Getting a ticket to the ultimate snow day with Mercedes-AMG
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Doughnuts, drifting, and slaloms on snow are ingredients for a fun day
Driving a Mercedes-AMG sports car at speed on a racetrack is an easily mastered trick; put that same vehicle on the snow and add drivers unaccustomed to any sort of wintry conditions and you're in for fun.
Our winter is not only the time for luxury brands to go to the famous Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground (SHPG) on Mt Pisa near Cardrona, but also for the Northern Hemisphere vehicle industry.
Made up of 490ha of privately owned land and open from June to August each year, the SHPG has 20 test areas, multiple secure buildings and snow-making machines galore. It's the haven for the vehicle industry to test everything from tyres to engines and high-performance sports cars.
Luxury car brands such as BMW, Audi, Aston Martin, Lamborghini and my host, Mercedes-AMG, also hold customer events at the SHPG.
Mercedes owners headed to Queenstown for the AMG Snow event, each paying A$4500 for two nights' accommodation, meals, a spectator along to take those much-needed shots of your drifting on snow -- and more importantly, a full day at the SHPG with a multitude of high-performance products.
Most of the Mercedes-AMG owners were from Australia, and among those who hadn't seen the snow before was a member of our media group, TV host and V8 Supercar driver Jack Perkins.
Sure, if you think snow you'd think the premium German brand would be promoting its SUV range -- which multiplies year on year -- but no, the closest you get to SUV is Mercedes' four-wheel-drive system, 4Matic, in some of the luxury cars, including the "baby" off-roader GLA.
The 21-vehicle fleet included 4Matic, four-cylinder A45s, CLA45, GLA45, plus V8-powered C63 S and E63 S sedans and wagons, CLS63 S, SL63 and the stonking star of the range, the $275,000 GT S coupe.
All the vehicles were on Continental's ContiWinterContact 830P tyres, with a special tread pattern to give more grip on the snow.
With the bonus of an instructor in each car, rather than being taught via walkie-talkie as other brands do at their snow events at SHPG, the Mercedes-AMG event was literally hands-on as instructors would grab the steering wheel if you needed that help to manoeuvre.
You'd think driving on the pristine, frequently maintained flat tracks at SHPG would be simple. But as Mercedes-AMG Australia's chief instructor, Peter Hackett, told us, the focus of driving on snow was on the balance of vehicle and transferring the weight of the car to help you steer.
"The hardest thing you can do on snow is drive straight and fast," said Hackett.
"You have to plan much further ahead in the snow [with braking taking longer] ... and smooth and deliberate use of controls."
I had attended events at the SHPG with three other car brands, and at my last trip I managed to perfect the rally trick of the "Scandinavian flick" where you build momentum then snap the car around a tight turn.
Armed with that cockiness, I headed to my first exercise of the day, taking on slaloms in the V8 fleet. To destroy any of that confidence, I had to plant my foot, drive straight and then stop when I came to a cone about 400m away. With the rear tyres disconcertingly skimming across snow, I slammed on the brakes, sailing far past the cone and towards a snow bank.
Turning my CLS63 S around, I unsuccessfully swung the V8 through a series of cones, trying to combine continuous touch of the accelerator with twists of the steering wheel, without gliding too far passed the cones and heading in the wrong direction.
The next exercise was my favourite of the day -- and one I kept returning to. We had to try to make a C63 S and A45 do doughnuts in a small compound, with each vehicle needing different techniques before the drift.
The sedan needed impetus to flick the rear around and maintain that circle whereas the 4Matic A45 required my Scandinavian flick skill to keep steering into the drift.
Instead of vocal tips, "turn left, turn right", by circle three in the A45 all my instructor needed to do was point his hand in direction I should turn.
To me it was the closest I could get to drifting, amid the safety of the snow; you're not going terribly fast and if anything went wrong you had snow banks to take the impact. Plus there was the visual affect of creating "waves" of snow. With our skill levels improved, we tried our luck at driving in concentric circles in a CLA45. You should be able to use your speed and increased area to drift around a wider and wider circle, culminating in three rotations.
We then moved the CLA45s to a three-leaf-clover motorkhana course -- challenging not only due to the layout of the cones but the need for precision driving.
Exercise six was a competition between all the V8s in a head-to-head slalom course with the SLS taking on the GL S; the C63 versus the CLS. The trick was speed through the slalom cones until it came to the top cone where you needed to single slide around the top rather than you heading towards a snow bank.
The last exercise for the day -- and the most infamous was trying to drift around the Big Circle, a 280m diameter ring with a Small Circle next it and divided by snowbanks with a huge mound of snow in the middle.
Aiming for an area of ice, you had to see how long and how far you could drift a C63, GLA 45, CLS and an A45 around, before encountering slaloms and deep patches of snow.
A colleague managed to back a GLA45 into the snow bank and had to be towed out by a support G-wagon, but that was nothing compared with an incident the day before.
Porsche was also at the SHPG testing the Panamera sedan on the Small Circle while AMG was using the Big Circle.
The Porsche had sped passed a customer and instructor but as the AMG owner rounded a bend the Panamera was on top of the snow bank.
Probably not the sort of testing the luxury German brand was after but the incident showed that the only damage is to the ego when driving on the snow.
Although we can't all be drivers being paid to test vehicles at the SHPG, the AMG Snow event proved that you don't need to be clocking more than 200km/h on a tarmac race track to have fun.