Driving on ice teaches you Jedi levels of car control

Damien Reid learns important lessons about car control on an ice driving course in New Zealand with Mercedes-AMG.

Damien Reid December 28, 2016

You would think that offering snow driving experiences to us in the Middle East would be a touch futile but you’d be wrong because aside from teaching you Jedi levels of car control in just a day, it’s about the most fun you can have behind the wheel. Imagine being able to push a high performance sports car beyond the limit of its adhesion and crash into nothing more solid than big, fluffy white pillows of soft snow?

Mercedes-AMG is one of many manufacturers who offer ice-driving courses in the Arctic Circle each winter, which is great if you have the free time to do that now. But if, like most of us, your big annual leave is in the middle of summer then you’re still very much in luck.

On a day touching nearly 50 degrees earlier this year, I boarded an Emirates flight from Dubai to New Zealand and landed in the middle of a Southern Hemisphere winter where, after a night’s sleep in Queenstown I was chauffeured to a place called the Snow Farm.

It’s 40 hectares of barren mountaintop covered in New Zealand’s famously fine, powder snow and aside from it being a summer base to dozens of Winter Olympians, it’s also the mid-year residence of the Mercedes-AMG Snow Experience school.

Minus nine degrees in the middle of July anyone?

The first test is just getting there. Our Mercedes Viano van struggled up the icy road until it could take no more and snow chains were fitted. It then struggled until it literally staggered to a halt at the farm, 1,500 metres above sea level. From there it was a short but slippy walk to the briefing room. Traction, even for the boots, was at zero. 

Assembled outside was the full fleet of AMG cars from the A45 right through to the AMG GT S and even a few convertibles such as the SL63 AMG. But first, hot chocolates and the important instructions from our Australian instructors.

The team from Mercedes Australia were all professional race drivers including a few V8 Supercar drivers, a guy named Brock whose father won the big race at Bathurst nine times and chief instructor, Peter Hackett who’s won everything from Formula 3 open wheelers to the big GT 3 races with AMG in the gullwinged SLS AMG.

If you’re wondering about the credentials of Aussies to talk about driving in the snow when Mercedes has a plethora of driving talent back in Germany, fear not as the ski fields in the south east corner of Australia are bigger in land mass than Austria, so there’s no issue with experience from the blokes down under.

After a theory lesson on how cars are far more sensitive in icy conditions with everything from planting the throttle to braking effort and weight transfer, it was time to hit the slopes and try a series of obstacles. Over the next six hours we attempted slalom racing, emergency braking, drag racing, figure of eight drifting and concluded with high-speed, constant slide loops around a 1km radius oval. And all with the usually mandatory ‘traction control’ button turned off to really throw some chaos in to the mix.

The course also highlights the big differences between the V8 powered cars against the more nimble, four-cylinders like the A45 as well as the different driving styles of getting the most from all-wheel drive as opposed to two-wheel drive as well.

The little A45 is all-wheel drive and it was a matter of keeping the foot buried in the throttle under most situations to get out of a slide or to change direction. Its 381bhp, four-cylinder turbo engine develops a healthy 475Nm of torque but it likes to rev, so it screamed away as the ice exaggerated its natural tendency to understeer.

However, by the end of the course everyone had mastered how to get it to behave exactly the way they wanted it to with some even performing a few ‘Scandinavian flicks’ that are used by professional rally drivers to get around slippery corners. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum was the giant, 585bhp, twin-turbocharged V8 engine hidden under the bonnet of the SL63 AMG which is wildly different in configuration, offering more power but more weight over the nose and only having the rear wheels doing all the work. Slalom racing against the AMG GT S – with the top down of course – was lots of fun but more importantly taught us about the evil effects of over correction and weight transfer which often results in a spin after losing control.

Most single car accidents are the result of a driver losing control of the car and this happens when a car gets into a slide. But it’s not the first correction of the wheel that causes the crash, rather it’s the second, the counter steer that 90 per cent of time is too much, done in panic, which causes the car to crash. With the safety of those big, soft snow banks, we could experiment without damage until we’d tamed the most powerful beasts Mercedes-AMG make and in the most unpredictable of conditions.

What started out as a fun way to play with cars in a safe environment soon rammed home an important, sobering message about car control and about how little some of our group had at the beginning and how much more confident everyone was at the end of the day. 

With some AMG models costing over AED 500,000, plus costly insurance premiums, this $NZ4,800 (AED 12,600) trip can be seen as a bit of a bargain to learn how to handle your new steed properly. But you’ll also have the most fun you could ever imagine behind the wheel.