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A day at the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy

Driving pros deliver an unexpected reality check to overinflated egos

Published: July 29, 2014, 12:00 PM
Updated: April 29, 2018, 11:45 AM

Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy - track ready vehicles

CANADIAN TIRE MOTORSPORT PARK, ON – Whether you’re strumming a guitar or tinkling the ivories, perhaps whipping up an exotic dish or just hitting a sweet drive down the middle of the fairway, there’s nothing more humbling than to witness a real pro accomplishing the same task – and doing it so much better.

I recently spent a day under the tutelage of Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy chief instructor Danny Kok and his talented colleagues, who coached and encouraged me and 11 others in a Mastering Performance course. The venue was Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, that world-class Canadian road-racing circuit better known to most folks as Mosport.

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Now let’s be clear, while the course was being taught on a race track, Kok and his crew were not teaching us how to be race drivers. This was a day-long program that teaches advanced driving techniques, helping us learn to master some essential driving fundamentals and understand the elements that affect a vehicle’s performance and behaviour, such as the driver’s field of vision, vehicle control systems and the impact of weight transfer as a vehicle accelerates, brakes and corners.

The fact we were doing it on a race track was to allow us to learn in a safe and controlled environment. Of course, the venue surely enhanced the fun factor, too.

Learning tools

Boosting the grin quotient even further was the fleet of vehicles we’d be playing with – I mean, learning in: 12 Mercedes-Benz models ranging from a B 250 family touring/utility vehicle to the wickedly fast SLS AMG GT Coupe.

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As a veteran automotive journalist, I’ve been fortunate to engage in driver training sessions with some of the most skilled instructors in the world and that training, at least some of it, has lingered enough to make me think I’m a pretty decent driver. However, I was about to discover it’s still a long leap to the level occupied by truly skilled driving pros.

Our academy class was comprised of students with a wide range of experience, from pure novice to advanced, but we were instructed to park egos, preconceptions of our abilities or any other "notions of greatness" at the door. 

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Kok reiterated the point that the techniques we were about to learn that day, while they did have applications on a race track, his primary goal was to help us better understand these factors.

If we were able to grasp these points, that would help make each of us a more confident, skillful driver on the street and perhaps sometime make the difference between avoiding a crash or getting tangled in an accident.

Of course, I thought I knew this stuff cold, but I soon discovered there were, indeed, lessons to be learned.

Classroom session

The program started with a classroom session – basics, such as the proper seating position. Kok advocates sitting low behind the wheel, a concept that was new to me.

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His reasoning is that the lower seat position forces the driver to look further down the road, rather than have the perch set high, which draws the driver’s field of vision closer to the nose of the car. I do prefer sitting low and I do focus my vision well down the road – I just never knew why.

Adjusting the seat fore and aft is also critical, with the arms slightly bent – not straight out as wannabe racers tend to favour. The right leg should be positioned with a slight bend in the knee. The left leg should be able to rest firmly on the dead pedal.

In that position, you can use the left leg to brace yourself during hard cornering or heavy deceleration. Hmmm, never thought about that before, either.

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Another fundamental point is proper hand position on the steering wheel. Kok prefers both hands on the wheel, not one steering and the other holding down the roof or balancing a cup of coffee.

He also recommends placing the hands at nine and three o’clock, rather than the more common 10 and two. He says it gives a driver a full 180 degrees of wheel-turning radius, 60 more than the traditional positioning allows.

There’s also a tip as to the amount of input a driver should employ when driving at higher speeds. "The faster the car goes," Kok says, "the slower you need to move your hands to control the car." Makes sense, though I’d never really thought about that axiom.

Trail braking

The classroom session covered several other topics to help prepare us for the carrot we were all keen to grasp – track time behind the wheel. For example, Kok explained the critical points when approaching a curve and how best to drive through it – the turn-in point, the apex and exit and the effect a late or early apex has on how quickly one can exit the corner and be back up to speed.

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One topic that’s dear to Kok’s heart is the technique of trail braking. Contrary to everything I’ve been taught about braking in a straight line before entering a turn, Kok advocates carrying the braking past the turn-in point into the corner.

Typically, when the brakes are released after a hard application, such as approaching a sharp corner, the car’s springs change from a compressed state (nose dives) to rebound above their static position. That movement abruptly shifts the car’s weight off the front wheels, just at the moment you need some weight and stability to help the tires bite into the road.

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Kok’s approach is to start with hard braking – 100% effort – and ease back to zero about halfway to the apex. This technique helps maintain stability and keeps weight on the front wheels for maximum traction.

Then use what he calls "maintenance throttle" to maintain speed through the corner until the point where you start to unwind the steering wheel – that’s the point where you can accelerate to resume normal cruising speed. Again, another lesson for an ol’ dog.

To the track

Finally it was time to put us in the cars and see how much we’d absorbed. The class was split into two groups and dispatched to different sections of the Mosport circuit to apply the master’s teachings.

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My group set up camp at the track’s famous Moss Corner, deemed one of the most difficult corners in the world to drive properly. Under the scrutiny of the M-B Academy’s instructors, we each made repeated passes through the three segments of Turn 5, switching cars each time while our technique was critiqued by the pros. My trail braking needed some polish, but I thought I progressed well – and the instructors agreed.

Similarly, when we switched to the challenging Turn 2-3 complex, there were more passes and more critiques. Again, I was feeling confident.

After a tasty barbeque lunch, the driving exercise shifted to the full Mosport circuit. The afternoon was spent weaving together the skills we’d been taught in the morning so we could complete an acceptable lap.

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The session was comprised of one building block leading to another, with scrutiny, critiques and most important, encouragement, throughout. By late afternoon, I think we all were feeling pretty good about ourselves.

Perhaps there was a race team owner lurking in the bushes who would notice this crop of budding racing stars and offer one of us a ride. I thought I was doing so well I’d be the obvious choice.

Funny how egos can be so quickly deflated like a pricked balloon.

Deflated ego

As the finale to the program, the team of instructors offered to take each of us on a "hot" lap. So, after progressing to what I assessed as a high level of driving skill, I figured it would nice to compare my abilities with these pros.

Well, I wasn’t even close! These truly skilled drivers can take a car to limits I would never dare to explore – and they do it like it’s just a Sunday cruise. Relaxed, focused and fast – and they can do it lap after lap. It makes one appreciate just how talented the real racing pros are, being able to concentrate and sustain such a high level of physical effort for hours at a time.

As I buckled into my car for the return run home – my ego appropriately repositioned – I still felt I was now a better driver than I’d been when the day started – and that is the ultimate goal of the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy.

Range of programs

The M-B Driving Academy offers a range of programs that will help one improve his/her driving skills – and could help you avoid an incident or know how to cope with a crisis on the road.

Courses offered include a half-day introductory Driving Experience program ($395) that teaches advanced techniques that will help you cope with everyday driving. Techniques such as emergency braking, collision avoidance and braking in turns become instinctive through the program’s repetitive exercises.

The full-day Mastering Performance ($1,695) is an excellent program on its own, but if you want to take your driving skills to the next level, consider the AMG Driving Academy. There are two AMG programs – a full-day basic training session ($1,895) and a two-day advanced program ($3,995.)

Of particular interest to drivers keen to learn how to cope with the challenges of driving in severe conditions, there’s a full-day Winter Driving Academy program ($795.) Participants are taught techniques that could be life-saving in extreme conditions, such as how to shorten stopping distances on slippery roads, how to maintain traction in a variety of adverse conditions, understanding the stability and traction control systems now common in newer vehicles and how to properly execute emergency maneuvers.

For more information on the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy, visit the website at mbdrivingacademy.ca, email the school at info@mbdrivingacademy.ca or phone toll free at 1-866-577-6232.