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!
Happily, the track time started in the M3-beating C63 AMG and the car, especially with the Performance Package options, proved again that it is the absolute best all-arounder ever to come out of AMG. All it needs are the ceramic discs on the options list and it would be a near perfect track-day four-door. Getting in the bigger E63 illustrated that the E is too big and tall for real track satisfaction, even though it is a remarkable machine under these stresses for something so large and tubby. Missing the precise line through curves in the C-Class is not so awful to lap times, but in the E63 you really must hit the perfect line or the seconds start adding up. Braking hard into it and getting as straight out of it as soon as possible and on full throttle is the absolute key in the bigger AMGs.
Once I was set loose in the CLK Black Series, the old seven-speed didn't dampen my fun since I was in the presence of a 40-percent LSD at the rear and 19-inch Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires. I just left it in S and was absolutely more than happy.
But the best car of the two days was the latest 518-hp SL63 AMG with new seven-speed automatic. I just left it in M with ESP Sport, and the lower center of gravity did the rest as the two of us scorched Imola for all it was worth. The sight lines to the front are show exactly what needs to be seen on the track, not too much and not too little. Just right. And picking the best line with this car is a piece of cake. The SLK55 was fun out on the free track as well, but the SL is just plain faster, more responsive, and the new tranny allows shifting with the paddles. That's what I came here for and all the others in the lineup need to aspire to the SL63 level as much as possible.
Second place overall goes to the C63 AMG with Performance Package and higher bolstered performance seats. A hot four-door doesn't get any better than this on today's market and I was handed a C63 for the class grand finale. For the final hottest laps on Day Two, telemetry is hooked up to the car and you receive a full timing and readout of your last five laps. This sort of analysis is priceless to anyone seeking self-improvement at the wheel.
You want music, too? How about 20 or more AMG cars boiling around the valley track, all bellowing forth from their Sebring sport exhaust systems? The symphony all the workday long was intoxicating.
Only one bummer occurred. No matter the transmission, AMG still needs to work on its cooling scheme for the tranny fluid, but also for the M136 V8 engines crammed into the bays. They have a low tolerance for running hot, and so as I'm flinging the car around, pestering the instructor in his rear-view, the car frequently kills the joy by going into "limp" mode. This is when I follow closely and the cooling air is apparently not sufficient entering the air intakes or Gurney flaps beneath. It's basically like the family dog throwing up under the Christmas tree the night before opening the presents. Manual mode is thus forbidden for a lap or two and engine revs are held down low. I was as bummed here as I am in any BMW M car that does the same. People of Affalterbach, we must work on this if you're going to keep insisting we race your products at the track to feel the cars' true capabilities. It sucks.
That rant out of the way, courses like this ought to be a required of a client who buys any AMG. I had not yet done an AMG class and it really did confirm some things for me. Mainly that an AMG is a different animal from any other in the zoo. They require a certain line through all types of bend and a certain innate feeling for exactly when to hit full throttle out of every squealing-sidewall curve. Knowing these things is crucial to AMG pure chewing satisfaction and it takes a few days and generous track time to have it sink in to the point where you can relax more and trust your car.
Clients who tick the "code 250" option for delimiting the car's top speed can get the AMG basics driving course (Stage I) part and parcel, except for those getting the G55 AMG who must pay in addition.
Though the AMG academies have been going since mid-2007 in Europe, the program for North America started September of 2009 at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut. Soon after that there was a similar series of classes at Palm Beach International Raceway, as well as several sessions held at Laguna Seca Raceway in November. The programs have been hugely successful and dates will soon be announced for a larger set of opportunities in 2010.
The basic Stage I class costs $1,895 and the more exhaustive Stage II class will run participants $3,495. Each year, too, the plan is to offer a Stage I class at Laguna Seca that includes driving the new SLS AMG. This modified class costs $2,295.