It’s no secret that Mercedes-Benz makes performance vehicles; some being serious performance vehicles. With many ‘Benzes eclipsing the 500 hp mark, Mercedes wants to ensure its customers can handle these monsters and keep them shiny side up. To achieve this, it offers a smorgasbord of driving courses, and, good news for those like me who can’t afford to purchase a $145,000 SL 63 AMG; you don’t have to be a Mercedes owner to partake.
SEVERAL COURSES TO CHOOSE FROM
Currently, there are four main courses offered: the Winter Driving Academy, the Driving Experience, the Mastering Performance Course and the AMG Driving Academy. The Winter Driving Academy is pretty self-explanatory and teaches drivers how to handle a vehicle on ice and snow during a variety of driving situations and scenarios.
The Driving Experience course can be done on any paved parking lot and is mirrored off of undercover police driver training. Undercover police training means learning tasks like being able to drive fast without being noticed, which helps when tailing perps. The next rung up the ladder is the Mastering Performance Course, the one I am attending, which is track focused and teaches students how to extract the most out of the vehicles.
There is also the AMG Driving Academy which is a special, all AMG-vehicle event. There are two versions; one aimed at customer education and test drives, while the other is more like the Advanced Driver Training taken to the next level.
But back to the course I’m at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (CTMP) to attend; the Mastering Performance Course. The day begins with some classroom instruction. We are told that throughout the day the instructors will be working with everyone at their own level as the learning curve is steep, especially for first timers. But, no matter how far we each individually advance during the day, we will learn a lot and be a better driver by the afternoon.
Apart from experiencing the varied lineup of Mercedes-Ben vehicles, this course can be summed up in just a few words, namely; it teaches how to properly drive a corner like a professional racer.
LESSON ONE: SEATING POSITION
Our first lessons is all about properly setting up our driving position. That may sound silly, but there are good reasons. If you want to drive like a professional race car driver, first you have to sit like one.
Step one; put the seat in its lowest position. This isn’t done because it lowers the vehicle’s center of gravity or provides for helmet room, although both are beneficial side effects. It is actually done to force a driver to look further down the road as they need to raise the angle of their vision to see over the dashboard and out the windshield. Vision is the most important aspect of track driving. We need to constantly be scanning ahead for apexes, braking points, corner exits, etc. Every performance driving course emphasizes vision. It’s that important.
SEE ALSO: Mercedes-Benz G63 Review
Continuing the first lesson, we are instructed to set our seat close enough to allow our right foot to push the throttle all the way down while keeping our heel to the floor. The seatback should be kept at an upright angle; no gangsta’ lean-backs when driving on the track. This position will help reduce driver fatigue and will also avoid spinal injuries should a crash occur. Hands should be at the 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock positions on the wheel; not 10 and 2, not the praying mantis 11 and 1, not 12 and around the passenger headrest and definitely not 6 and on the window sill. Grip on the steering wheel should be nice and light allowing us to drive with our fingertips (a lesson I still struggle with once the speeds increase). Finally, we are told the seat should be close enough to the wheel to allow for our arms to be roughly at a 90 degree bend at the elbow. According to my instructors, most males sit too far away and most females sit too close.
LESSON TWO: CORNERING ABILITY AND TRAIL BRAKING
Lesson two is cornering. On the track, each corner is marked by three cones. The first one marks turn in, the second one marks the corner’s middle point, or apex, and the third one is the corner exit.
To help maximize our efficiency through the corners, we are introduced to trail-braking. This is not something usually taught at introductory driving schools, but it is here. When braking into a corner, the nose of your car will bob down due to g forces. Once you let off the brakes, the nose bobs back up and weight transfers off your front tires. This reduces the contact patch of the front tries on the road and reduces their traction ability, thus, giving the car reduced cornering ability.
To avoid the nose of the car bobbing back up at initial turn in, we are taught not to get off the brakes completely, but rather slowly release the brake pedal in direct relation to how much steering angle is being inputted. As we ease up to 50% steering effort, we need to ease back 50% on the brake pedal. Roughly, trail braking occurs from initial turn in until half way to the apex, where the brake pedal is let off 100% and we finish the corner. Sounds simple enough right? Well, at speed, it takes quite a bit of timing and technique; especially while trying to remain completely smooth.
That’s already a lot to remember, and we are only halfway through the corner!
LESSON THREE: EXITING THE CORNER JUST AS IMPORTANT
Once trail-braking is completed, the accelerator should be used to maintain speed through the corner, not accelerate, but to maintain the speed and chassis balance of our street cars. Then, once past the apex, throttle application should be applied percentage wise in relation to percentage of steering angle being dial-out; much like how we trail-braked into the corner. And when the steering wheel is perfectly straight, FULL POWER!
We first begin practicing this technique at lower speeds to train the leg muscles how to trail brake and get our coordination down between our pedal usage and steering inputs. Like I said earlier, to perform this smoothly and correctly it takes quite a bit of practice. Too much steering angle or not enough braking and the tires become overworked to scrub off the excess speed.
A TASTE OF WHAT’S TO COME
We spend the morning performing low speed trail-braking at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park’s double apex turn five, and higher speed trail-braking at the notorious turn two. Once the instructors are confident enough that none of us are going to impale a retaining wall with one of their brand new vehicles, we play follow the leader around the racetrack to familiarize ourselves with the course and learn all 10 of the corners.
SO MANY FLAVORS
As exciting as all this is, making it even more thrilling are the cars. And Mercedes-Benz has quite a lineup.
SEE ALSO: Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG Review
The cars we piloting run the full gamut of the Mercedes-Benz model lineup. There is the not-for-USA front-wheel drive B 250 hatchback, a C 63 AMG sedan, C 63 AMG coupe, SLK 350, SLK 55 AMG, SL 550, E 300 sedan, CLS 550 and a purely awesome SLS AMG. Even the trucks came out to play, giving us a chance to lay down rubber in the GLK 250 Bluetec, a ML 350 and the monstrous GL 63 AMG.
Being luxury cars with differing levels of performance and technology, some vehicles come full of adjustable settings, but they all have stability control, and for the purposes of this course we run with ESP on. It’s a good learning tool because it shows when we are exceeding our limits of traction without putting a $100 K Mercedes into a wall. Our lead instructor, Danny Kok, informed us he can do an entire lap at speed without having the ESP kicking in once, and we should be able to as well.
We are instructed to put all the vehicles that have adjustable suspensions into the sportiest setting, while transmission settings should be chosen to reflect our driving style. The vehicles downshifts should match our braking inputs. If we aren’t braking hard enough, put the transmission in a less sporty setting to keep the transmission from braking the car instead of the driver.
NOW TO PUT IT ALL TOGETHER
As the morning gave way to the afternoon, it was time to take these Germanic beasts out on the full course. Again, we play follow the leader, but now at much greater speeds. Using all the training and techniques learned that morning, I begin to get a feel for CTMP at speed.
Never before have the immortal words of Ice Cube spent more time circulating around in my head; ‘Chiggity-check yourself before you wreck yourself, because smashing a $200,000 SLS into a retaining wall is bad for your health’ (I may be paraphrasing here).
Those interested in spending the day not only driving some of Mercedes-Benz’s latest and greatest automobiles, but doing so on a track, should visit the Mercedes-Benz Driving Experience website, or the AMG Academy in the US. Trust me, education has never been so much fun!