the AMG Performance day before you get an invite to attend the AMG Evolution events.
Mercedes-Benz has a fleet of more than 40 AMG vehicles that help accommodate the needs of its customers. This includes everything from a C63 AMG sedan to the E63 Wagon. Since you’re given the keys to cars worth around around a quarter of a million dollars, you need to have at least some driving skill to match your enthusiasm (which is where the invite only bit comes in). During our time in charge of the awesome arsenal of AMG machinery, we sampled a C63 AMG coupe and wagon, E63 AMG sedan and wagon, CLS63 AMG and a few other variants in between. The event is insanely addictive and is almost guaranteed to have repeat customers. Even if you’re there just to spectate, the sound of so many AMGs going around a track at full speed is heavenly.
After countless laps around Phillip Island at full pace with a professional racing driver sitting alongside, it was time to swap seats to see how the experts do it. If you’ve never been around a race track with a proper racing driver in charge, it’s probably good advice to skimp on the second serving of lamb at lunch because this can be one seriously life changing experience.
For a start, you’ll realise that the AMG you’ve bought is capable of far more than you ever imagined and it’s a truly enjoyable experience to feel these remarkable cars at their limits. If your instructor happens to have a soft spot for destroying tyres, you may even experience the extreme levels of car control required to perform connecting drifts from one corner to another, which is guaranteed to make you weep at your own limited driving skills.
Overall, the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy is a must for any Mercedes-Benz owner. The company’s extensive experience in driver training and its leadership in the development of safety technology (not to mention its rich history in motorsports) puts it in an unrivalled position to offer these events. As is the case with Mercedes-Benz vehicles, these courses are a case of getting what you pay for. They may be slightly more expensive than similar events, but they are far superior in their execution and attention to detail.
You can find out more at the official website.