Taking control: Learning to drive in all weather conditions with the Mercedes-AMG Snow Experience

Have you noticed how accident statistics in the UAE tend to spike whenever it rains? The film of water that settles on the road lowers the friction coefficient – in other words, grip – between tyre and tarmac, and the result is that many motorists plough into each other, trees, guardrails, lampposts etc. It’s not […]

Have you noticed how accident statistics in the UAE tend to spike whenever it rains? The film of water that settles on the road lowers the friction coefficient – in other words, grip – between tyre and tarmac, and the result is that many motorists plough into each other, trees, guardrails, lampposts etc.

It’s not only the standing water that’s the threat – the precipitation also mixes with oil and grease that’s been dropped onto the road over the preceding months, which heightens the possibility of the unwary coming unstuck.

But even the bone-dry conditions we experience for most of the year can throw up challenges. Living where we do, especially when driving inland, one often comes across a stretch of road that’s coated in a fine layer of sand. If these particles have settled on a curve, you can easily find yourself skating off the road because grip levels are severely compromised.

So how do you become a more competent driver who’s better equipped to deal with low-grip situations, especially when these conspire to suddenly and unexpectedly destabilise your car?

One way is to enrol in one of the locally run advanced driving courses at the Dubai Autodrome or Yas Marina Circuit, but you will find most of the training they impart (with the exception of a few skidpan exercises) only equip you to cope with ideal conditions – not cases where your vehicle’s tyres are able to extract very little purchase on the surface below.

But if you’re prepared to look further afield, you will discover there are courses conducted on the ultimate low-grip surfaces – snow and ice. While these conditions may not bear any resemblance to our environment, it’s important to note that the skills you stand to learn are applicable to any situation.

Think of it as going to the gym or ­CrossFit classes. Your normal daily routine doesn’t require you to bench-press 100 kilograms or flip tractor tyres, but the health benefits you gain from doing these exercises enables you to be more efficient in all walks of life.

So it is with snow/ice-driving courses – offered by the likes of BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Lamborghini, as well as various independent organisations. It’s Defensive Driving 101, conducted in an extreme classroom.

To glean whether there’s real value in such courses, I have made the lengthy trek to Queenstown, New Zealand, for the Mercedes-AMG Snow Experience – a driving academy set up at the appropriately dubbed Snow Farm NZ, where Olympic cross-country skiers from around the world come to train midyear when there’s no sign of white powdery stuff in the Northern Hemisphere.

Having been shuttled to the icy location, I hop out of the black Mercedes minivan and almost end up flat on my back as we trudge to the lodge for the introductory briefing. Yes, the scrunchy surface underfoot is that slippery. “How will we drive on this stuff?” I wonder.

Assembled for us to drive is the entire Mercedes-AMG fleet, from the pint-size, all-wheel-drive A 45 hatchback to the thunderous, rear-drive GT S coupe. The team of instructors are all former or current Aussie/Kiwi race drivers, headed by the affable Peter Hackett. They have set up a variety of exercises for us to tackle, and hopefully we will emerge more-skilled pilots by the end of the day.

During the briefing, Hackett stresses the importance of “load transfer” and how it affects the grip and balance of a car. For example, whenever you stand on the gas, the weight of the vehicle shifts to the rear, ­effectively unweighting the front tyres, and consequently lessening their ability to steer in the intended direction. Conversely, when you brake hard, the weight shifts to the front, which can make the car feel squirmy and unstable because the rear is unweighted.

You may not be overly aware of the weight shifts on dry tarmac, but their effects can certainly be felt in the rainy or sandy conditions alluded to earlier. And out here, on sheet ice and snow, every little input you make via the steering wheel, brake or throttle is magnified, so it’s the best possible training ground to hone your toes’ and fingertips’ feel to a razor’s edge – and this is something that pays off in any driving conditions. Importantly, everything happens at relatively low speeds and there’s ample run-off in most areas, so it’s a safe environment in which to learn.

The opening exercise is an out-and-back slalom marked by safety cones, and my mount is the SL 63 AMG, which thumps out a monstrous 585hp and 900Nm. Predictably, I end up completing a graceful (and unplanned) pirouette halfway through the run. I barely tickle the accelerator, but on this skating rink-like surface, it’s enough to prompt the car into an impromptu Whirling Dervish impersonation.

After half a day’s practice, I find I have mustered enough sensitivity in the extremities of my limbs to make the Mercs dance on ice – maybe not quite with the finesse and dexterity of Torvill and Dean, but capably enough to at least keep the vehicle pointing in the right direction most of the time. As Hackett alluded to in the briefing, the key is to work the weight of the car like a pendulum and develop the ability to pre-empt skids and use their inertia, rather than trying to catch or correct them once the vehicle has already begun sliding. It’s usually too late by this time, at least in brutal, V8-powered, rear-wheel-drive cars, so you will spin. Not maybe. You will.

It’s a markedly different experience when I slot into the pocket-rocket A 45 AMG, which channels 381hp and 475Nm of turbo four-cylinder grunt to all four wheels. The fact that this car is all-wheel-driven, and that it develops its torque higher in the rev range, means it takes far more provocation for it to wag its tail.

Yes, it’s more stable and predictable than the V8 behemoths, but it also makes it harder to hold in a drift than its siblings. Its basic tendency is to understeer – in other words, plough straight ahead rather than pivot on its axis once its lateral grip levels are exceeded. On the plus side, you can usually rescue near-spins in the A 45 by standing on the gas and allowing the front wheels to drive you in the intended direction.

Experiencing both highly disparate formats Рall-wheel-drive four-cylinder turbo and rear-drive V8 Рis an enlightening experience, and it goes a long way towards understanding how the application of torque via the throttle affects the balance of the car. I find it also bolsters your adaptability in terms of being able to jump in and out of vastly differing vehicles and drive them accordingly. This is particularly relevant to motorists in the UAE, many of whom will own highly contrasting cars during their tenure in the Gulf, from low-slung coup̩s or roadsters to hulking SUVs.

By the end of the day, my nose and toes are numb after six hours of exposure to the frost, so I don’t feel too crestfallen when we’re ushered back to the lodge for a warming dose of hot chocolate and sausage rolls (in keeping with the Antipodean theme). 

Have I emerged a better driver? Yes. And I have come to the conclusion that there’s no better training ground than snow and ice to hone razor-sharp car control – even for us desert dwellers. After all, it’s no accident Finland has produced more world rally champions than any other country. Master the white stuff and you will be able to master any road-surface – be it tarmac, gravel, sand or mud.

motoring@thenational.ae

Mercedes offers a variety of Europe-based Onroad Winter Training programmes, which cost from 625 (Dh2,563) for a basic course in Austria to 4,700 (Dh19,273) for an intensive Individual Coaching programme in Sweden. The latter includes flights from Germany, catering, a driver’s jacket and three overnight stays. For more information, visit www.mercedes-benz.com.

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