Learning to drive is good, learning to drive fast is better.
Hot on the heels of the Mercedes-Benz Driving Experience at Sydney Motorsports Park, AMG told CarExpert there was something else we really should try.
With less technology talk and more track time, the Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy majors on speed in a way few driver training courses can match.
The course isn’t just for journalists and influencers who want to go fast and write about it, it’s open to Mercedes-AMG owners who want to explore what their cars can do when let loose.
The course isn’t a brief taste of track driving. It’s not a my first hot lap designed to make you feel good about yourself, it’s about building up to completing a hot lap in an AMG GT R without becoming a part of the barrier at Philip Island.
That’s right, we’re at Philip Island. Best buckle up.
Our day was broken into three main segments, with three distinct speed limits.
An instructor is never far away, regardless of what you’re doing. Any time you’re flat out on track there’s an expert in the passenger seat next to you, and the why is just as important as the what in all the exercises.
Session one is about learning some of the basics, and building up to driving fast.
We’re given a pep talk by Peter Hackett, head of driver training for Mercedes-Benz, before hitting the track.
There are a few key touch points, all of which you rarely think about on the road.
Explaining understeer and oversteer, talking about how to build brake pressure, working out the fastest way through a corner, and giving owners background on why they need to keep an eye on their tyres.
After all, the rear tyres in most AMG models are under more strain than average, so wear is something to keep an eye out for. No use having a bi-turbo V8 if you’re not able to put that power down.
Compared to most driver training courses there really isn’t much talk. After our quick chat it’s time to pick a helmet that fits, snag a balaclava, and hit the track.
There’s no easing into things. Our first activity for the day is a drag race down the straight at Philip Island in a procession of E63 S and AMG GT Rs.
Getting both off the mark is relatively simple, given Mercedes-AMG fits all its cars with launch control, but it’s the four-door daddy of the range, the E63 S, that impresses most on the cool tarmac.
Where the AMG GT R wants to light up its rear tyres through first gear the all-wheel drive E63 just hooks up and goes. The biggest challenge is my sluggish, lightly-caffeinated reflexes, which make it tough to actually win a drag race.
Maybe a career in racing isn’t on the horizon after all?
After half an hour of rolling through the E63 and GT R we’re ferried over to the straight section between the Southern Loop and Stoner Corner, where the A45 S hatch is waiting for a higher-speed take on the classic brake-and-swerve test.
More impressive than the way it stops is the way the A45 threads its way through a slalom, in an exercise designed to show how much the Dynamic Select system can change the car’s character.
It’s relatively buttoned down in Basic mode, as the stability control keeps the A45 from getting too out of shape, before getting progressively more playful through Advanced, Pro, and Master modes.
With some form of drive mode adjustment on offer in most modern cars, from entry-level family hatchbacks to German cruise missiles, it’s a reminder they’re not all created equal.
It would be interesting to see how toggling through the drive modes in the A45 compared to the systems in, say, an Audi RS3… but that isn’t really the point of the day.
The final, most exciting part of the warm-up activities is a bit of drifting on a wet Honda Corner in a C63 S sedan. Getting sideways isn’t hard, keeping it there takes a bit more practice if you’re a novice like me.
My three attempts yield a half slide, and messy full slide, and a spin. At least the car stays on the blacktop, though. One driver ended up bogged after going slightly too hard. There’s a GLS on hand to haul the stricken C-Class out.
This is all part of the Level 1 AMG driving course, priced from $2600.
With the cars and drivers thoroughly warmed up, it’s time to actually hit the track in the AMG GT R, part of the next step: the Level 2 course, priced from $3000.
Every driver is given a USB stick at the start of the day for exactly this eventuality. The GT R is hooked up to a data tracking system that gives a full, race-style trace for brake, throttle, and your actual speed.
Lap times aren’t really the priority in the first session, even though we’re driving the big daddy of the AMG range. Learning the track is the focus, with instructors giving constant feedback about braking points, where to get on the throttle, and how to negotiate some of Philip Island’s tricky double apexes.
If you haven’t spent much time on track like me, one of the biggest challenges is not getting lost.
Sincere apologies to the instructor in the passenger seat when I mistook the first part of the Southern Loop, where patience on the accelerator is key, for the part where it opens onto a short straight.
The toughest part of the first session is keeping below the 150km/h speed limit. Coming out of the final corner onto the Gardner Straight you’re immediately at maximum speed, and it takes real focus – and self control – not to keep the taps open.
Just as we’re starting to feel a bit confident, lunch is called and we pile back into the pits. And then just like that we’re back out on track, this time with a 200km/h speed limit and access to the A45 S.
At a quarter the price and with just half the cylinders of the GT R, the little A45 could feel like a poor relation but, with a track to play with, it feels more than up to the task.
You can push the hyper hatch hard without fear of it biting back thanks to its all-wheel drive system.
The fear with all-wheel drive hot hatches is that they’ll default to understeer at track speeds, but the A45 is impressively neutral through the middle of a corner, and you can feel the clever differentials working their magic when you start powering out of a corner.
Throughout every session the program sees you on track for two or three laps, and then back into the pits to change cars and instructors. Each has a slightly different perspective, and each provides their own tips to help build a clearer picture of how to get around Philip Island.
Each stop also provides the Mercedes-AMG pit crew to check tyre pressures, and make sure the tyres are still in good nick.
From the A45 we hop into my personal favourite car of the day, the C63 S sedan. It’s about to be replaced with a smarter, faster plug-in hybrid, and it’s not the fastest car on offer through the day, but it’s the most approachable and old-fashioned by a huge margin.
Compared to the bigger, heavier E63 S it feels happier to turn in, and once it’s settled you can gradually dial in the throttle and feel the back end starting to come around as you straighten the steering.
It feels faster than the A45, more compact and lively than the E63, and less imposing than the GT R. It’s fast, happily bashing into the 200km/h speed limit with plenty in reserve.
There are two epiphanies for me behind the wheel of the C63. The first comes when an instructor uses the marshal’s box in the Southern Loop as a reference point for attacking the exit of the corner, the second when he pushes me to brake later into the hairpins, and turn in harder and more decisively.
Is the C63 Estate the perfect daily driver? I don’t know, but the idea of being able to lug a bike around on weekdays and attack a track like this on weekends is very, very appealing.
It makes the car that follows it, the E63 S, feel a bit heavy and wooly. The car is wildly powerful and capable on the road (too powerful, as we learned earlier this year) but it takes some getting used to after the lighter, more adjustable C63 and A45.
The biggest car of the day is the only one that sees me off the track.
After carrying more speed through the kink before Honda than I have been all day, the E63 doesn’t want to stop and we’re forced to bail down the escape road and shamefully crawl back onto the track behind a pair of A45 drivers. Whoops.
After feeling a bit lost in the morning, the afternoon session is about building pace and confidence, with the rotation of instructors focusing on braking (hard, before gradually releasing the pedal) as the speed rises.
The crescendo is a data session overlaying our first time out in the GT R with a reference lap from a professional, with two-time Australian Formula 3 champion Tim Macrow explaining how the racer’s speed trace differs from ours before heading back out onto the track.
Along with the fact they’re carrying more speed everywhere, the trace shows how much more decisive a proper racer is with the brakes, and how much sooner they’re on the accelerator as the corner opens up.
The comparison is made more stark by the fact the data trace comes from the first session of the day, rather than one of the faster afternoon blasts. How’s that for a racer’s excuse?
With no speed limits and access to the GT R, the final session for the day is a place to put together everything we’ve picked up through the day. The contrast with the morning is stark.
Listening back to the onboard footage from the data logger, I don’t sound particularly relaxed talking with the instructors on the way round, but I feel more at home behind the wheel.
The GT R isn’t as imposing, and less conscious effort is going into where to place the car on track, which frees up brain power for the actual driving. And then, just like that, it’s done.
Mercedes-AMG isn’t alone in giving its owners a chance to cut loose on track. Audi has a Driving Experience, and BMW has its own experiences.
If you’re given the chance, do it. There’s no point owning a performance car and using none of its performance, and it’s just not possible to cut loose in plenty of modern performance cars on Australian public roads.
Sure, there are plenty of open track days where you can put your own car through its paces, but there’s no substitute for time with an expert sitting next to you.
There’s also no substitute for using someone else’s tyres and fuel…
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