I was ready to freeze nearly to death as Gimli, Manitoba on the banks of Lake Winnipeg, is not exactly known as a destination for sun worshippers in winter. To our surprise, the ambient temperature was roughly 15 degrees cooler than back home in Montreal. Gimli, famous for its Icelandic culture, is where I headed to improve my driving skills.
The AMG Winter Driving Academy is a school for those looking to make winter driving conditions seem frivolous. It also serves to have an incredibly fun time and to learn important lessons when the road conditions get complicated. Believe it or not but a link can be established between a high-speed drift and getting to work in the morning.
Once on location, the welcome prepared buy the team behind the driving academy is second to none, putting you not only at ease but the impression that you are among friends settles in quickly. This is a good thing as the delay between arrival and hitting the track is very short.
In no time flat, you’ll find yourself strapped in behind the wheel of a Mercedes CLA 45, C 63 S or a CLS 63 S AMG. Just so you know, the least powerful car in this pack contains 375 –horsepower under it bonnet. Two of the cars feature Merc’s 4MATIC AWD system, albeit very dissimilar versions, and the C 63 is driven by the rear. The first séance on the lake will give you an idea of what the cars are like and serve as a reminder of where your driving skills truly lay.
The next morning is all about theory. Here, Danny Kok, the Chief Instructor, will further remind you that most of our driving habits are bad ones. He will go over classic elements such as driving position and vision but the remainder of the pointers are very different. In fact, the majority of tips that are given in the course of a summer driving school do not apply.
On a track, avoiding situations of over- or understeer and following a specific racing line are key. On a frozen lake, we want serious oversteer. To get there, you do have a few options.
Braking is the smarter way to put a car into a controlled slide. When we tap on this pedal, a large part of the car’s weight briefly but quickly transfers to the front thus unloading the rear wheels. Given that all the cars are shod with tires covered in roughly 400 2.2mm studs (prepared by hand by a couple in Sweden), grip on the ice is tremendous. As the rear of the car lightens and rises, the drift begins depending on steering angle. The reduced speed helps with controlling the slide with a proper amount of throttle input and steering adjustments.
The other option is to power in with more throttle. This technique, although amusing, is more difficult to manage and given the rate of speed, requires more real estate to complete the manoeuvre. In tighter sequenced switchbacks, this technique makes life difficult.
The days are spent on specific tracks designed and maintained by the AMG Driving team. The instructors keep a close eye on we the pupils as we break in the newly acquired lessons. The school’s principal goal is to help us improve as drivers but having fun is never overlooked, or set aside. In fact, you’ll more than likely assimilate the information quicker than you imagine and the challenge to do well on the track turns into nothing short of an excellent time.
Dates for the 2018 event have yet to be finalized but will soon be available on the Mercedes Driving Academy’s website. Here’s a free tip: don’t wait too long as spots will be snatched up quickly.