If you’ve never driven above 110km/h, got behind the wheel of a proper performance car or experienced the thrill of a track day, you just don’t know what you’re missing out on.
Up until last week, I'd ticked all those boxes, but always knew there was more to driving than the average journey from A to B.
So, when I was offered the chance to head to Sydney Motorsport Park to join one of Mercedes-Benz’s reinstated Driving Events for 2021, I jumped at the opportunity to push my driving skills beyond their fairly tame limits and get a taste of what it’s like to learn proper car control.
Developed for a wide range of skillsets, from newbies like me to seasoned gearheads, the Accelerate program showcases the best of what Mercedes-Benz has to offer on, and off, the track, giving you the opportunity to explore some extraordinary cars and their impressive capabilities in a safe environment.
The program aims to teach you about the brand (of course), its latest technology and how it works, and to take you out of your comfort zone in some seriously fun ways.
Kicking off proceedings, we ran some laps in the C63 S for an introduction to just what’s involved in Mercedes-AMG performance driving, including up-to-date advice on how you should be holding the wheel and where your eyes should be looking, to ensure you have control over the car when you need to brake at high speeds.
The basic premise is – forget what you know about keeping your hands at 10 and 2. That’s old news. New cars and new technology have changed the way we need to drive. Having your hands instead at 9 and 3 gives you more leverage to turn the wheel quickly without your arms getting in a tangled mess.
The other key skill I learned is vision training – looking further down the track as far as you can, at where you want to go rather than at the bend or the car in front. And yes, that means, God forbid, lowering your seat.
Most accidents on the road are front to rear, and that’s what this lesson was all about – how to avoid an accident and learn good practices on the circuit which you can transfer over to normal road driving.
Next up was heading into uncharted territory for us every-day drivers, and that meant going up and down steep dirt tracks in a GLS 400 D 4Matic, an experience designed to show the AWD capabilities of a modern car off-road.
Relying on the vehicle’s technology (front and rear cameras and downhill speed regulator) to essentially take over the driving was somewhat terrifying, but also incredibly impressive.
I can honestly say I’ve never reversed uphill (at least not one quite so steep!) in an SUV, but the GLS was so remarkably rock-steady at what felt like that moment on a rollercoaster where it hangs at the top before the heart-stopping drop, that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was glued to the surface.
Why would you ever need to reverse uphill? Well, so my instructor told me, in the Victorian high country when you’re off-roading, if you don’t have a chainsaw on hand to cut up that fallen tree, then knowing how to go back up the hill you’ve just come down is essential.
Another first for me was a trip in an electric car, the EQC 400 4Matic. For a long time, I’ve quite liked the idea of driving electric but haven’t quite been ready (or had the cash) to make the leap while the infrastructure is still coming into its own.
While we ran a few laps, my passionate instructor described how every time you brake, the electricity is harvested back into the battery, thus recovering otherwise lost energy, and how that then becomes part of your ‘single-foot’ driving style.
It’s a completely different discipline to braking in a conventional car, but one that you soon pick up quite naturally.
Mercedes-Benz has already pledged not to develop any more internal combustion engines for its line-up, and other manufacturers are following suit, so getting to know how an all-electric vehicle works is no bad thing.
After trying out the EQC, it was then my turn to have a crack at a very different vehicle – the AMG GT R V8 BiTurbo. Wow, was that fast. It’s not easy for the performance figures of 430kW and 700Nm to make much meaningful impact on paper, but feeling it surge to 170km/h so rapidly is enough to change your perspective.
Never could I have imagined driving such a boisterous performance car capable of 0-100km/h in a claimed 3.6 seconds, but this experience gave me the confidence I needed to get behind the wheel with no fear – safe in the knowledge that a professional driving instructor was by my side, guiding and encouraging me the whole time.
Driving at the speed limit, you never really get a sense of what any car, let alone a beast like the GT R, is capable of, but with the team of instructors – many of whom are racing drivers – guiding you safely through it, this experience gives you exactly that.
Driver training is a good eye-opener when it comes to discovering your own limitations.
Next it was over to the skidpan to simulate a ‘brake and swerve’ or emergency lane change – a key skill to have in a world of distractions – in a GLA 250 4Matic. After that, we looped a figure of eight around some witches’ hats in an E300 to test its handling in the wet.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the day for me though was a demo of the new safety features in an AMG GLE 53 4Matic+.
I’m lucky to have never been in a car crash, but this showed me just how clever vehicles have become at helping us to avoid everyday accidents.
A walkthrough of the safety systems Mercedes refers to as its ‘Assistance Packages’ demonstrated the benefits of ‘normal brake assist’, ‘cross-traffic assist’ and ‘pedestrian detection’, and then we did it all again using ‘Active Cruise Control’ – testing these aids in a way most people wouldn’t normally get the chance to when buying a new car.
These days, the new car buying process often simply boils down to choosing what colour it comes in, the size of the touchscreen or what wheels you can get, but the value of learning about the various safety systems on offer and how they work in practice that days like this give you is more than worth the money.
But why specifically go on driver training with Mercedes-Benz?
Well, I was invited, of course. But for regular buyers? Peter Hackett, Chief Driving Instructor for Mercedes-Benz Australia and New Zealand, says it's all about the one-to-one experience.
“We’re very proud of the personalisation – our instructor-to-student ratio is one instructor to one or two students at the most. That’s a big change for us – it used to be one to three, which makes our level of tuition quite high.
"And, I believe, we have the largest range of vehicles in Australia including AMG, off-road, EVs, the S-Class and the C-Class available. Our technology offering is unique in Australia, too.”
In large part, the Mercedes-Benz Driving Events are for the brand's customers, but Peter says the experience is for anyone looking to improve their driving skills or to get to know more about their vehicle.
“We want people to go away thinking, ‘wow I didn’t know cars could do that, or this car could do that, or I could do that’. We don’t necessarily want super-experienced drivers who just want to cut laps in an AMG GT R.”
This event was particularly special for everyone involved, as it was the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the world last year that it has been possible to do such a thing.
Forget luxury cars – isn’t it a luxury enough these days to sit next to someone you don’t live with, in a vehicle, without both having masks on and the windows down?
“It’s fantastic to be back,” Peter adds. “It’s that interaction, that personalisation of a program like this, that we’ve missed. We’ve had so many incredible cars released in the time we weren’t able to show them off, so to be back here and to see the smiles on people’s faces as they experience the new technologies is something we’ve waited a long time for.”
The half-day program costs $550 (including morning tea and lunch) and is split into three sessions all lasting about an hour each.
It grants access to the best cars in the three-pointed star’s range, along with personalised tuition from professional racing drivers, present on the day as instructors.
The program is also open to anyone with a valid probationary or full driver’s licence, whether or not you hold the keys to a Merc.
How can I get involved?
The Driving Events are held twice a year in the Eastern states, with visits to South Australia and Western Australia in between, at:
New South Wales – Sydney Motorsport Park
Queensland – Mount Cotton Hillclimb
Victoria – Sandown International Motor Raceway
South Australia – Mallala Motorsport Park
Western Australia – Barbagallo Raceway, Wanneroo
To find out more, speak to your local Mercedes-Benz dealer or visit the website here.
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