There was a point during the intense AMG Advanced Driving Academy 2.5-day session where the instructors made time to have us all pause at the cement barrier on the Tamburello curve. An impromptu shrine crowded with votive candles and Brazilian flags is maintained to this day in memory of Ayrton Senna, who was killed precisely here during the frightening 1994 San Marino Grand Prix while going screamingly fast. There were no chicanes on the sweeping home stretch for roughly one mile back then but there are two of them now, so what AMG is training me for today will never qualify me to know those Senna-like speeds.
What this program does train me for is to simply be a much better driver under high-performance pressure while at the wheel of admittedly heavy, powerful cars. Compared to a school with Lotus or Porsche, the AMG way is destined to be decidedly different given not only the weights and momentum, but also the higher center of gravity and unique power and torque curves put in motion through the juice pedal exiting every sensational curve of the spectacular Imola autodromo.
Not just one AMG model was available over the course of my schooling, but nearly all of them: the SLK 55, the 63 AMGs of the C-, E- and SL-Classes, plus the CLK and SLK Black Series. There was even a C63 sports wagon to play with-and play I did.
From beginning to end, the Advanced course takes drivers through: basic hard braking while trying to stop in a prescribed box marked by cones; braking and avoidance maneuvers; high-speed slalom; a cone-lined parcours with penalties assessed for hitting any; and, most exciting of all, hitting the track and learning it section by section before doing full laps while led by an AMG veteran instructor. At this level, you get to the track time pretty quickly-I had done maybe 100 laps by the time we were through.
By now, the AMG Drive Unit rotary knob on the center console has become an AMG trademark just like a Ferrari's manettino on the steering wheel. I played around with Controlled Efficiency (C), Sport (S), Sport Plus (S+), and Manual (M) all day. Also playable was the three-stage ESP that goes from fully on to ESP Sport to ESP off (though in Mercedes tradition, ESP is never fully off)
After tackling all of the ABS seminars in the E63 AMG wearing the standard compound brakeset, I moved on to the parcours using the SLK 55. Something very curious popped up between these two cars, currently the newest and oldest of the lineup out of Affalterbach. The older 5.5-liter uptuned 355-hp Mercedes V8 engine with the older seven-speed automatic as compared to the latest AMG powertrain technology is noticeably sluggish. Even the fastest shifts here are barely quicker than the "C" shifts in the new transmission.
Another notable potable is that the old transmission is much better left in S mode since the M mode shifts are especially unsatisfying. Conversely, the new system on the E63 AMG and SL63 is much better in the M setting, though S+ is almost thoroughly acceptable if you're at the track and just want to grab the steering wheel and not force fingers or brain into multi-tasking.
Another point that really shouldn't be a surprise is the physical sensation of dashing around in a long-wheelbase E-Class and a very short-wheelbase SLK. With the E-Class, the feeling is fairly normal, more or less like a bigger C-Class, given the fact that the E63 has inherited the C63's fantastic lightweight, wide, and responsive front axle scheme. Then I jump in the old-tech SLK 55 and my body feels like it's on the point of a fulcrum, the whole car turning on itself as I pick my way nimbly through the parcours in second gear. I actually felt my retinas separating from my eyes in a weird sort of zero gravity centrifuge. Playing with the SLK55 like this reminded me just how much I'm looking forward to the next-generation car. But please keep the 2.2 turns lock-to-lock!