Gimli, MB – The wide-open course carved from the white-frosted ice of Lake Winnipeg didn’t look quite so wide anymore. Knuckles clenched ever tighter around the flat-bottomed steering wheel, already at full opposite lock, the trunk end of the majestic Mercedes-AMG CLS 63 S drifted ever further towards the outside of the plowed track. Looking out the side glass, realizing its weighty pendulum was continuing to swing me around to its perpendicular path to the track, I would not give up on catching her in this sweet embrace of oversteer, and committed to our sweaty connection with a steady throttle foot.
Around came that back end, past the 90 degrees that I had previously thought was the maximum any car could possibly hold a skid. Our bond strengthened as she and her studded tires spun but didn’t give up on our dance with the shiny devil, the track’s unplowed contours a mass of sharp icy pitchfork spikes waiting to punish us for blocking out the rest of the world.
Our moment came to a momentary standstill under the bright northern Manitoba sun, when I realized this AMG’s back end had literally taken the lead of this dance. And then she saved me, slowly easing me back on course, patting my behind gratefully, and playfully, for not giving up on her.
She became my first. Not my first automotive love, not the first time staring down the valley of oversteer to come out of it unscathed. But my first automotive dance where to fully and wholly embrace my partner, and the moment, I needed to muster a complete commitment and trust: enough trust to not give up while looking out the side window – then enough trust to not give up even when looking through the rear side window.
This is what the new AMG Winter Sporting program is all about: special moments of tail-out joy, and re-connecting with your inner enthusiast. Reminding you how amazing driving can be, especially in winter. Pushing yourself and your car control abilities to their maximum, with little personal risk. And how you don’t need supersonic speeds to put a smile on your face.
Which is somewhat ironic, because the three sampled lines of AMG vehicles were more than capable of eye-watering thrust. This 577 hp CLS 63 S was joined by a 375 hp CLA 45, both of them bearing all-wheel drive systems (though rear-biased and front-biased ones, respectively), while the 503 hp C 63 S sedan was the only rear-wheel drive flag-bearer.
Lake Winnipeg Research ship with AMG carbon front lip
This latter one was a wicked beast, always ready to slide its back end on this ice, even when pressing on in a (formerly) straight line. But it also highlighted why rally cars that continually run in low traction conditions prefer all-wheel drive. As one participant reportedly joked, with its tendency to come around on you with little provocation, it’s as “nasty as an angry ex-wife.”
This year was the first time such a Winter AMG program took place outside of northern Sweden – where a program takes place north of the Arctic Circle. Don’t confuse this serious three or four-day “AMG Winter Sporting” program with the snowy but relatively tame one-day Mercedes-Benz Winter Driving Academy. This is an AMG customer event, so there are no safety-focused, meat-and-potatoes winter braking or emergency lane-changes practiced here.
It’s all about tail-out emotion here.
No, these are vehicles that have all their electronic stability safety systems turned off before hitting the circuits for as much power-sliding as possible. Not just turned off normally, with a dash button, though there is that. These cars have been specially prepared by engineers flown in from AMG HQ in Affalterbach, whose sole purpose is to ensure that these cars won’t emergency brake when you’re mid-drift, or flash a collision warning onto the windshield when you’re sliding one way, but happen to be facing a snow bank in front of your windshield.
“We can’t do this at the local dealership,” said Danny Kok, the program’s chief instructor, and regular Mercedes-Benz and AMG Academy director. With the constant steering adjustments back and forth needed, they actually recommend you remove your big winter coat for the driving. “This will be the most work you’ve ever done in a car – you will be sweating at some points throughout the day.”
The program ran for about six weeks this winter in a successful trial run, with roughly 100 participants this year in the three-day program that ended with our shortened one-day sampling of it. There are already confirmed plans to expand it for 2018 to more drivers, with more open slots and a longer available program.
But perhaps the most unique aspect of this winter course is that part of it is run at night, in the dark, with few lights out on the lake besides the bobbing headlights of other drifting AMG models off in the distance – you hope. The standard LED lights provide plenty of illumination of what's ahead, even when twisting the wheel in ways that often are far from directly ahead of you. But it is a little disconcerting to race into a black pool of darkness far ahead of you, even though the nearby shore and lights of downtown Gimli helps alleviate some of that creepiness.
So why this AMG program in Canada, and why this year? First, 2017 is the 50th anniversary of AMG as a company, which officially became a wholly owned division of Daimler-Benz in 2007. Another is that Canadians love AMGs, with it continually ranking as AMG’s top market per capita, and importantly, some months where it sells the most AMG models overall. The US is still tops generally, so this program now provides AMG enthusiasts from all over North America with a relatively central (northern) starting point to meet mid-winter, to fall in love with twirling AMGs in the snow.
Besides the electronics tweaked for less intrusive operation, there are a couple other mods to ensure maximum ice driving fun. The first and most key are the hand-studded Lappi tires, as well as special carbon-kevlar lower bumpers that are most susceptible to damage on the icy berms that line the track. These berms are not more than a couple inches higher than the icy track surface, so a spinning car can easily go over them. But they’re high enough to know that you’ve gone off-track, especially if you cross them at speed. I’ve heard. From a friend.
The cost is $3,995 for each driver, and if you’d like to bring a (non-driving) guest, that’ll be another $1,195 – plus the cost of transportation to Winnipeg airport. For 2018, there will be an “Advanced Plus” program in Gimli for folks who have graduated from this school, involving an extra day and video analysis of your drifting techniques, for $4,995 per driver ($1,495 for guests).
Pricey, yes, but for these owners, it’s all about making memories with like-minded enthusiasts. Passionate enthusiasts. And for a 50-year-old company this year, it’s a way to enjoy its cars in an anti-autonomous icy celebration.