Be honest — would you give up the whole of your night to go back to school, to spend a number of hours being taught to do what you already do every day? Particularly when you already think you’re pretty good at it? Indeed.
But here’s the rub. The school in question is the AMG Driving Academy, and the promise is an opportunity to experience the sort of learning provided by some of Germany’s foremost race driving instructors, and to do it all in a fleet of AMG’s finest. On a proper Formula 1 race circuit.
People often say to me that I have one of the best jobs in the world. And just once in a while, they are absolutely right. Check out the grin in the shot of me behind the wheel of the AMG SLS Roadster.
So what’s this all about? AMG’s on a bit of a roll here in the UAE. Last year was the performance arm’s best ever in the region. According to Frank Bernthaler, Mercedes’ director at Daimler Middle East, the company sold an astonishing 80 per cent more AMGs last year than the year before. The Middle East is Mercedes’ fifth largest market in the world, but in percentage terms, we buy more AMG cars than anywhere else in the world. And so the decision was made to open the fourth version of the AMG Driving Academy, and the first in the entire Middle East.
The thinking is simple, to let AMG owners explore the full performance potential of their cars in a controlled and safe environment, and at the same time help those owners gain a deeper insight into the skills required for high speed control. The AMG Driving Academy offers five levels of training, from basic introduction to full race, and it is open to everyone, not just AMG owners. Though be warned right now, after spending a night belting round Yas in a variety of the company’s latest cars, you too will probably find yourself trying to sell your granny and several body parts simply to repeat the experience on a daily basis.
But to get back to school. Our evening begins, not with the cars, but in the classroom, with a detailed look at the dynamics of car behavior under various scenarios. Topics included grip, the effects of weight transfer, traction and how it varies under straight line and cornering loads, and such weighty and complex matters as how to hold a steering wheel and where to sit in a car. Seriously.
In fact, the optimum seating position for controlled fast driving is quite different to what most people adopt for the commute to work. The theory says that you should sit quite upright, with both legs and arms bent, holding the wheel close to your chest and gripped in both hands at the ‘quarter-to-three’ position. This allows you to put maximum force on the brake pedal, and maximum turns of the wheel without letting go. We’re going to need that later on the skid pan.
First up, though, is a detailed lesson in how to turn a corner. We’re led out onto the North Circuit, and specifically the chicane before the hairpin onto the main straight, but for this exercise we are coming back up the corkscrew and rejoining the main track for the run down to the hairpin again. The lesson here is braking, turning points and apexes, and how to use the whole width of the track. Under the expert guidance of our instructor KlausWagner, a Touring Car and Carrera Panamericana winner, ably assisted by James and Abbas, we set out to learn a good clean racing line. We were shown where to brake, turn and accelerate again, and encouraged to be smooth and consistent on the track. “If I hear too much tyre squealing, it means you are doing something not right,” comes the stern instruction.
This is a great way to learn, following the wheeltracks of an expert, and it is amazing how much distance you can gain on the guy in front without having to push any harder. My own tendency is to over drive the car, be too aggressive with my inputs, to waste energy and speed trying to correct for those over-eager movements. Relax and let the car do the work, and faster progress does come.
The session is organised so that every driver gets to do a stint right behind the instructor, and we all get a chance to drive every car. It is a tasty selection, SLS GT and Roadster, CLS 63, E 63, C 63 and SLK 55. The same fleet will be available at the Academy for you to enjoy.
Cornering technique adjusted, it’s off to the skid pan for some wet and slippery action. Here the object is to learn steering technique, and how to catch a slide. The skid pan at Yas is something everyone should experience, rather than wait until the next downpour on Sheikh Zayed Road. At Yas, the course starts over a ‘kick plate’, a device that kicks the back of your car sideways to the right or left, and you don’t know which until it happens. If you’re quick, and steer into the direction of spin correctly, you can catch the slide and the car will straighten up safely. If you don’t, there’s a balletic pirouette for the spectators to make fun of later. The lesson is, if you lose it, brake as hard as possible, and once the car stops completely, drive out slowly.
Next up, a blast down the drag strip in a CLS 63, and a blast it certainly is. Reaction time is everything, or in my case, isn’t, and my glorious charge towards the run offs ran out of steam way too early. Mind you, driving any car that can top 140kph in less than 200 metres is mighty impressive, particularly if it is you pressing the loud pedal.
The final session is back on the track, this time using the full extent of the North Circuit. Again, we’re following the instructor, but this time we’re helmeted and speeds are much higher. We’re here to combine all of the lessons previously undertaken, cornering, braking, steering and acceleration, and using them together to make good progress around the track. It is a lot to think about, but the various lessons do gel, and I finally get the correct line around the double left-hander between the end of the long back straight and the start of the grid. Deeply, deeply satisfying when it all comes together.
By the end of the night, I have lost count of the number of laps driven, but it has been a lot, and we were definitely not hanging around. I come away with a much deeper appreciation of the importance of technique, of smooth inputs and correct positions, the importance and effect of weight transfer, and how to make a car go faster by doing less. And I even got a certificate to hang on the office wall, to remind me how much more there is to learn before I can even begin to consider myself a good driver. I need to take a lot of nights off.