Pushing the pedal to the metal in a spanking new Mercedes-AMG E63 S down Mount Panorama’s Conrod Straight with the speedo counter nudging 250km/h might seem like a silly thing to do on a Monday morning, but to any car enthusiast worth their salt, it’s quite literally the Holy Grail.
After all, for all but a handful of occasions each year, this hallowed stretch of tarmac is a public road heavily signposted with a 60km/h speed limit. Even at that speed, and on your very first lap, you can’t quite grasp just how steep a climb it is up the Mountain, or how perilously narrow The Dipper is until you’ve actually pedalled around it.
Truth is, most of the premium performance carmakers offer their cashed-up customers a few well-organised track day events throughout the year at any number of circuits around the country, be it the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit, Sydney Motorsport Park, and even Bathurst if you happen to be an AMG owner.
Generally, it’s a full-day commitment and can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than a few thousand, depending on the level of instruction, types of cars provided, and the track location itself.
The price jumps even higher when these same manufacturers decide to go ice driving in snow-bound winter test grounds like Sweden and New Zealand. These excursions can run as high as $11,000 (that was the cost of Aston Martin’s program in New Zealand earlier this year) over two days, but include first-class accommodation, food and flights.
The German manufacturers seem to do it better than most, at least more consistently than most of the other brands, with a range of uniquely structured courses tailored to all manner of driving skills. These courses have been honed to organisational perfection over many years of doing this kind of thing in all the major car markets.
However, don’t expect to drive the really quick stuff like Audi’s RS and R8 models, BMW’s M4 and M5, or even AMG’s blisteringly quick E63 S sedan and race-bred GT R. For those, you’ll usually need to have completed one or two lower-ranked courses beforehand, given the huge power and speed at work here and the potential risks involved should it all go wrong.
It’s understandable and entirely reasonable, too. Hopping into supercars like an AMG GT R with 430kW/700Nm and a $348,711 price tag (plus on-roads) requires a certain level of skill and on-track experience usually gained by building up to it in less powerful cars.
Audi has the Audi Sport Driving Experience, where the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit is almost always on the menu, while BMW runs its advanced programs including Advance 2: Master Complete Control using BMW’s line-up of full-strength M cars.
AMG’s Driving Academy has a whole range of programs on the menu, including an AMG Performance day (also at Phillip Island) where you get to learn the track, as well as some time behind the wheel of a range of specially prepared AMG cars, with instructors, but with set speed limits in place.
Next up is the AMG Advanced – effectively a level-two program that ups the speed limits, while instructors push you further towards your own limits. And, if you’ve still not satisfied your need for speed, there’s always the AMG Pro day that will see you suited up in racing overalls, helmet and HANS device behind the wheel of a fully fledged Mercedes-AMG GT3 race car. Naturally, you’ll get all the instruction you’ll ever need to feel comfortable in the car.
But, AMG Bathurst is different again, the only proviso being you need to be an AMG owner and wear a good pair of flat-soled closed shoes. Everything else is taken care of by a huge team of professional driving instructors and support people from the PR team.
You’ll also get to watch the Bathurst 12 Hour all weekend from AMG’s primo-positioned hospitality lounge on the top floor of the Rydges track-side hotel – complete with some of the best smorgasbord fare you’re ever likely to tuck into at any single event.
Come Monday morning, though, and after a worthwhile presentation from Mercedes-AMG Chief Driving Instructor (and Mercedes-AMG GT3 racer) Peter Hackett, in which all the key aspects of the day-long program are explained, you’ll head down to the makeshift pit lane in front of the hotel in your predetermined groups for a helmet fitting session.
If you’re not sure about the size, ask one of the instructors, because there’s nothing worse than an ill-fitting helmet while you’re trying to focus on a million other things – like trying not to hit one of the many walls that line Mount Panorama.
And don’t worry about trying to get straight into one of only two GT Rs – not going to happen. At least, not before Hackett and his team of 45 instructors (and the equivalent number of AMG cars) take you through the track piece by piece.
It’s a thoroughly brilliant program that breaks down this intimidating circuit into several major sections, commencing with flat-out drag-races up Main Straight in a bunch of monster-powered E63 S sedans – at least six – and not just one or two runs either, each driver gets at least 10 goes at racing the car that lines up on the grid beside them.
Simply mash the brake pedal with your left foot and floor the throttle with your right. And that’s it, really. It’s difficult to think of another sedan that could get off the line quicker than an E63 S. The acceleration from a standing start is simply mind-blowing. You’re definitely pulling a ‘g’ or two here, as all four paws just grip and, boom, you’re catapulted towards Hell Corner with such ferocity as to induce motion sickness – almost.
The next part of the action starts halfway up Mountain Straight, this time in a C63 S wagon or sedan. This is where you’ll need to listen to your instructor, especially if you’re coming in hot (Is there any other way?) and need to balance the car with some brake, but not too much, as you’ll lose too much speed and momentum at The Quarry, before you start the climb towards The Cutting.
When it all comes together, it’s a great feeling, and far less intimidating than you might imagine, even in the larger E63 S. It’s important to be patient here and use all of the road as you start applying more throttle. It’s super tight up there, and again, patience with the throttle is a must as that left-hand wall seems like millimetres away from the car.
This part of the track is also where it starts getting a little gnarly, and why positioning the car is critical as you wind on through Griffin’s mountain and start your run across the Mountain proper. It’s nerve-wracking stuff up here in almost any AMG – except the AWD A45 hatch – complete with rear wing.
McPhillamy Park is where you hop into the A45s to tackle the full extent of the run down the Mountain. Coming across Skyline, my instructor says, “aim for the ‘E’ on the Channel 7 News sign overhead” as that sets up the car for the hair-raising Esses and Dipper. For sure, it’s intimidating, at least initially. But after five or six attempts, it’s likely to become a favourite part of the circuit – especially if you get The Dipper right and get a good solid run on to Conrod.
Don’t worry, you’ll get a crack at each and every section, and by lunchtime you’ll be itching to stitch it all together on an almost full lap. There are no flying laps, as the track is still busy in Pit Lane, which is why you’ll need to hit the brakes at turn 22, just after The Chase, and amble through the makeshift version right in front of the Rydges Hotel.
It works well too, with a huge fleet of more than 45 AMG hot rods in formation with engines ticking over, each one of them waiting for a driver. At Murray’s Corner, you’ll get back on the right pedal and blast up Main Straight for another seriously fast crack at the Mountain.
Mostly, you’ll build up to it over a few laps, kicking off at 150km/h and building to 180km/h, before going V-max by your fourth or fifth run. We saw 265km/h down Conrod in an E63 S – it would have been more but for the traffic – really!
The instructors are brilliant. They’re an eclectic bunch of professional race drivers, up and comers, and performance driving instructors looking to get the very best of out you, while at the same time keeping it safe and mostly within your comfort zone.
They’ll work you out pretty quickly – whether they’re comfortable to encourage you to push on, or have you back it off in the interest of self-preservation. My advice is to do exactly what they tell you and likely shave seconds off your run each time.
Get it right – that’s the braking point up Mountain Straight and the Griffins Bend apex, and within 10 laps you’ll be attacking The Cutting like a pro. At least that’s what it will feel like from behind the wheel. It’s an intoxicating experience, it really is, especially in the less-powerful A45 – simply because you can go flat to the boards much of the time.
The same can’t be said of the E63 S. Its huge power and torque require a more measured approach, at least with the throttle and steering inputs, particularly across the top of the Mountain.
I didn’t count the number of laps we completed on the day (having too much fun chasing down those in front), but it had to be more than 30 – and all with professional instruction. Not only will your driving skills improve immeasurably, you’ll know the Mount Panorama circuit well enough to be pushing hard throughout the final session.
Did I have a favourite car of the day? You bet – the AMG GT R, hands down. Not only is it a vastly superior track-day tool to its more-for-the-road AMG GT S sibling, but the level of feedback to the driver is on another level entirely.
The GT R also gets a shed-load more firepower than the GT S – try 430kW and 700Nm of proper tarmac-twisting torque against 384kW and 670Nm, as well as wiping another two-tenths from its 0–100km/h sprint time for a 3.6-second claim.
It’s even more impressive when you consider the GT R’s 1555kg kerb heft. It might only be a 15kg advantage, but with the wider track and different suspension settings, you can feel every bit of that weight saving from the very moment you put the boot in and roar down Conrod.
Not only does the car feel inherently better balanced, but the enhanced agility of the GT R is breathtaking – as though it’s been race-bred from the ground up. The extra-raw noise coming from its twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 is intoxicating. To my ears, it’s got far more in common with the company’s GT3 race car than any other thunder-making AMG model.
I particularly like the small yellow dial sitting under the air-con vents, which controls the nine-stage traction-control system – exactly as it is on the GT3 racer.
But then again, for sheer emotional joy and confidence-inspired driving, you can’t go past the least powerful A45 AMG. Do as many laps as you can possibly steal in this car, and by the end of the day, we guarantee you’ll be lining up the AMG E63 S in front of you.
Click on the photos tab for more images of the Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy Bathurst.