I wipe the C63 AMG’s foggy driver-side window with my palm as I wait for my next run. This is the first time I’ve had torely on the side window to see what’s ahead of me. I’m behind the wheel of a barking 507bhp V8, rear-wheel-drive Mercedes, with strict instructions from Austrian rally champion Hannes Danzinger: “Turn in, be super-quick with the counter-steer and balance the gas to keep that tail out.” I’ve never, I repeat, never, received driving instructions like that before. Brilliant!
Welcome to Mercedes-Benz AMG Winter Sporting Basic programme at St Michael Lungau in Austria, a 90-minute drive from Salzburg – Mozart’s hometown. On an artificially created frozen lake called Lungauring, this course is designed to teach you the black-art of drifting. However, don’t let the word ‘basic’ throw you off. The combination of brute AMG power and slick ice is plenty to catch seasoned drivers off-guard. Also included in the package is a night’s stay at the quaint Eggerwirt Spa and Vital Resort, where a theory session was conducted by three very accomplished racing drivers, handpicked by AMG to teach us a thing or two about going sideways. The classroom coaching is packed with slides on drifting techniques, track layout and tech details of the C63 AMG ‘Edition 507’ (the number depicts horsepower!), CLA45 AMG and the A45 AMG hatch – our drift equipment for the next day. After a warning from the instructors about how they hate to see understeer, we set off on a slightly surreal snowy horse-carriage ride for an authentic traditional Austrian dinner.
At about 7:30a.m, it’s a cold grey morning with a dull sky threatening heavy rain. The persistent drizzle isn’t great news for ice driving either, but the wet weather fails to dampen the camp’s spirit. How could it? It’ll take a lot more to curb our enthusiasm, especially once we see a parking lot packed with AMGs. A few brief instructions and a short drive later, we’re at the track; traction control off.
Exercise one comprises drifting the C63 around a circular track. The idea is to hold one smooth drift around the circumference. Rear-wheel-drive on a surface with zilch grip; we’ve hit the ground running. It’s just a matter of time before I do donuts instead of drifts. Even with 280 metal studs sticking out of the rubber, the tyres fight to find grip; the slushy conditions don’t help either. “You’re giving it too much gas. Leave the car in second, turn in sharply and when the tail kicks out, keep the throttle constant,” radios in Hannes. After a few more laps under my belt, the instructions get absorbed into practice. I’m slowly learning how the mighty C63 reacts to every millimetre of throttle input and, gradually, I’m holding power slides almost all the way around. Sweet.
Next up is a slalom course in the CLA45 AMG. Unlike the C63’s thundering 6.3-litre engine, the CLA 45AMG and A45AMG use a rather modest 2.0-litre turbo motor. Sounds small? At 355bhp, this motor is the most power-dense series production engine in the world today. Also, unlike the rear-wheel-driven C63, both these cars use Mercedes’s 4-matic drivetrain which primarily powers the front wheels and sends 50 percent to the rear in the best-case scenario. This drastically changes the dynamics and the technique to throw them sideways too. “Lift off the gas while turning in and wait till the tail gently slides before getting back on the gas” is the advice. This, however, is quite different from the C63 and your brain isn’t quite wired to put this into practice. What comes naturally is to hit the gas while turning in, resulting in terrible understeer – no fun at all. It takes a couple of laps around the slalom circuit in the CLA to nail this weight-transfer technique. And when you do, the rhythmic pendulum-like drifts along the slalom course are great fun!
Similarly, the A45 AMG is used to tackle a small mock-rally stage – a relatively quick succession of corners that really teaches you to work the steering and gas in harmony. By afternoon, it’s snowing heavily and the loosely packed powder is really testing our newly acquired skills. In fact, it’s a bit too much for us greenhorns, with participants getting lodged into the snowbanks rather often.
The fantastic AMG experience ends with a competition. Each participant drives the CLA 45 around a course designed to test everything we’ve learnt during the course of the day and the winner is judged on the smoothness of the drifts rather than lap time. Yours truly ends up part of the winning team, while rally driver Hari Singh, unsurprisingly, takes top honours overall.
Music is synonymous with Austria and, for petrol heads, the soundtrack of an AMG motor mixed into the swish of studded wheels digging into the ice isn’t any less dramatic than Mozart’s Symphony No. 41. Put this one on your bucket list.