Mercedes-AMG 2021

culture

Your driving skills under the microscope

There's nowhere to hide in the Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy, writes Glenn Butler

Mercedes-AMG makes some of the fastest road cars available, but if you really want to experience what these cars are capable of you need a racetrack. So I joined an AMG Driving Academy day at the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit to put AMG’s fastest cars through their paces. What I didn’t realise was that I would be under the microscope as well, and with nowhere to hide.

After a short welcome and briefing, the day started at full throttle, literally. My group was ushered onto Phillip Island’s main straight where a dozen of AMG’s most powerful cars waited. Six Mercedes-AMG E63 S super sedans and six AMG GT R high performance coupes were lined up, side-by-side. ‘Christmas tree’ lights typically found on a drag strip stood in front of the first two.

Welcome to Level One of AMG’s Advanced Driving Academy. This one-day course is open to anyone with $2600 to spend – though it is offered to existing AMG customers first – and the five programs Mercedes runs each year at Phillip Island and Sydney Motor Sport Park pretty much always sell out.

“AMG Performance training will get you up to speed on track,” says AMG Driving Academy boss Peter Hackett. “It’s your chance to get behind the wheel of a number of specially prepared vehicles. You’ll be guided by a senior AMG instructor, learn about the different performance settings on the cars, and the right way to attack each corner.

“Ultimately you’ll get the best out of yourself on track.”

We spent the first 30 minutes discovering just how ferociously these AMG beasts turn fuel into fury accelerating from a standing start. Our temporary drag strip was only 180m long, and if you think that’s short, I can tell you it’s long enough to discover that the $373,400 GT R will hit 100km/h from rest in little more than four seconds, and the all-wheel drive E 63 S ($253,900) will do it in just 3.5 seconds, both of them reaching speeds of 170km/h before the 180m-mark.

After we experience the brutality of standing starts, it’s time to discover the importance of ESC (electronic stability program) – not only how it will save you from spinning, but how the different ESC modes can contribute to faster lap times.

Ultimately, that’s what this day is all about: helping participants understand each AMG model’s capabilities and how best to leverage them to carve your way around Phillip Island’s 12 daunting curves in the fastest possible time. During the day participants also become familiar with their own limits – yes, you will spin – but in a safe environment that then helps you stay within those limits when hot-lapping Phillip Island at the end of the day.

Our weapon for the dynamic ESC test is the very affordable (in AMG terms) A45 S, just $93,600 plus on-road costs. This hotrod in hatchback attire is a great car for wannabe Davids keen to slay automotive Goliaths. Its compact chassis, all-wheel drive and turbocharged 2.0-litre engine combine to give this pocket rocket ridiculous real-world performance. It’ll do 0-100km/h in 3.9sec and will lap the Phillip Island track in capable hands just two seconds slower than the more fancied C63 S sports sedan.

The dynamic test takes place on a slalom course, initially in the ESC’s safest mode (Basic). Then it’s done again in Advanced, then Pro and finally Master, each setting reducing the ESC’s intervention.

With each run you feel the car’s back-end drift more dramatically on the change of direction. Rather than scare, these little slides reinforce how tactile and tractable the A45 S is, and how nimble. But it also underscores the ESC’s ability to save you from spinning while also allowing some body movement to speed up the change of direction.

The third test for the day is one of the most heart-stopping. The concept is simple: accelerate flat out towards a gantry with lights on the left and right. Directly in front of you are three cones which you must swerve around depending on which light comes on, at the same time slamming on the brakes.

Ostensibly this demonstrates how ABS not only stops a car in the shortest time without locking up the tyres, but also how it allows you to retain directional control.

The thing that makes this heart-stopping is that the left or right light – you don’t know which – will only come on at the very last second. So, in reality it feels like you’re accelerating towards an inevitable crash and making a last-minute decision on which way to avoid it.

“Imagine you’re in a race,” says Hackett, “and the car in front of you spins. You’ve got a split second to decide which way to swerve to avoid becoming part of that collision. This is what we’re simulating.”

It’s obvious that this principle can also benefit everyday driving, say if a child runs out onto the road chasing a ball.

With each successive run we pick the speed up by 5km/h until it feels like Mission Impossible. But the light blinks on each time and I swerve dramatically towards it while slamming the brakes. And each time the cones survive.

After experiencing the life-saving benefits of ESC, the day progresses to the only exercise in which ESC is turned completely off. Yes, it’s time to get your drift on. For this, the AMG team chose the slowest corner on the track, the hairpin at Turn 4, and ran a water truck around it to make the surface slippery.

We jump into a C63 S sedan and enter the corner slowly. Then you are encouraged to mash the throttle and break the rear end loose, unleashing a big slide. Then you need to quickly apply opposite lock and moderate the throttle to hopefully keep the car in a nice progressive slide all the way around the corner.

The goal here is to teach you what it feels like when the rear end breaks loose and how responding with judicious steering inputs and throttle modulation can control the slide. As any racer knows, sliding is the slow way around a track, and racers also know that slides inevitably happen, and it’s all about how quickly you bring it under control.

Those four exercises effectively make up Level One of the AMG Driving Academy, also known as Performance Training. As I said, it costs $2600 for the day, and everything you need is included: helmets, cars, food, track, the lot.

Today, AMG runs CarAdvice through Level Two as well: AMG Advanced Training.

“The AMG Advanced Training program further refines your skills, has higher speeds, more laps, and an uncompromising focus on technique,” Hackett says.

Our afternoon will consist of hot laps on track, building up to an all-out assault on our personal best lap-time. This day costs $3000, and again, all your needs are catered for, including one-on-one time with two-time Australian Formula 3 champion Tim Macrow as he dissects the in-car telemetry between track sessions, identifying where you can shave seconds off your time.

Putting together a fast lap at Phillip Island is no mean feat because this picturesque racetrack in the far south of Victoria is revered and feared in equal measure by the world’s best drivers. Its combination of high-speed curves, tight hairpins, long straights and heart-stopping elevation changes make it one of the most daunting and rewarding racetracks on Earth.

The hot laps start with a 150km/h speed ceiling, and there’s always an instructor – past, present and future stars of Australian motorsport – sitting beside us, guiding our driving lines and car inputs.

For my first session, I’ve got Chelsea Angelo riding shotgun. This friendly 24-year-old Victorian has years of motorsport competition under her belt, like pretty much all of AMG’s expert driver trainers. She finished runner up in the Formula 3 championship in 2014, and fifth outright in the 911 GT3 Cup series – the feeder series to the Carrera Cup – in 2018. When she’s not helping to improve AMG owners’ driving skills, she competes in the Touring Car Racing series (TCR).

Witches hats mark the braking point, turn-in point, clipping point (or apex) and the exit point for all the corners, so she doesn’t need to tell me where the racing line is, but her calm voice is always there to keep me on the fast line.

Her advice for me is all about keeping the car balanced and my pedal inputs smooth. “A smooth drive is a fast drive,” she imparts which sounds easy but is surprisingly hard, especially coming off the pedals where my instinct is to step off them rather than release them progressively.

She also adjusts my line through the long and tricky turn two, also known as Southern Loop. This third-gear left-hander climbs on entry then falls away dramatically on exit, so a smooth and balanced car is important to getting a fast exit onto the straight that follows. I’m typical of a lot of amateur track drivers, she says, impatient to get back on the throttle. But doing so too early just pushes the car wide and means you run out of track on exit, which results in an inglorious lift-off to tuck the nose back in and robs me of speed out of the corner.

On successive laps I do better and the car really begins to flow as I use more patience to improve my exit on a number of corners. And then our three laps are up and we head back into the pits for a cool down – the driver and the car.

My second stint has a higher speed ceiling – 200km/h – and a new instructor. Melinda Price has decades of motorsport experience on Australian racetracks, including a stint in V8 Supercars, and her approach to tutoring is subtly different to Chelsea’s. That’s the beauty of having so many instructors, says Hackett. “It’s about finding the right instructor for you, one that you gel with, one you feel comfortable with.”

Melinda’s calming tones definitely make me feel comfortable barrelling down the main straight and tipping into Doohan corner at 180km/h-plus, but there’s also an underlying ‘Imposter Syndrome’ on my part. Who am I to be getting tutored by professional racers?

That’s totally on me because none of the instructors ever make you feel unwelcome or unworthy. And there are some real icons here, apart from Chelsea and Melinda. One of the most experienced drivers on the AMG Academy team is Nathan Pretty, who has a number of top 10 finishes in the Bathurst 1000, Australia’s greatest race, and a first and second in the arduous Bathurst 24hr.

My tutor for the final assault on Phillip Island carries one of the most recognisable Australian surnames in world motorsport. Sam Brabham is the son of Le Mans 24 Hour winner David Brabham, nephew of another Le Mans 24 Hour winner Geoff Brabham and Sebring 12 Hour winner Gary Brabham, and grandson of three-time Formula 1 world champion Sir Jack Brabham. How’s that for weight of expectation?

“In some ways yes that does come with pressure,” Sam says of carrying such a famous name, “but something I learned from my dad was that the pressure I put on myself to be what I want to be is higher than others can put on me.”

Success for Sam today means keeping me and the GT R on the tarmac as I strive to extract the best I can from my skills. The whole day has been building towards this moment, and I’m keen to not only do the best I can but finish without blotting my copybook.

Whether it’s Sam’s famous name, or his easy and approachable demeanour, or the comfortable rapport between us despite the fact I’d never met him before, I instantly feel both relaxed and ‘dialled in’. We head out for the first of four laps, me warming the car and the tyres while telling him which area I’m keen to improve: car rotation, and I don’t mean spinning.

Turn 2 and Turn 6, better known as Southern Loop and Siberia, are both long corners that require you to carry more speed in that you feel is healthy, let the corner wash off some of that speed, then rotate the car for a fast getaway. I’m not getting either totally right, although it’s clear the AMG GT R has more to give.

“The best advice I can give with those long corners is to have patience,” says Sam. “But also try and think of it as a couple of phases in that corner. Carry the speed in, then have a bigger rotation and get it straight so you can apply more throttle on the way out. Rotate and go.”

It works. Sam’s advice yields a new personal record for me of 1min 45.8seconds.

So, do I feel like I got the best out of the Mercedes-AMG GT R? Hell no. I’m sure that Sam Brabham or Nathan Pretty or Melinda Price or Chelsea Angelo could make this incredibly capable supercar lap faster. But I do think I got the best out of me on the day, and that’s the whole point of the AMG Driving Academy.

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