“You’ll never go fast braking in a straight line,” I was once told by a colleague who also worked as a driving instructor. Despite this important and true advice, he worked at a school that taught quite the opposite. Sure it’s easier to teach the dive-bomb and stand on the brakes method, and it’s also arguably safer for novice drivers, which is fine if you’re really just looking to have a guy’s weekend pretending to be a pro driver on a race track, but if you actually want to learn how to drive, it’s essential to master the fine art of transitioning from brake to throttle, while cornering.
1. Canada’s Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy offers a $395 half-day Driving Experience course, a $795 Winter Driving course and a $1,595 Performance Driving course.
2. Performance Driving courses take place on major racetracks including Mosport International Raceway and Le Circuit Mont Tremblant.
3. 12 vehicles are used for the program ranging from the B200 to the flagship SLS.
This is the expert opinion of Danny Kok, Chief Instructor at the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy in Canada. It’s not a racing school, Kok warns, although if you sign up for the Mastering Performance class, it all takes place on a race track. Different tracks in different cities, I had the unique opportunity to join the MBDA’s Canadian team at Mosport International Raceway, a track that used to host an F1 race every year and has the character to prove it, with plenty of elevation changes and some of the highest sustained speeds of any race track in the world.
Kok says he can take even the most inexperienced driver and have them lapping at speed by the end of the day. Having piloted a few impressive machines around the circuit, ranging from an Audi S6 to a Porsche 911 I’m no stranger to this venue that was built for fast cars to go fast. That said, my past experiences never afforded the time to really learn the corners in order to get the most out of the car, the track or myself.
LEARNING THE BASICS; NOT AS BASIC AS YOU’D THINK
The day begins with the usual classroom session, which may come as an eye opener to some. Kok really drills down on a few key points. First, a fast lap comes from the proper line, which is achieved by stringing together long straights. Second, it’s all about learning how to transition the car in the corner, with subtle and smooth inputs and an emphasis on trail braking.
A few other excellent tips come up during the classroom session, the first while discussing the proper seating position and the 9 and 3 hands position. With a helmet on, most drivers will have to lower the seat and Kok points out the advantage of this, as the lower you sit, the more it forces you to look further ahead. And that perhaps is the third and underlying point Kok makes – vision. You not only have to look way ahead, but you have to think ahead too.
In addition, he also warns against left foot braking. While an excellent technique when piloting a race car, without proper harnesses to hold you in place, on a street car you’ll end up trying to brace yourself on the steering wheel, harming your ability to make proper, smooth movements.
Following these steps you’ll be prepared for any track, not just the one you’ve had the chance to practice on. And with the right techniques you won’t plateau early.
DRIVING THE BENZ LINEUP
While MBDA does offer more beginner courses that teach things like accident avoidance (great for teens), the Mastering Performance school foregoes the usual braking and lane changing exercises most programs begin with and instead gets you into a car and onto a track – something that may be more than just a little intimidating if you haven’t done so before, especially on a course as daunting as Mosport.
After learning what to do, we helmeted-up and picked a car so we can actually do it. The school has a rotating fleet of vehicles than span the Mercedes range and you’re guaranteed to spend some time in each. Models range from a 193-hp B200 Turbo to the 518-hp E63 AMG (my personal fave). And my newfound love for this car, even more so than the C63, has less to do with the unrelenting horsepower and more to do with how dialed-in it is, with direct steering, an incredibly good automatic transmission that wants to gear down the second you touch the brakes and an adjustable suspension that in its firmest mode actually lets you feel every crack in the pit lane concrete. Other cars included a C350 4MATIC, a GLK, several SLK350s, an SL550, an E550 Coupe and even an ML63 AMG – which you’ll laugh about until you drive it.
Much in the same way that the MBDA course teaches you skills that can translate to any track, by switching vehicles all the time, you also really learn how to drive with the one common denominator being yourself. Plus, it gives Mercedes the chance to show off its extensive lineup.
Sure I’d prefer a whole day in an E63, but the other cars are in many ways more enlightening and deliver a better learning experience, often by emphasizing your faults. The first example of this came during our initial exercise, which consisted of focusing on getting the complex turn 5 section right. Turn 5 at Mosport is actually 5a and 5b and is two distinct corners, albeit very close together. Trail braking is a must here, even very briefly for the second corner and as much as the B-Class wouldn’t be my first choice (although it was surprisingly quick), the front-drive setup emphasizes any attempt to brake hard and late, resulting in plenty of understeer. You might be able to cheat your way through this section with the short wheelbase SLK that just wants to rotate, but the B-Class will force you to learn.
Another “unpopular” choice for a track experience is the GLK, but it teaches the importance of being smooth, as jerky transitions will penalize you with an out-of-control vehicle. After your mind has told your foot to trail brake enough times, eventually it will respond and once you’ve got that down the rest comes more naturally.
That really helped when we headed to corner 2, a much higher speed section where you need your skill, but also a lack of fear to crest a blind corner and track all the way to the outside of the asphalt.
From there the day consists almost exclusively of lapping sessions, providing a surprising amount of seat time. It’s always a lead-follow situation, except sometimes you’re the lead car with an instructor sitting shotgun.
WHERE EXCITEMENT MEETS EDUCATION
Priced at $1,595 Canadian, the MBDA visits numerous tracks across the country from Mont Tremblant to Mission Raceway Park just outside Vancouver. For those seeking even higher thrills, a full AMG course will be introduced in the Fall, similar to the one held in the U.S. at Sebring, Lime Rock and Road Atlanta.
Outrageously fun and extremely educational it will leave you with confidence, newfound capabilities and knowledge of just how to handle a car on a race track. Plus, when properly applied, it can make you an even safer driver too.
Performance schools like this are, by their nature, both fun and educational, however, the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy offers a heightened experience in both categories. It’s a must-do for any Mercedes owner, potential customer or anyone who wants a real introduction to performance driving.
While by no means a weekend track warrior, I’m not what you’d call a novice either, and yet after a day at the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy, for the first time, I feel fully confident at Mosport and better prepared for the next race track.