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Drifting High-Performance Mercedes-AMGs on a Frozen Lake

by TrackWorthy,

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“If participating in a school like this isn’t on your bucket list, it should be. Dress warm and prepare to amaze yourself.”Michael Taylor, Co-President, TrackWorthy Group, Ltd.
The first thing you need to do when you are participating in the Mercedes-AMG Winter Sporting on a frozen lake in Manitoba is get over the fact that you and 18 cars, which weigh about 70,000 pounds or 35 tons, aren’t going to break through the ice and fall into the lake. The second thing you need to do is get behind the wheel of one of these high-powered Mercedes-AMG performance cars and, counterintuitively, turn off the traction control. The third thing you need to do is plant your right foot deep into the throttle, let the heavily studded winter tires do their job, steer using lots of opposite lock, hold on and have fun (and don’t crash!).
The AMG Winter Sporting is back in Gimli, Manitoba for another year of drifting on Lake Winnipeg. This year, Mercedes-AMG brought along a total of 8,886 horsepower. What’s generating all of that power? $1.5 million dollars worth of cars, including six CLA 45 AMGs with 375 hp each, six C 63 Ss with 503 hp each and six E 63 Ss with 603 hp each. And yes, what your driving instructor tells you to do is go sideways as long as you can with the traction control turned off. This would be impossible without the assistance of (very expensive) handmade studded tires built by a husband and wife team in Sweden. Where studded tires are used in Canada, the legal limit is 175 studs per tire. These tires have 400 studs each. And they do an amazing job of combating all of the torque flowing out of these very angry-sounding (in a good way) AMG engines. It is quite shocking just how much steering control you have as you enter a corner on sheer ice and then turn the wheel. Having said that, it was very helpful for our driving instructor to point out that if you experience understeer entering a corner when you turn the wheel a little, and not enough turning happens, turning the wheel even more isn’t going to help. When you encounter understeer, the only thing you can do to get the front wheels to grip again, is to slow down.

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And just to make sure that you are in fact driving on a surface akin to a skating rink, our friends at AMG have ensured that all of the race tracks and skid pads are groomed by heavy machinery and covered in more than a million liters of water.


THE CARS

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THE PROGRAMS

AMG Winter Sporting: Performance – $2,995

This entry level program, which we participated in, is comprised of 2 days, which is really one and a half days. You arrive at the Lakeview Resort mid-day or early afternoon, courtesy of the Mercedes-AMG pre-arranged shuttle from the Winnipeg airport, check into your room, then participate in an afternoon introductory classroom session. You end up getting into the cars for the first time, after the sun has set, so your first introduction to power sliding these AMG cars around frozen lake courses in done in the dark, which seems to heighten the overall experience. The first experience out on the tracks is amazing. Most of the time is spent on the skid pad and it is fantastic. The goal is to drift around the massive circle for as long as you can. It sounds easy, but it takes some getting used to, and it is so much fun! Once off the track you are treated to a delicious group dinner at the Lakeview Resort so that you can share your stories with the other participants and the driving instructors. It is a great way to end your first day of having the time of your life driving on this frozen lake. Day two starts with a group breakfast in the hotel, an overview of the day’s activities, lunch mid-day, and afternoon of more driving followed by another delicious group diner and wrap up.
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The AMG team have been very creative and built a great variety of different track configurations, and have created a record breaker in the process. In the afternoon of day two, all of the individual tracks are linked together creating the longest frozen lake ice race track in the world. It totals 8.5 kilometers and has been nicknamed the White Hell (a reference to the Green Hell, which is the nickname of the infamous Nurburgring Nordschleife race track in Germany).
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AMG Winter Sporting: Advanced – $4,495

This is a 3 day program (which is really two and a half days) and one that we would have preferred to participate in. It is incredible how much you learn every time you get behind the wheel of one of these cars out on the ice. There is no question that one more day would have been welcomed because it takes about a day and a half to really start to get a hang of this. That third day would have been a lot of fun because you could start to push yourself and the cars even harder. The only potential downside is that with a little bit of confidence, one might spend a bit of time testing the special bumpers that are designed to protect the breakable parts of the front end of the car when you plow it into a snowbank.
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AMG Winter Sporting: Pro – $5,595

When participating in the Performance and Advanced programs, you share a car with another participant. When you step up to the Pro program, you get much more seat time and you don’t share a car with anyone else. All three of these programs feature in-car exercises that include individualized coaching, oversteer practice, drifting in rear-wheel drive and 4MATIC cars, the AMG Ice Taxi and the “Race of Champions.”

Encounters with the snowbanks are a common occurrence. Once participants exceed their abilities to control their car, all of the participants in their group are notified via two-way radios to slow down and look for the incident. Thankfully, during my two days behind the wheel, I never experienced that. I came close on many occasions but never actually came into contact with anything. Others in our group certainly did. If you ended up in a snowbank and didn’t require a tow out by the big black intimidating Mercedes G-Wagon (A.K.A., “The Vulture”), then off you went to continue your exercise. If you required a tow by The Vulture, then a hole was punched in your card. Once your card resembled Swiss cheese (or as early as 3 punched holes), you got to speak to the head driving instructor to tell him how your day was going. Only one of our participants had the opportunity to do that. He did not have his driving privileges revoked and carried on, albeit in a slightly tamer manner.
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I think the ideal candidate for a driving course like this is a driver who is fairly skilled, competent, confident and aggressive. During our time behind the wheel, I think each of us had an “ah ha” moment when everything we had been told by our driving instructors, and turned to practice, clicked. Driving the rear wheel drive C 63 S is the most intuitive. You enter a corner, step on the gas, all of the power goes to just the two rear wheels and the back end swings out. With the right combination of throttle input and counter steer, you can maintain a drift for an extended period of time. It’s not the same in the 4MATIC all-wheel drive cars, especially the CLA which has a front wheel drive bias but can send up to 50% of the power to the rear wheels when the front wheels slip. But with the proper tutelage and practice, and less counter steering, you can make this car drift too, it just takes a while to figure out. Once you get the balance right, this car is a gem to slide. The E 63 S 4MATIC with its all-wheel drive with a rear wheel drive bias, which can send 50% of the power to the front wheels, falls somewhere in-between in terms of its intuitive drift nature. It is one of the nicest cars to drive out on the lake.
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The Race of Champions is the final exercise for all of the participants whether you’re participating in the two or three day course and it was great fun! It takes place on a peanut-shaped course, with two participants on the track at the same time, each starting on opposite sides of the track. At the conclusion of two laps, the first person across her respective start/finish line wins and moves on to the next round. I was fast enough to finish first in my group (the 15 participants are divided into three groups on day one), and I progressed to the final shoot out, finishing on the podium in third place. You get to put into practice everything you have learned and experienced and try to beat your competitor, and not beat yourself. My heart was definitely beating faster during each race than it had over the past few days.

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Regarding any concern you might have that you and 18 expensive cars (and a few dozen people) might fall through the ice, one needn’t worry. 15 cm of ice can hold up one car, 150 cm of ice can hold up a 747. Due to the extremely cold winter that northern Manitoba has been experiencing, the lake had frozen to a depth of more than 160 cm, or more than five feet. Considering we were in a Bay that is only 6 to 8 feet deep, we had absolutely nothing to worry about.

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The small town of Gimli has really taken a shining to the AMG team and its driving academy participants. Gimli is a summer town and, other than a few ice fisherman in the winter, not much is going on. The difference now is that for one month in the dead of winter, the hotel, gas station, local grocery store and lake is busy with dozens of participants having the times of their life learning how to drift on a frozen lake. If participating in a school like this isn’t on your bucket list, it should be. Dress warm and prepare to amaze yourself.

For more information you can visit Mercedes-Benz Canada’s Driving Academy site.

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Photographs © Copyright Mercedes-Benz Canada, Inc., Videos © Copyright 2017-2018 TrackWorthy Group Ltd.

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