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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or phone toll free at 1-866-577-6232.