STEPHEN OTTLEY August 18, 2012
We hit the snow to learn the fine art of controlled drifts and other icy delights.
'If you're not here to slide a car around then we might just leave you up here with a coffee.''
With those words Mercedes-Benz's chief driving instructor Peter Hackett unleashes us into a winter wonderland - fields of snow and ice, with a fleet of C63 AMGs at our disposal.
Already a regular event in the northern hemisphere, the AMG snow challenge program is new to our region. A lack of suitable locations in Australia means we've come to the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds, about an hour outside Queenstown on New Zealand's south island. It offers 400 hectares of privately owned snow fields, including 30 kilometres of tracks on which to play and learn. A lot of car companies use the facility for cold weather testing during the northern summer.
Drift is the word of the day - if you're going in a straight line you're not doing it right.
With 358kW of power at your disposal (thanks to the C63s being fitted with the optional performance package to increase power from 336kW), it's pretty hard to do anything other than drift. And spin out of control. Not only is it easier than drifting, but spinning is expected from our instructors - in fact, it's encouraged.
''The instructors have been told to let you make mistakes early in the day,'' Hackett says. ''That way you'll learn faster.''
Thankfully there is a warm-up that involves simply driving in a straight line and braking at the other end of our skid-pan-sized ice field. Or at least it would be simple if the stability control was on. But for all events it's turned off for maximum learning.
As soon as you gently ease on the throttle the back wheels spin wildly as the tyres scramble for grip on the cold, white ground. Somehow the tyres (which are off-the-shelf winter tyres) manage to find grip and you slither away. Once you have a feel for the surface the real fun begins - a slalom course designed to teach you how to slide the cars in long, controlled drifts.
''Once you get it sliding, steer it on the throttle,'' says James Brock, son of the late Peter and one of the posse of racing drivers who act as instructors. ''If you want to turn don't use the wheel, just give it a bit more throttle.''
Sure enough, it works. It goes against your intuition to stay on the throttle as the back end starts to slide around but if you trust the instructors and stay on the power the C63 drifts beautifully across the snow.
The next challenge is to drive on a sheet of ice, which reduces traction to almost zero. Watching the car ahead slip and slide through the slalom it looks like it's in slow motion. And sure enough, when my turn comes the wheels start spinning at high speed but we creep away at 10km/h. But while the grip is less than on the snow, the principles of how to control the car using the throttle remain the same.
Over the course of the day we move through various tests that gradually build up our speed and the size of the drifts.
The final challenge strings together all the various skills we've learnt. You have to slide through two chicanes, drift through a slalom and then complete a 180-degree slide to finish - and you've got to do it as fast as you can.
At the start of the day you would have thought it was impossible to drive an AMG so quickly through such a challenging course. Not only can you do it, but the car is capable of doing it much faster than a novice like me can manage.
But it's not just about fun and games in the snow. Only a small percentage of Australians will find themselves driving on snow regularly but Mercedes and Hackett hope that by teaching drivers the fundamentals of driving in low-grip conditions, it will help improve all-round skills.
''Finesse. We teach them finesse,'' Hackett says. ''We give them some more basic understanding of control … if you can control a car on incredibly slippery surfaces, everything else will be easy.''
There are three downsides to the program. Firstly, it's only available to AMG customers and costs $4500 (at least that price does include flights and accommodation). Secondly, driving a rear-wheel-drive V8 car on snow is highly addictive. You may never take your skis to the snow again.