By Jim Bray
Mercedes-Benz just taught me how to drive like Jackie Stewart!
Okay, maybe not - few people can drive like the legendary "wee Scot" who won the Formula 1 championship three times in the late 1960's and early 1970's. But thanks to Mercedes-Benz's Driving Academy and their recent "Mastering Performance" course at Castrol Raceway near Edmonton, I learned some great techniques aimed at making me a better driver - and one of those techniques was pioneered by Sir Jackie himself.
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It's called "trail braking," and if you can drive a manual transmission you'll find it quite similar to using the clutch. But more about that later.
The Driving Academy's "Mastering Performance" course is one of a few put on by the German manufacturer (they also offer ones for new drivers, for winter driving, and there's one geared for owners of the brand's AMG performance division). Prices and availability differs, but you can find out all about the courses at their website. I've taken a few of these over the years and every time I learn something new that I can apply to my real world driving.
So if you aspire to be the best you can, why not learn how to drive a car the best that you can? You might even find such a course one of the best investments you can make when it comes to keeping your car on the road safely. They're also a heckuva lot of fun.
So it was that over the Canada/Independence Days weekend I found myself putting on my Piloti driving shoes and travelling to the City of Champions (thanks to the damn Eskimos) to partake in a full day of classroom and track training at the hands of Danny, Jerry, Melanie and Patrick, a team that's been doing this for years and has become the proverbial well-oiled machine. They're knowledgeable and personable and it's a pleasure having them judging your mastering of the performance - especially if they say good things.
Fortunately, you get plenty of practice. The hardest thing is getting used to each new car, since the smorgasbord of Benzs has you changing cars every few tries and each car feels and drives differently from the others.
But before they let you sample the wares of the Mercedes buffet, there's classroom time and the first topic was learning how to sit in the driver's seat.
Many people like to set the seat fairly high, so they can see better the corners of the car and where its front end is, but our instructor, Danny Kok, recommended that the seat be put as low as possible instead. The idea is not so much to "aim" the car (which I daresay was easier back in the days when Mercedes-Benz' famous three pointed star was mounted on the hood!) but to see as far ahead of you as possible. This not only lets you see more, which is always good when you're driving, it helps give you as much notice (or warning) as possible about what's happening on the road ahead of you.
As for how far back you should put the seat, you should be able to press the throttle to the floor fully, while your right leg is still bent. Keep your left foot on the "dead pedal" if there is one, for support and bracing so you don't need to use your hands on the steering wheel for that. You should also sit fairly upright to protect your spine in case of a collision, even if this means your paunch protrudes prominently and provokes pedestrians' laughter. Are my ears burning?
Drive with your hands at nine and three o'clock on the steering wheel, not at 10 and two or, God forbid, 11 and one, and keep a light touch on the wheel so you have free movement on it and can show the car where you want it to go, instead of manhandling it to do your bidding.
The class then turned to discussing corners (driving in a straight line is pretty basic, after all, in the grand scheme of things), breaking them down into their components and outlining the physics involved.
A corner has three basic parts: the turn-in, the apex, and the exit. You may be surprised to know that the first piece of the puzzle, the turn-in, is actually the point at which all your work leading into the turn - except for steering - should be finished. This means your braking and, if appropriate, your downshifting should be complete by the time you hit that point - after which you're good to go with turning the steering wheel.
Ah, but just because you're reached the turn-in point doesn't mean you can take your foot off the brake and head for the gas again. Instead, this is where Sir Jackie's trail braking technique comes in. Trail braking means you lift your foot off the brake pedal slowly, taking about half the distance from the turn-in to the apex to do it. This helps maintain optimal tire adhesion as the front end (which drops like a plow when you brake) resumes its normal height gently and steadily, rather than with a big hop that removes weight from the tires too quickly, causing them to lose grip.
The apex is the closest inside edge of the turn and, depending upon the curve, it could be halfway, part way, or nearly all the way around the turn (there's an off ramp near me whose apex is about 270 degrees around it, for example). It's at this point where you can start easing the steering wheel back toward centre, accelerating out as is prudent.
This brings up the topic of "maintenance throttle," where you add a bit of gas between the point where your trail braking ends and the turn's apex is reached - just enough gas to ensure you don't keep slowing down and losing momentum - before you pass the apex, straighten the steering wheel and accelerate out.
The idea is to spend more time on the straight sections, which are faster and offer you more control, and less on curves: you aren't looking to take the fastest speed possible through the turns, but are trying to be faster into and out of the turn, spending as little time as possible in the slower section.
We spent the morning track session practicing these techniques on two tight corners of Castrol Raceway, changing from Mercedes to Mercedes after each couple of attempts. The team was there to show us how to do it, then to analyze our performance and offer us tips for improvement. It made me feel 10 feet tall and covered with hair when Patrick came by my car after one attempt and, rather than offering the constructive criticism I'd received after the previous attempts, gave me a double thumbs up and a big smile.
After this I undoubtedly I blew the next few attempts…
Post-lunch we started tackling the 2.7 kilometre road course, and that was about as much fun as one can have legally. The team had put out cones to illustrate the turn-in, apex and exits of all the many corners on the tight course, which gave us civilians great head's ups about where we should be doing what part of the manoeuvre.
The idea, as practiced more slowly that morning, is to do 100 per cent of your braking (not necessarily 100 per cent pedal pressure because that isn't always necessary, but 100 per cent of the brake work you need to do on that corner) while still going straight, before the turn-in point, then slowly release it as trail braking. As mentioned above, it's kind of like how you release a clutch - if you let the clutch out all at once, you stall; if you don't do it quickly enough you over rev the engine and make a sloppy start. It's a balancing act.
And, as an example of something new I learned this time around, you should keep your right heel on the floor to help facilitate this trail braking.
Technique is more important than a lead foot. "If you try to force speed, it'll never come," Danny told us, stressing smoothness on our part rather than just tromping on the pedals, yanking the wheel and hoping for the best. And it works! Another handy bit of advice: if the ESP and/or ABS lights come on when you're driving (they're on the instrument panel), the car is sending you the message that you've screwed up. I've always felt this about these safety systems, but it was nice having it validated by someone who knows what he's talking about.
We got plenty of time in the driver's seats of the Mercedes-Benz products - which included a lovely sampling that ranged from the little B 250 hatchback through the C Class (including the awesome C63s AMG), the E Class, the mighty SL convertible (AMG), CLS AMG and even a couple of SUV's. It was a great cross section that offered us a bit of everything - and what a great way to get a feel for a wide variety of Benzes!
All of us, student and teacher, wore helmets, which really made us feel like racers, though they also tend to force one's head forward into a position with which I wasn't particularly comfortable - but hey, it was supposed to be challenging! We were issued with balaclavas that we got to keep as souvenirs, which probably beats the team having to hose out the helmets after each session.
As much as I wanted to go tearing around the track at whatever maximum speed I could muster safely, the Mastering Performance course isn't about racing, it's about learning to drive well. In fact, the team of instructors set things up so that as we drove the track in our two groups of four cars/drivers, the really hot hardware (such as the awesome AMG GT) was back in the pack and, since we couldn't pass, we had to control ourselves as well as the vehicles. It was tough, especially with the fast stuff!
This was my first chance I had to really use my Piloti shoes "in anger," and I was glad I had them. They're light and comfortable - even though I was having an attack of my bursitis - and they look classy to boot. I'll be sure to take them to the Canadian Car of the Year TestFest this fall so I can put them through their paces over the course of a week. I'd never realized before how much a good pair of driving shoes can help, but I'll be wearing them a lot more in the future.
I also recommend the Mercedes-Benz' Driving Academy highly, for anyone who wants to learn the physics of cars and of driving them - or anyone who merely wants to excel behind the wheel. This was my third such course and I learn something new every time - as well as having a chance to drive some fine wheels on an honest-to-goodness track.
Other manufacturers offer such courses as well, and you can probably find advanced driving courses through the auspices of various local clubs and facilities. Any of these can help make you a better and safer driver - and some can even help you qualify for a racing license. My first such course was like that, a two day extravaganza, and I left feeling like I was going to be the next Ayrton Senna.
Then I looked into the realities of racing ($$$$$$$$$) and came back to earth extremely quickly…
Why bother anyway, when the world is on the verge of having autonomous automobiles and ever more numerous safety features (lane departure, automatic braking, etc.) are becoming mainstream? Well, beyond the urge to be the best one can be, the bottom line when it comes to being responsible for your vehicle, regardless of the technology it has on board, is that the proverbial nut behind the wheel is still the weak link - especially in this age of texting and driving. So hone those skills!
Besides, it's a blast!
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
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