Adventurous antidote for tough economic times

Mercedes-Benz Oz takes to the track for an expensive but priceless week of excitement in Melbourne. Peter McKay takes a spin around Albert Park.

Adventurous antidote for tough economic times

Only last year, Mercedes-Benz Australia managed a neat marketing coup when it secured Mount Panorama, Bathurst, for several days of track driving for its AMG customers, and some lucky motoring media.

Having scaled the mountain, MBA then took on an even greater convince the army of egos and bureaucrats responsible for putting on the Australian Formula One Grand Prix to lease out the circuit for a large slab of the Wednesday before the race and to let loose 75 current or prospective punters (plus some journos to get a taste test of the Mercedes AMG customers' experience) on the sacred macadam.

This had never been achieved previously in the history of F1, but after months of wrangling, MBA got the green light.

So, four days in advance of a world championship race, it was a coup of considerable achievement to get the track for the exclusive use under closed conditions between 6.30am and 1.00pm, under the control of CAMS and the FIA.

It's anyone's guess how much MBA had to pay for the unique privilege, and how much it cost to assemble dozens of clients past and future, 24 AMG sports models (plus six Mercs with AMG packages) plus driving instructors to ride shotgun with in each. Mercedes was understandably coy about putting a figure on the exercise but the roughest of guesses would put it as many hundreds of thousands of precious dollars.

While many other brands are taking a very conservative approach in these dark, unpredictable months, Mercedes-Benz is boldly keeping excitement in its shop window.

There is no doubt that Merc is of the firm opinion that, even when the market is soft, you must continue sow to harvest...

At the recent Geneva Motor Show, Dr Dieter Zetsche, head of Daimler AG, said that two core elements to Mercedes-Benz will never be compromised, not even during the global financial crisis. One is the ongoing extensive research and development work, and the other is Mercedes-Benz's family of customers. "Our commitment in Australia is no different," said MBA spokesman Peter Fadeyev, "and being able to offer our customers such a special and memorable experience such as our Albert Park AMG Challenge event is critical to our business and brand".

Mercedes-Benz Australia managing director Horst von Sanden makes a very good point too: "If you offer what everyone else offers, it's not that important."

The toys provided were 24 Mercedes-AMG sports cars, three C320 CDI turbo diesel sedans fitted with AMG Sports Packages, and three SLK350 roadsters fitted with AMG Sports Packages.

The serious V8 AMG-tweaked models for the sampling of those present included sedan and estate versions of the C63, the CLK63 cabrio, CLS63, S63, SKL55 (with the 'old' V8, and a car that we didn't get to try at Mount Panorama, the SL63.

The combined value of the 30 Mercedes-Benz cars on the circuit for the event was $6.44 million (excluding dealer delivery and statutory charges).

In the look-but-don't-touch department were a range-leading $680,000 bi-turbo V12 SL65 AMG Black Series car (493kW and 1000Nm) with a 'sold' sticker, and a CLK63 AMG Black Series demonstrator.

The 75 customers registered their intention to attend the track day and were selected according to a legal ballot (illustrating the complexity of organising such events and playing fair, MBA obtained permits from all of the relevant states to run the ballot and then drew the names under the supervision of an approved scrutineer).

Under leaden skies that produced some showers mid stint, your rep from cycled through five different models - four AMG rockets and the SLK350 Sport.

The deal is three laps per driver, and don't scare the guy riding shotgun. Most of the instructors are race drivers - blokes like Luke Youlden, Ian Dyk, and Tim Slade - so they don't need journos uncorking their skill and daring in $300,000 belters.

As far as I could tell, only one Merc AMG ended up in Albert Park's ever-ready sand traps. The damage was confined to a red face. We can say that the culprit wasn't from Wheels, but it would not be fair to name and shame here. What goes on the tour of Albert Park stays on tour...

These potent AMG blasters are quick - it was easy to see 200 in the long and mainly straight bits - but they stop brilliantly and consistently (though the rotors in some of the cars had obviously copped a caning earlier), and they are so stable and grippy in the corners, even with an occasional rain shower enlivening the mix.

The sensible concession to the greasy track conditions and the value of the cars was to leave the stability control engaged.

Yes, we are fortunate to have such a unique experience. And, no, you can't have my job.

The AMG brutes have been stoically withstanding the recession better than most high-priced luxury models - last year 24,200 were sold worldwide, a record year. Of those, 700 were delivered in Oz. The AMG line is sure to receive a boost later in the year when the AMG versions of the new E Class hits this market

How many sales did Mercedes-Benz seal from the lavish and rare track day at Albert Park?. The truth is that no one really knows. Some punters have expressed keenness while others are double-checking with accountants and bank managers.

The track day brought indubitable benefits for the brand, but precisely quantifying those paybacks in sales is impossible.

And while, McLaren-Mercedes had a tough racing weekend at Albert Park culminating in the shame of Lewis Hamilton 's third place being scrubbed because of misleading evidence to stewards, let's not forget that the Brawn cars that took a marvellous Australian Grand Prix quinella were in fact powered by Mercedes V8s.

Where to have the next AMG drive day? Nordscheife? How about Monaco?


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