There are some amazing experiences in life which should sit on the bucket-list of any keen motoring nut – driving Mercedes Benz sports cars on the snow and ice would likely be one you’ve never heard of or considered – well – put it on the list. EFTM’s good mate Greg Rust got that very chance recently in New Zealand, here’s his thoughts on the encounter with man, machine, and ice.
Our Mercedes van winds its way up the side of a mountain in the Southern Alps on the same dirt road that was used for New Zealand’s rally inspired Race to the Sky. We’re about an hour out of Queenstown on the South Island. The striking landscape reminds you at times of Europe or Canada and what lies at the top is truly world class! The Snow Farm is a winter playground unlike any other in the southern hemisphere. Today the Russian and Polish cross-country ski teams are prepping for the Sochi Olympic Games on the purpose-built training runs. We’ll be on the other side of the mountain though doing something different altogether. Vehicles are often tested here in secret and with a stunning backdrop it’s ideal for making car commercials! This is where Mercedes Benz has again decided to stage the ‘Snow Challenge’ – part of the 2013 Festival of AMG.
The temperature outside is minus one as the sliding door opens. The sun is shinning through some cloud cover and a few tiny snowflakes delicately fall. “Conditions couldn’t be more perfect” says sportscar racer Peter Hackett who greets us at the summit with his team of instructors and a fleet of sleek-looking machines all lined up with snow-capped mountains behind them in the distance. It’s an incredible sight. More than four million dollars worth of cars all waiting to be driven on snow and ice by a group with no real experience in this art. And it is an art!
For the 2013 Challenge Mercedes opted for the CLS 63 Coupe and the SLK 55 Roadster from its AMG performance arm. The cars are all fitted with special Continental rubber designed for winter conditions but they’re not spike tyres like you’d expect. After a full day of punishment the tread blocks look brand new with barely a mark on them. The design and compound help the snow bind to improve grip in the unique conditions unlike a standard tyre, which tends feel like plastic in the extreme cold and offers no grip.
After a short briefing we head off for the first of several exercises. There’s not as much conversation now among the group of journalists I’m with as the anticipation builds. Customers are here too. Only 20 places are available each day for this three-day event and tickets were quickly snapped up when they went on sale eight months ago. The $4500.00 price tag might seem like a lot but this is bucket-list stuff and exceptionally well run!
The seat heaters are on and you actually feel quite toasty even with the top down in the SLK. I try to be ginger on the throttle as I venture into what could be a snow-covered cul-de-sac for all intents and purposes. It’s specially groomed and thankfully there’s plenty of runoff! I’m not going all that fast when the car suddenly launches into a spin. I try hopelessly to regather and short distance later it happens again….and again. Aghhh! The perfectionist in me is frustrated for a while. Then I change the mindset. You just have to laugh it off and enjoy the moment. It is seriously good fun!
Because most of have never driven in these conditions one of the first things the instructors help us to do is read the road and spot treacherous icy patches. Riding alongside you they then work on confidence with the throttle. There are times when it all comes together and you find the right balance of acceleration and steering input creating a joyous slide. The sound of the 5.4 litre V8, in both cars, is music to the ears, singing along in the perfect key for each situation. A soft, alluring note at idle and head turning authority when you plant the right foot. The SLK 55 produces 421 horsepower while the CLS 63 has 557 on tap.
There are slalom runs, a short rally inspired loop and the equivalent of an outdoor icerink. Very few make it to the finish line of this exercise and if you do it was more luck than talent. At one point Hackett arrives in a CLS to take you for a ride that puts things into perspective. The cars have way more potential than I dared to explore and he drove it like a stage of Rally Sweden, minus the bone jarring harshness of a competition car. Oh there is still so much more to learn!
The day seemed to fly by and we were all mentally exhausted at the end. The cars are sure-footed even in this challenging environment. It’s the driver skill set you’d concentrate on changing or improving not the vehicles. And often it’s those with the least experience who pick it up fastest. Stepping outside your comfort zone is something we all should do every once in a while and when it’s in cars as good as this fear takes a back seat and eagerness takes over.
Greg Rust is a motorsport presenter and commentator with Channel 10. He took part in the Snow Challenge as a guest Mercedes Benz. Follow Greg on Twitter: @Thrusta1