The seat tightens around my left midsection as I make a right turn on the ice. It’s as if the car is trying to give me a reassuring hug as I drift across the track – that’s the Mercedes-Benz Drive-Dynamic Seat in action, inflating slightly to support the driver’s body during cornering. Despite the slippery surface, I’m not afraid. I want more. After all, that is why I, and about 100 other enrollees from across North America, have come to Manitoba in the middle of February: to take on a frozen Lake Winnipeg in the latest Mercedes-AMG models. (The school is open to Mercedes-Benz and non-Mercedes-Benz owners from around the world.)
Mercedes-AMG has hosted winter driving programs in Sweden for over 12 years, in a town near the Arctic Circle, so when planning the Canadian AMG Winter Sporting program, something comparable was sought out on this side of the pond. They ultimately chose Gimli, a fishing village on the shores of one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. A mere hour’s drive from Winnipeg, Gimli is cold, friendly and ideal for these specialized courses lasting three or four days, offering instruction in high-performance driving with exercises in understeer and oversteer, hitting the brakes, inducing slides and drifting – all on four expertly designed ice tracks.
I start my school day by joining the group for a daily briefing. After our arrival the night before, a camaraderie between the students is already firmly in place. There’s egging on and joshing while instructors answer questions about, for example, the ideal place to be on the torque curve for each vehicle so that it “never bites you too much,” and follow-ups about the skid-control manoeuvres. As I’ll discover throughout the course, the topics are serious, but the tone is often light.
After the briefing, we’re off. Our fleet heads down sleepy First Avenue toward the harbour and the lake. Once there, we spot Travis Toomey brushing off a fresh layer of snow just as we arrive. He has been up all night building and maintaining tracks, and will make sure they’re in top form for us every morning. We pull up against a picture-perfect background of fishing huts dotting the lake under an endless blue sky. Outside the track area, cracks from frozen, shifting ice have created beautiful formations. While the ice is a metre thick, more than solid enough for driving, new students tend to have a few concerns – at least at first.
“That’s always the first question we get: ‘Will we go through the ice?’” Danny Kok, the AMG Driving Academy chief instructor, and my driving partner for the day, tells me with a knowing smile. To nip those jitters, course leaders get participants in cars and on the ice from the first evening. It’s baptism by fire (or by ice, if you prefer), not to mention a beautiful beginning to the program under the shimmering stars or, if you’re lucky, the northern lights.
Students are split into small groups for maximum driving time and personalized instruction. One group heads out to Laguna track, a tight, twisty, high-speed course 1.8 kilometres in length; another to the AMG ARENA, a wide, peanut-shaped track that’s 500 metres long. We’ll all rotate cars and tracks later in the course, also trying Tremblant, another 1.8-kilometre circuit with sweeping turns, tailored for medium speed, and Mosport, 2.1 kilometres in length, with multiple high-speed, left-right combinations.
Settled into a Mercedes-AMG CLS 63 S 4MATIC Avantgarde Edition, Kok and I head over to Dynamic, the 1.6-kilometre-long practice area. I do a couple of easy laps to churn through a thin sprinkling of morning snow. After some basics from Kok – “Look as far down the road as you can!” “It’s just using brake, gas and steering, and how well you combine those three, that allows you to slide the car” – I’m ready to try some transitional corners and big slides. While drivers typically clock at about 120 km/h, the course is not so much about speed as technique. “At first, everyone just wants to go fast,” says Kok. “Then they realize that, okay, going fast is one thing, but boy is it fun when you start going sideways. Once they get into a nice rhythm of sliding the car back and forth with these nice lazy slides, and once they start mastering the controls, then it’s ‘How much fun is that!’”
The not-suitable-for-city-life, 400-stud traction-wielding tires (handmade specifically for the program by a husband-and-wife team in Sweden) are an essential feature that also adds to the fun. Otherwise, the ice is quite the level playing field. “Everyone starts out at a certain level of experience: Some have had racetrack experience, and then you get people with zero experience or one day of experience,” explains Kok. “But we’re all rather equal because it’s pretty foreign. Everyone’s learning the same new thing. The winter course is special that way.”
As the drivers rotate vehicles, they get a feel for the unique handling characteristics of each, from the Mercedes-AMG C 63 S Sedan, a 503-hp rear-wheel-drive vehicle, to the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC, a 375-hp all-wheel-drive model. Then there’s the fast, heavy-duty AMG CLS 63 S 4MATIC, which is biased to send more power to the rear wheels. (The Mercedes-CLS 63 S 4MATIC will be replaced by the E 63 S 4MATIC+ Sedan in 2018.)
When the driving day is done and the pace has slowed, Gimli steps in to impress the participants. The town has pulled out all the stops to welcome the Driving Academy, with the mayor popping in to bring us Icelandic treats like vinarterta, a cardamom-infused layer cake. Gimli has the largest Icelandic community outside of Iceland, and there are touches of the old country in the local shops and bakeries, as well as a Viking festival every summer.
“They’re happy we’re here,” says Kok, noting that while Gimli is a vibrant resort in summer with packed beaches, boating and fresh-caught pickerel, winter is another story. The hotel struggles to keep staff, and many restaurants and stores are shuttered for the season. One delightful pub, Ship and Plough, stays open, though, and has been the group’s go-to after coming off the lake. Another favourite hangout: locals’ well-equipped ice-fishing huts, where they’ve invited us to watch Winnipeg Jets games.
Mercedes-AMG’s own unconventional break room is a snazzy log-cabin-style ice hut with fireplace, snacks, coffee and tea – the perfect place to warm up in -30°C weather and connect with my fellow students. They are a diverse bunch, mostly Mercedes-Benz owners, and include Sheree, from Toronto, who has never done anything like this but works in the automotive industry and seems to be up for a new adventure.
It’s also the first time on the ice for David, from Vancouver, although his third time out on a track. “It’s quite a bit different on ice: more speed, more technical, as there’s more drifting and more track time.” David jokes about his main takeaway from the course: “I’ll probably be hoping for more snow in Vancouver.”
One student, Israel, originally from Mexico City, was impressed by the spirit of the program and the Mercedes-AMG vehicles, as well as the Mercedes-Benz G-Class that was used as a support vehicle “when I got stuck in the snow on my first day,” he explains, with a laugh.
The course comes with bragging rights about driving on Lake Winnipeg.
For students coming from closer by, the course comes with bragging rights about driving on Lake Winnipeg. Allan, from Brandon, Manitoba, says he’s also been impressed by the setting, but especially the instructors and how easily they bring out confidence in their students.
Looking out over the dramatic frozen terrain, we know that while most of us won’t encounter conditions quite this harsh in our daily commute, having the chance to push these vehicles – and ourselves – to the limit will serve us long after we’ve left Gimli.