FEATURES: AMG Driving Academy: The Nurburgring

July 1, 2009
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The AMG Driving Academy at the Nürburgring is a trifecta of automotive scholarly brilliance: there are cars and then there are AMGs; there are tracks and then there's the Nürburgring, and there are schools, and then there's the AMG Driving Academy. But I'm not yet aware of this as my shuttle picks me up from the Frankfurt airport. As we get closer to the famed 'Ring, Porsche after tuned Porsche drives by in the other direction, a gaggle of Nissan Skylines buzz past us, wastegates whistling. An old bi-plane flies by, doing loop-de-loops in the sky above us into the sunset. I smile as I realize that I'm at Ground Zero in the promised land of engine-powered mayhem.
The next day, I become suddenly aware that my room at the Dorint Hotel is located right on the front straight of the Nürburgring grand prix circuit. There is no alarm clock better than the 100-decibel wail of V-12-powered cars screaming past my bed. Good morning, indeed.
Our first day of instruction starts with a very quick classroom session going over the basics of seating position and skid control, and then we're given keys to our cars. Mercedes has rented me an SL63 AMG for the school - a 4300-lb, 518-hp monster of a roadster. We drive across the street to the Auto Motor + Sport safety center for a few quick refreshers on skid control and braking.
One of the coolest exercises involves driving down a hill onto wet concrete painted with a special coating that simulates ice. As you roll onto the wet stuff, a hydraulic device shoves your rear wheels to the side, pitching the car into a slide. The direction of the slide is random, but your reactions must be swift and decisive to avoid spinning over one of the ten-foot high fountains of water. Très cool.
Also très cool is the SL's performance on a tight autocross course. No 4300-lb cruiser should be able to change direction as swiftly as the SL does. Thanks to Active Body Control, there's no roll at all - the SL makes its way through slaloms and transitions with zero drama. Pushing really hard in the slaloms, it's possible to run out of power steering assist, but let's face it, when was the last time you saw an SL at an autocross?
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But we didn't come here to fight pylons, we came to conquer the Green Hell - a racetrack so dangerous, only precious few races are run there. The Nordschleife is, as you may know, a public toll road, and there are multiple times per week when any licensed driver can pay 21 euros for a lap in whatever street-legal machine carried him or her there. No one seems to know how often, statistically, that lap results in smashed bodywork and a bruised ego, but judging by the number of mangled cars I see on tow trucks in the area, it's a lot. And I certainly hope that won't be happening to my $140,000 rented chariot.
Despite the pounding in my chest, my fears are alleviated within seconds of pulling out onto the tarmac. The AMG Driving Academy has divided the Nordschleife into nine sections, and we run each section in a lead-follow arrangement with our instructor, professional race car driver Roland Rehfeld. Each section starts out at a moderate pace, with Roland's voice crackling through the radios - advice on where to place the car on the track, what's ahead of each crest, and most amazingly, what each of us are doing wrong. Driving with one hand, radio in the other, Roland is constantly monitoring his rear-view mirrors. He sees everything, and calls us out by name. I clip a curb and get scolded in a thick German accent "Jason, that's hell of cheating." D'Oh! At the completion of each section, we double back (running the Nordschleife backwards!) and do the section over and over again.
That's right, there are no other cars to deal with - the Academy rents out the entire Nordschleife for two days! And even though the sections all start to run together by the end of the first day, you've passed each curve enough times, with enough instruction, that you're starting to build confidence that the next day will be even more fun.
Except that the infamous Green Hell weather greets us the next morning. Driving through one section at a speed that would get you ticketed on any U.S. interstate, Roland jokes over the radio, "as you can see now, you can now see nothing." And he isn't kidding - the fog was thick enough that we can barely see the car in front of us. But this is part of the experience - the Nürburgring's location in the Eifel mountains provides for constantly changing weather patterns. It can be warm and sunny on one part of the track, and a few miles down the road, it's foggy and raining.
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Roland's organized, methodical instruction and his ability to adjust his speed to the capabilities of our group is something I've never seen anywhere, at any driving school. Each trip through each section, we learn more and more about this track. But one thing becomes clear right away: the Nordschleife isn't a racetrack. No, it's a country road with no oncoming traffic. There are so many turns (seventy-three) over such a long distance (thirteen miles) that you simply can't remember all of them the way you can on a shorter, ten-turn road course. More important, the combination of insane elevation changes, blind corners, and limited runoff means you can't use the whole road - at least not at first. You need to slowly creep up your speed as you learn what's on the other side of that crest; how hitting the big bump in the middle of the track will affect your car's handling, or whether there's a big wet patch in the middle of the next corner. Corner workers and first-aid stations? Nope, not here. Runoff is usually a fence or a tree. Yikes.
Once we complete each section, Roland takes us for progressively faster lead-follow laps. And don't think for a second that we're restricted by his speed - he is always watching behind him and if we get closer, he pulls away. Roland is driving a DTM-prepared CLK63 AMG, and there are plenty of times the back of his car gets loose trying to get away from the pack of SL63 AMGs behind him. We turn consistent nine-minute, fifteen-second laps with Roland leading.
At the end of the final day, once the weather clears, timing equipment is put into our cars, and we're allowed to go out on our own for unsupervised runs. A few corners into my first run, I wish Roland was there to guide me. Is this that second-gear left, or the fourth-gear left that looks just like it? Ugh.
I don't know how anyone can safely learn the Nordschleife without doing it the way the AMG Driver's Academy did - step by step. My fastest lap was right at the nine-minute mark - around forty-five seconds slower than the car's capability. But the heart rate monitor that Mercedes placed on me confirms what I'm feeling - the car may not have been at its limit, but I'm definitely at mine. My heart's 180 beats per minute is the cardiac equivalent of the 6.2-liter V-8 spinning at its 7200-rpm redline.
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There are times during my laps that the unflappable SL picked up a front wheel mid-corner at 120 mph. I slid through the Fuchsröhre at 130 mph, bottoming out the suspension as the car sagged under 1g of downward force. The automatic roll bar deployed within a few turns each lap, telling me I had just been airborne. I sat pegged at the 155-mph limiter for what felt like an eternity. And the g-forces your body experiences in the insanely banked Karussel are unlike anything else you'll experience on a racetrack.
No, the Nürburgring Nordschleife is not just another track; it's the most insane one-way mountain road you'll ever drive. And the AMG Driving Academy isn't just another school. It's a perfectly organized and meticulously run experience that is the only way to really get your thrills on the Ring without coming home wearing bandages and casts.
Mercedes has just announced that the school is making its U.S. debut this fall. My advice: go to a school on your home turf to get your feet wet, and then sign yourself up for the 'Ring school. We put 435 miles of Nordschleife abuse on our SLs. The tires were cupped and the brake pads were down to their metal backing. The unlikely combination of the Nordschleife's inherent chaos, the Academy's unfaltering attention to detail and faultless organization, and the dynamic brilliance of the SL63 AMG resulted in an experience that, I promise you, cannot be duplicated anywhere else in the world.
For more information on the AMG Driving Academy, visit AMGacademy.com.
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