Taking the Long Way Around Corners at the AMG Driving Academy
Sliding sideways in a Mercedes-AMG with hundreds of horsepower overcoming the prodigious grip provided by wide Continental tires would ordinarily be a cause for concern, but it is standard operating procedure at the AMG Driving Academy drifting school simply known as DRIFT. A day-long program mixes fun with car control basics to make students better drivers and enable them to better fully understand the capabilities and limits of the cars many of them have in their garages at home.
Drifting – “A driving technique where the driver intentionally oversteers, causing traction loss at the rear or front and rear of the vehicle, while maintaining complete control through the entire corner or series of corners.”
With so many Mercedes-AMG cars equipped with supercar performance, Mercedes-AMG established a driving experience to offer drivers several graduated performance programs. One and two-day programs, with experienced instructors, combine fundamental skill exercises and race track time, all designed to fit various degrees of driver experience and intensity. The driving experiences are open to anyone who wants to enjoy an exciting outing at the track and are not limited to Mercedes-AMG owners.
A day at Laguna Seca in Monterey drifting Mercedes-AMG cars around the paddock sounded too good to pass up, so The Speed Journal sent resident shoe Jeff Francis to learn about the fine art of car control. The good news is that the experience surpassed all expectations. Yes, there is more to drifting than spinning around in circles.
Like anything capable of being done, drifting can be done well and done poorly. There is a science to understanding the technique of initiating a slide, applying power and correcting steering inputs, pausing as the car moves back towards a neutral orientation, and recovering to drive away. The AMG Driving Academy team teaches this shorthand as “C” for correct, “P” for pause, and “R” for recover.
“C” stands for CORRECT, turning steering wheel in the direction you want to go.
“P” stands for the PAUSE, the moment between when the car stops its initial skid and when it starts to rebound in the opposite direction.
“R” stands for RECOVER, the wheel comes back to the center and we drive away. Look where you want to go, not where you’re afraid of going as your hands follow your eyes.
This wisdom is mostly delivered in the car instead of in the classroom. When Francis attended his DRIFT experience, the total sixteen attendees were divided into two groups of eight. Four Mercedes-AMG E63S four-door sedans and four C63S coupes awaited the groups as they worked through the schedule of modules. The groups would switch between the cars depending on the exercise. Having so many cars was key to ensuring that each student had plenty of track time. Coach Grant took charge of Francis’ group for the day, but was assisted at times by other instructor’ contributions. The low instructor/student ratio was a huge factor in making the event feel tailored and continually valuable.
To get started, the class got a close look at a Mercedes-AMG E63S that would be their mount to get started. Part of the tour focused on an ideal driving position. With so many adjustments available, students adjusted seating and steering positions under the guidance of Coach Grant in preparation to get sideways. The other part of the tour involved the car itself, including a look under the hood at the famous V-8 powerplant assembled by Mercedes-AMG technicians in Affalterbach, Germany. Before getting sideways and torturing tires, the car required a few technical adjustments of its own. Usually, the 4-liter V-8 engine delivers its 603 horsepower through a sophisticated four-wheel drive system. A myriad of settings and technology are designed to maximize stability and keep the nose pointed in a straight line. With a sequence of buttons and pulls on the shift paddles, the driver engages DRIFT mode which send all the power to the rear wheels rather than splitting power between the front and rear. With the engine in the front and all the power delivered to the rear, the Mercedes-AMG E63S becomes a drifting machine.
Key Fundamental – “Look where you want to be next, not where you are. Hands and feet follow the eyes!”
Where others might see an empty Laguna Seca paddock, the AMG Driving Academy team sees a perfect driving course. Cones marked out a brief slalom type course to get students used to sliding both to the right and left. A water truck lurked nearby to give the track a light bath to reduce friction.
After a quick lead-follow through the cones, students circulated through the course on their own. The small class size ensured plenty of seat time for each driver. A walkie talkie style radio strapped to the cup holder allowed Coach Grant to provide instruction and commentary from outside the car. Students were encouraged to be aggressive, make mistakes and learn from them. One key thread established early and emphasized throughout the day was keeping the eyes forward and letting the car follow. That simple direction required some pre-programming of the brain when forward meant looking out a side window rather than the windshield, but that was also an easy tangible indicator of success.
Understeer – “a situation where the front of the car is losing traction and the vehicle does not respond well to steering inputs. In extreme cases, the car will leave the road, front end first.”
One of the AMG Driving Academy instructors would periodically drive the course with a student in the passenger seat to better illustrate the fundamentals. Of course, the instructor laps also served as a demonstration of their skill and the full capabilities of the car.
Eventually, the two groups switched which meant that Francis now had a chance to pilot a C63S coupe, also set up in drift mode to deliver its 503 horsepower to the rear wheels. For this second module, a figure eight course was designed which required skill and concentration to link the drift through the sequence of corners. As the group gained confidence and skills, a rhythm quickly established moving students into and out of cars, maximizing time behind the wheel.
Brief interludes paused proceedings to reset cones or spray water on the asphalt surface. AMG Driving Academy instructors gave pointers and occasionally jumped into a car to make a point, but the headline was giving students time to refine and develop their Correct, Pause and Recover skills. The pace of personal development paid dividends as students became more confident and more proficient through the morning.
Oversteer – “a situation in which the rear tires have less traction than the front tires. The rear tires begin to slide and, if the driver fails to apply correction with the steering wheel, this can become a rear wheel skid.”
After a busy morning of torturing Continental Tires around the Laguna Seca paddock, a buffet lunch allowed everyone to take a breath and regroup for the afternoon. Spending a lunch break in the cozy confines of Monterey County surrounded by one of the most scenic tracks in the country is not a bad way to refuel and do some bench racing with newfound friends.
After the break, the group moved to a more complex set of curves, corners and circles. Students launched through a slalom, circled a cone on an improvised skidpad, returned back through a sequence of lefts and rights to link drifts together, and then finished by sliding the car 180 degrees into a parking box outlined by cones. The exercise was described as great fun while challenging every skill and instinct developed in the morning. The hidden benefit of the fun was a better understanding of car control – being able to identify when a car is sliding, apply corrective measures, pause when the car starts to move in the opposite direction, and recover to follow the driver’s eyes out of danger. Knowing how to finesse several thousand pounds of load transfer instinctively can be the difference between a near miss and a very bad day.
After resetting cones and giving the water truck another chance at center stage, the final exercise brought the lessons together. Quick left and right sequences and longer corners accentuated the importance of the “pause” element in the AMG Driving Academy C-P-R sequence. Francis found that applying the correct amount of throttle at the right time was the key to unlock the magic of a controlled drift. As Coach Grant explained, the “pause” element provided a moment of silence as the car’s weight transferred from one side to the other. In that brief moment, the tires ceased straining and the driver had an opportunity to assess how much throttle was necessary to control the car from that point. The difference between understanding the concept and effectively applying it explained the additional spins of the afternoon, but the spins became fewer and fewer. In retrospect, progress from the morning was heartening and encouraging.
Countersteering – “When drifting, the load transfers to the outside tires and the steering input and direction changes. The driver uses their eyes as a guide for the proper direction, moving where they want to go by steering in the opposite direction of travel.”
Naturally, a day with the AMG Driving Academy at Laguna Seca needed to end with a competition. Sticking to the paddock, the AMG Driving Academy instructors set up a course and laid down the rules. Each student would get two runs and the instructors would judge each run from the perch of the balcony above the garages. The two groups competed for honors against each other for group honors and an overall individual winner would also be named.
With the C63S coupe as the chosen mount for the exercise, Francis led off. With two runs to work with, he took a conservative approach. He strung together several consistent drifts and powered through several sketchy moments before getting lucky and landing a final slide into the parking box. The students had improved considerably from the morning’s chaotic slip and slides, and were now realizing the benefits of their training. As a reward for achieving the judges’ highest score, the winner went home with a beautiful Mercedes-AMG driving helmet, customized with driver’s name.
After the students completed their competitive runs, the AMG Driving Academy instructors took the wheel and showed their impressive skills. Students cycled through the passenger seats to get a front row view as instructors showed how it could be done. Drifting inherently involves a degree of style and each instructor showed off their unique expressions of tire-punishing artistry. The speed and smoothness of their sideways slides across the pavement were humbling for the students after spending a day trying to learn the basics of drifting. Tire smoke pouring off of the rear wheels testified to the layers of Continental rubber being peeled from the tires. It was an absolute thrill and both instructors and students appreciated the free-form chance to mark the end of a successful day.
The group moved to dinner in the Mercedes-AMG lounge on-site and enjoyed a final chance to recap the day. The AMG Driving Academy instructors offered words of wisdom and awards for the winners to close out a marvelous experience.
In retrospect, the AMG Driving Academy is not merely a driving experience. As a branding exercise, it operates as a way for current and potential owners to wrestle with the beasts from Affalterbach in an environment that allows – and encourages – testing the boundaries. For the level of commitment by Mercedes-AMG to organize a high-quality program with high-quality equipment available and outstanding instructors, it cannot be a profitable venture. Think of it more as a thank you note from Mercedes-AMG to the automotive enthusiast community to remind us that the shortest path between two points may be the fastest, but the most sideways may be the most fun.
The Driver’s Series scours the world to find and explore compelling driving experiences for anyone with a driver’s license and passion for speed. We send our resident driver Jeff Francis to get behind the wheel and report back to Speed Journal readers to ride along virtually or become inspired to take on the driving experiences themselves. Are you involved with a driving experience that should be featured on The Speed Journal? Do you have a driving experience suggestion for The Speed Journal to investigate? Please contact us.