Picture waking up Christmas morning to find a nondescript looking package with your name on it. Inside, you find an invitation to the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy where you'll spend two days with some of the best instructors in the country, driving a full array of current Mercedes-Benz models at one of Canada's fastest race tracks.
Imagine your heart rate spike upon discovering that it's the highly-acclaimed AMG Driving Academy you'll attend, driving no fewer than a dozen current high-performance AMG models as fast as you can around the world famous Ontario road course known affectionately as Mosport.
I can't think of a more epic Christmas present for any car enthusiast. I mean, what speed freak wouldn't be covered head-to-toe in goosebumps at this point? That isn't what happened here. Instead, the fall colours north of Bowmanville were still on the trees when Mercedes-Benz Canada called to invite me to the AMG Driving Academy at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP), but it might as well have been Christmas.
The two-day program, offered only at CTMP and Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains, is the highest level of advanced driver training Mercedes-Benz offers to consumers in Canada. Building on the one-day Mastering Performance track program, students in the AMG program face more challenging exercises designed to help them achieve faster, more consistent lap times. Including meals and overnight accommodations, the AMG Driving Academy costs $3,995. Travel and transportation are extra.
Mercedes-Benz also offers a half-day Driving Experience and full-day Winter Academy in Laval, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. All programs afford students the chance to drive all models in the Academy's fleet of 12 vehicles, including AMG models, to ensure maximum seat time, instruction and enjoyment.
With a 9 A.M. rain or shine start, my 150 km drive across the GTA starts well before sunrise as Toronto's many intersecting roads can turn into a gnarly morning traffic gauntlet in an instant. My 2013 VW Golf R press car is running like a turbocharged bunny as it gets me ahead of the gridlock.
I'm bursting with excitement and anticipation upon arrival at the track where the lower level of the Castrol tower is doubling as a breakfast café and classroom one last time before being demolished to make way for welcome improvements at CTMP.
Chief instructor Danny Kok (pronounced Coke) introduces his team and goes over the day's itinerary before refreshing the class on some basic things like seating, steering, vision and trail braking. After a safety briefing, he asks everyone to grab a helmet, hop into a car on pit lane and wait for instructions on the radio.
I've worked with these instructors at an AMG Performance Tour event a few years ago at Spring Mountain Motorsport Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada with much success. Interestingly, CTMP co-owner and Canadian racing legend Ron Fellows happens to have a Performance Driving School there.
Before long we make our way onto the track and, after a few casual laps, we prepare at the start of the ultra-fast Mario Andretti Straightaway for some semi-competitive drag racing. The exercise highlights the sound and power of the AMG engines and capability of the braking system. Dual stop boxes at the finish line ensure drivers get a solid feel for the brake pedal and stopping distances these AMGs are capable of before going balls out on the full track. Missing the box earns an automatic disqualification and wrist slap while nailing it ahead of the other guy nets a high five and temporary bragging rights.
Next, we stop at the top of turn two (Clayton Corner) followed by turn three (Quebec Corner) where we get out of the cars for a walk and talk about the track. Danny points out the apexes, tire wall and concrete slabs that run through both turns, as well as the proper braking points and racing line. Turn two's blind entry into an off-camber downhill run makes it a popular place for off-track excursions. Keeping your nerves and speed through here is essential to a good lap time. Same for turn four.
With our close-up study complete, we all strap back in and roll out in two groups running simultaneously on the 3.957 km track in a lead-follow format. The lapping sessions are 15 to 20 minutes long with drivers, cars and instructors swapping with one another to get acquainted with each other, the track and the cars.
I start off in one of the fleets' two SL63 AMGs, but there are plenty more AMG models here, including the SLS coupe, C63 coupe and sedan, SLK55 roadster, E63 sedan and wagon, CLS63 saloon and the ML63 utility vehicle. There's even a new smart electric bicycle here to test drive during the lunch break.
Let the data-logging begin!
After enjoying a catered lunch, everybody heads back out to analyze and discuss “The Esses” (turns eight and nine) before getting back to more lapping and rotating through the fleet several times. “It's a pretty fast corner, so you don't want to scrub too much speed,” says Kok before sending us to the cars.
It's all fun and practice for one group, while the other group is all about business with the data-logging and video capture equipment in the E-class cars up and running to record our every move. With Danny driving the wagon and students alternating in the four-door, everyone clicks off their fastest laps. I'm pretty comfortable at this point, reaching speeds above 220 km/h down the back-straight before hammering down on the brakes before the Canadian Tire bridge.
Following a fistful of hot laps, it's back to the classroom to close out the day with our group's first of two data analysis sessions. Our baselines are a mixed bag; the fastest laps vary by driver, with some as much 10 seconds apart from one another, give or take. The hardware records all kinds of data with multiple G sensors, GPS and video that produce a trace outline of each lap broken down by sectors and other info.
Analysis Pro software from Race Technology displays the data – things like acceleration, deceleration, time, speed, distance, video and much more – and displays it many different ways. The instructors analyze and compare this data to their own baselines, with every student receiving personalized feedback and suggested areas for improvement.
We aren't analyzing golf or tennis swings here, so my ears perk up when Patrick brings up my data. The verdict? A 1:43.34 lap time. My lap traces reveal my braking needs work. I need to brake later going into turns two and four, get on the brakes harder and later ahead of turn eight and carry more speed through The Esses.
On the plus side though, after a half dozen laps, three out of my four fastest sectors of the whole session are in my fastest lap. Knowing there's room for improvement, I ask Danny what a really good lap time for this car on this track might be. “Anything under 1:40,” he replies. And with that, day one is done.
Before everyone heads off to bed to dream of even faster lap times, the students and instructors all head out to Fazio's Restaurant & Wine Experience in nearby Oshawa for some fine Italian and a tour of the enigmatic Tino Fazio's impressive wine cellar.
A restful sleep at the hotel is met by a cool overcast morning at the track where the fleet of AMGs is idling up to temperature. My goal for the day is to break the 1:40 mark.
Classroom time is minimal on day two, which is designed to offer more coached lapping with expert feedback and yet more data-logging and video recording. Before getting down to it, everyone helmets up and hops into an AMG to drive out to Moss Corner (turns five A through C) for a closer study of one of the trickiest parts of the track.
The corner entry is quite steep, rising 32 feet in only 285 feet from the bottom of the hill to the highest point between 5A and B, which is somewhat of a crux for me. Although 5B is the slowest corner on the track, it is perhaps the most important corner of them all. Not getting it right has a tremendous impact on top speed at the end of the mile-long Andretti Straight, and I've wagged the tail exiting 5B a few times already. It's critical your car be on the correct line and its speed precise throughout the entire corner as this is where you can leave someone in your dust, or eat someone else's.
The running groups continue hot-lapping and data-logging for what seems like forever, stopping only to change cars every few laps and eat lunch. After a while I find myself back in the E63 AMG Wagon chasing down Danny, only this time it looks like he's trying to get away from me. I'm charging harder and braking later into corners two, four and eight; and it feels like I'm going faster, especially through The Esses. Will the data support this? There's only one way to find out!
Before the program concludes with a high-speed “taxi” ride-along with Danny in the SLS AMG, it's back to the classroom for our final analyses. Everyone is seeing big improvements in their lap times – some by as many as 10 seconds – and that is translating into satisfied customers. I'm anxious to learn whether I've achieved my goal or not.
My answer comes soon enough with my lap time of 1:39.7 being met by cheers from my fellow drivers. The work in turn five has paid off: I'm carrying more speed onto the back straight, reaching a top speed of 230 km/h; and, I'm more than seven km/h faster than day one on the last lap, though I'm still braking a bit early for turn eight (The SLS AMG exceeds 250 km/h by this braking point.). My first three sectors are green, but a slight bobble in the final turn tells me I could have gone even quicker in the fourth.
“I can go faster,” I say. “They all say that,” laughs Danny. How much faster is up for debate, but I'm very, very close to the limits of the car. My lap is also very close to the instructors' times, thus ensuring they've done their jobs. The software pegs my theoretical best lap time at 1:38.81. So, to be less than a second off that mark is pretty crazy!
“The challenges are under braking, not under speed,” Danny finally reveals. And he's right! Anybody can drive fast, but not everyone can be fast when braking. This is where seconds are won and lost on the race track.
While this is as far as the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy can take students in Canada, it doesn't have to be the end of your training. In fact, in Germany where the school has been running since 2006, the programs are greater in number and in scope.
If you're talking about the track, you can start with a basic training and go all the way up to the Masters level, which has three different modules with the SLS GT3 race car. It's like going to school and, if you pass all those levels, you get your Masters, which is an official racing license in Germany. Then you can go race in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring race or wherever you want.
“To see what our cars can really do is not possible on public roads,” says Ola Källenius, Chairman of Mercedes-AMG. “That's where the academy comes in – you can really try out a full-scale performance car in a safe way at its limits.”
Even better, you don't have to wait for Christmas.
Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy 2013 Schedule
June 2, 3 – Laval
June 16, 17 – Toronto
July 19 – Edmonton
July 21 – Calgary
July 27 – Vancouver
May 8, 9 – Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant
May 13, 14 – Canadian Tire Motorsport Park
June 7 – Le Circuit Mont Tremblant
June 10, 11 – Canadian Tire Motorsport Park
July 19 – Edmonton
July 24, 25 – Vancouver
AMG Driving Academy
September 16, 17 – Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (one day)
October 2 – Le Circuit Mont Tremblant (one day)
October 3, 4 – Le Circuit Mont Tremblant (two days)
October 7, 8 – Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (two days)