Mercedes-Benz Australia offers a range of driving courses for its customers, including those of the top-flight AMG models and its commercial van range. The courses are based on tuition provided by the company in Europe; developed in Germany.
The First Gear course is aimed at young drivers while the next step up, Mercedes-Benz Driving Experience ($350) is open to 25-year-old plus drivers with a full licence and keen to experience a selection of the brand's models on track, with guidance from a large team of professional drivers.
Classes are kept small (up to 30 participants) to ensure students are given close attention… Any bad habits are quickly identified. A well-organised series of exercises is conducted over half a day, including braking to a halt from high speeds, and forced oversteer and understeer conditions on wet surfaces.
The exercises demonstrate the importance of understanding onboard safety assistance systems. Instructors explain the function and behaviour of anti-lock braking and brake assist systems, and students experience the latest in Mercedes-Benz's developments such as Distronic plus (active cruise control) and active lane keeping assistance where brakes (depending on side) are applied to keep a car in line.
Head instructor Peter Hackett explained his team treats students as if they "know little about cars", regardless of previous experience.
"You will leave with information you don't have right now," said Hackett. "If we can give you one piece of information or one new experience, then it's been more than successful but we know for certain you'll get 10 or 20 different experiences that you will be able to take with you for the rest of your driving careers."
Hackett says the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy tops competitor offerings (though they're few) in aspects like personalisation. The industry standard is around eight students to one instructor, he says, but at Mercedes-Benz it's "typically" three-to-one.
Mercedes-Benz Australia spokesman Jerry Stamoulis told motoring.com.au the Academy's personalisation ensures guidance for drivers of all abilities. If, for example, a new-time driver aged in her 50s was to take part, she can tell instructors "[I've] only just got my licence and they won't be singled out, just more informed about the basics."
Our instructor was Ro Charlz, who shares this student's appreciation for endurance racing and is headed to Le Mans sometime soon, after a career including Formula V6 (Renault-powered openwheelers). So he knows I'm a wannabe racer but still takes me through the basics, including the mandatory wrist-over-wheel technique to determine correct steering position and using the footrest to set seating position "because they're [footrests] not just for comfort but useful for bracing against to help prevent injury in a collision".
We're told to try a different steering technique, too. Using a two-handed lead and push method, our arms are prevented from crossing the centre of the steering wheel and potentially in the way of a deployed airbag which would send a forearm into the driver's face; negating the benefits of airbag protection. The lesson was difficult to put into practice, especially on a race track with decent variation of corners that we love (and were allowed) to do at speed, but one worth exercising.
Mercedes-Benz Australia holds around 100 Driving Academy events a year to accommodate almost 10,000 customers. Hackett's team also conducts tuition in M-B markets in South East Asia, serving around 20,000 participants a year.
A generous selection of Benz models is open to students, from the smart fortwo to AMG models. The AMG Challenge Drive Day events are by invitation (to AMG Club members) only but the Driving Experience and First Gear courses are open Mercedes-Benz customers and their friends.
"We'd like to offer it to everyone," said Stamoulis but classes are already "jam packed".
"We don't want to single anyone out. We're aiming to make some difference [in driver awareness] and that includes friends of our customers."
Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy includes courses for customers of the brand's van and truck offerings. Visit mercedes-benz.com.au/mbdrivingacademy for details on programme schedule.