Surviving Mount Panorama with the Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy

A day with the AMG Driving Academy tackling Mount Panorama is the automotive equivalent of Disneyland

Surviving Mount Panorama with the Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy

BATHURST’S formidable Mount Panorama circuit is arguably more deeply entwined into the tapestry of Australian motorsport than any of our other legendary racing assets.

Perhaps it’s the unfathomable elevation from Murray’s Corner to Brock’s Skyline, maybe it’s the spirit of racing nobility that has fought it out over the years here, or perhaps it’s the fact that, for a majority of the year, the fearsome track is just another public road.

As a street circuit, you can turn up at almost any time in any road registered car and lap one of the world’s most famous racing tracks – as long as you stick to the speed limit. But if you want to get a little closer to what it must feel like to complete a lap or two of Mount Panorama in anger, the opportunities are few and far between.

One option is to become a professional racing driver. All you have to do is win a few kart races after cutting your racing teeth from the age of about six, get noticed by a talent spotter and score a drive in a single-seater, keep toiling in the gym and on the circuit night and day whilst pumping cash into your sport and by your mid-20s you might have graduated to one of the disciplines that race the mountain. No guarantees though.

If that seems like just a little too much of a commitment however, there is another possibility.

If you are a member of the AMG Club (by having taken delivery of a new Mercedes-AMG in the last three years) and were quick enough to snap up one of the circa 140 places on this year’s AMG Driving Academy, you would have been one of the handful of mere mortals to hit Mount Panorama under racing conditions.

Just hours after the 2018 Bathurst 12 Hour endurance race had concluded (in ceremoniously unspectacular circumstances) we were back at the track. The shards of smashed carbonfibre had been cleared and the final campsites were being packed up but we had another full day under the supervision of AMG’s expert driving instructors and a fleet of more than 50 hot AMG machines.

The morning was choreographed into four separate sections designed to teach participants a different part of the circuit. By focusing on a small component at a time, the mighty track is not overwhelmingly dealt with in one chunk.

The exception to the valuable educational experience was our first task and a blatantly frivolous drag race along the start/finish straight in a E63 S. There’s not a lot to learn from a full launch-control start in AMG’s most powerful road car to date, but revving the 4.0-litre turbo V8 to 4000rpm and sidestepping the brake with your left foot is addictively good fun.

When Wheels tested the E63 S’ zero to 100km/h acceleration in the July edition, we managed to shave a tenth from the official time of 3.4 seconds, but more remarkable than the time is the car’s ability to consistently perform the punishing launch.

There are a number of brands that certainly wouldn’t allow their vehicles to be subjected to an entire morning of full-noise race starts but we didn’t see one E-Class miss a beat and it’s a real vote of confidence by Mercedes for its hardware.

Next, it was on to the end of Mountain Straight and into a selection of C63s. For the second lesson, we would focus on Griffiths Bend to McPhillamy Park including the intimidating and tricky Cutting. Get the power on too early in the tight, uphill left hander and there are only brutal concrete walls to interrupt your impending slide.

When you’re in the guts of it, those walls seem to tower above you with a foreboding and unforgiving presence. Get it right however, and you’ll blast out into Quarry Corner and on to the famous Grate. With the correct line, it’s possible to carry a huge pace through the series of four corners and a pass in a turbo V8 C-Class highlights just how manic the speeds are when the V8 Supercars and GTs come through. Sulman Park flashes by and we are at the top of the mountain. What’s next?

Perhaps it was the immense torque of the C63 or the distraction of having to concentrate intently on not smashing up $160,000 worth of someone else’s car, but we hadn’t fully appreciated the altitude climbed on the upside of the mountain, but that was about to change.

Jumping into a combination of A45s and CLA 45s, our next challenge was to learn the punishing downhill portion from Skyline to Forrest’s Elbow.

Even in AMG’s only four-cylinder model, the descent is almost exclusively a braking exercise and teaches the importance of hitting the anchors only when the steering is straight. Smash the middle pedal when turning or give into the temptation to apply power before the apex in Forrests and, once again, the concrete will put an early end to your day.

You can appreciate why so many cars check out early at the penultimate turn before Conrod Straight. Forrest’s Elbow fools you into thinking it’s a 90-degree turn but it’s actually slightly sharper and without a clear view of the exit, many drivers make the mistake of apexing early, getting on the loud pedal and washing out to a very unfriendly wall.

It is astonishing just how steep the track is on the downside – a feature that simply cannot be appreciated by television coverage or clever low-slung photography.

For the final module we swapped to the flagship AMG GTs for a crack at the fastest piece of track - the terrifying Conrod Straight and the Chase.

With just three turns to focus on and a very capable car beneath us, the last lesson seemed fairly straightforward, but quite how we would cope after a full connected lap of the mountain in the afternoon was anyone’s guess.

The expert tuition from the passenger seat had certainly helped build my confidence for the afternoon’s attack and I was feeling calm and collected as we strolled out to the waiting AMGs.

Like the morning’s activity, we gradually cycled through the various AMG examples and it was hugely satisfying to connect the parts we had learned in small steps. With a little familiarity, some great direction and a capable high-performance car, Bathurst is still daunting but not as horrifyingly impossible to negotiate as you might imagine.

The key, as the Driving Academy teaches, is to maintain the correct line, gradually build up the speed and never get ahead of yourself or try to impress the massively experienced instructor to your left. They’ve encountered too many dickheads before and, no, they are not a talent scout in disguise.

As the laps ticked over and more frequently, the insanely technical Mount Panorama became more friendly and approachable. While the V8-powered AMGs devoured the straights with typical German efficiency the A45 was a true hero of the day.

It might only pack a relatively paltry 280kW but on a track like Mount Panorama it is ridiculously quick. If the V8s are galloping greyhounds, the A45 and CLA 45 are jack russells with serious little-dog attitude snapping at their heels.

Another notable mention has to go to the E63 S which was easily the fastest thing in amateur hands thanks to its loutish power output reined in by all-wheel drive. I still can’t believe how fast it dealt with the Cutting.

The afternoon in the driver’s seat concluded with a few laps at the wheel of a GT S. There’s no doubt that the GT is a brutally quick machine and has a delightfully light-footed nature when blasting through both slow and high-speed corners.

But, just when I thought I was somewhere close to mastering the iconic track, the keys to the GT S were snatched by German DTM champ Maximilian Goetz who then proceeded to demonstrate that I knew absolutely nothing about driving at all.

With the driving mode flicked to Race and driver assistance firmly off, the factory AMG driver threw the coupe at the mountain with a pace that is still simply unfathomable. Every corner I had agonised with to find extra pace was despatched with a clinical efficiency, unbelievable pace and, most surprisingly, incredible smoothness.

It was honestly like Max was dancing with the car with the tail threatening to step out and kill us both on virtually every bend but the car was perfectly under control at all times. I was the awkward gooseberry along for the ride, struggling to comprehend how someone could be so much faster.

There are average drivers, good drivers and exceptional drivers. Then, somewhere an immeasurable distance beyond the ability of an exceptional driver, are racing drivers.

After a day tearing rubber from rims, shamelessly burning hydrocarbons and becoming acquainted with Mount Panorama I had learnt possibly more about driving in one day than any other single day in 20 years of driving.

For a very fortunate few, the AMG Driving Academy offers the same incredibly valuable educational experience, but perhaps the hardest lesson to take away from a truly exceptional day is that I will never be a racing driver.


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