Perched at the top of New Zealand’s Race to the Sky hillclimb, the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground hosts Mercedes AMG’s Snow Experience. We score an invite.
Located outside Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island, the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground is spoken of in the same way one speaks of a pilgrimage to the Nürburgring. Only you have to be invited here. Being 1600 metres above sea level but feeling 10 times higher than that, the 490 hectares of privately owned land is a strange place to be, almost mythical.
On the drive up to the ‘snow farm’, the occupants of the transport bus are silent. At first, I would have put this down to the very early start in what is a very cold place, but the truth is, what we are about to do is intimidating.
That intimidation is not helped by the long drive up the infamous Race to the Sky hill climb course. Hairpin turn after hairpin turn on this dirt road. As we get higher, dirt turns to sludge, sludge to snow, then to snow mixed with ice. A wrong turn here would be disastrous.
As the transporters disgorge their contents, I notice people stamping and pushing the snow with their boots, feeling the ground below in an attempt to understand the surface. On the drive here I’ve learnt that I’m mostly surrounded by experienced skiers, but everyone looks like they are stepping on snow for the first time. We are not skiing this stuff, we are about to start driving on it.
Everyone is smiling nervously but we are all quiet.
During orientation, that same level of silence continues. The focus in these sessions is always on safety, and rightly so, but in this session our eyes and ears are even more attentive than usual. Everything that you have learnt on track days is useless here. Through instinct, your mind tells you to stay on the black stuff…black stuff good, green stuff bad. But here, there is no black stuff, none all. Instead, there are about 30 football fields of snow. Snow and, what I learn to dread and respect in equal measures, ice.
Instructors by their very nature are pretty good at mind reading. They have to be. But for the first time, what they are thinking and what we are thinking are two separate things. They think that we believe we are going to be instant snow driving rally stars, that we will be drifting effortlessly in no time at all. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We were intimidated by the drive here and what we now have all around us.
We nervously get kitted up in our jackets and gloves and head off to our first driving experience stations. By chance, my driving partner for the day is Mercedes-Benz’s own marketing director, Jason Nomikos. It’s always an interesting experience spending time with guys like Jason. I’ve met plenty of marketing directors across many professions, but a lot of the time I’ve discovered that I’m more interested in the products being sampled than they are. So it’s a relief to discover that Jason is a car guy first and foremost. Representing Mercedes-Benz and, on today its AMG portfolio, he is very enthusiastic about the products he represents.
Jumping behind the wheel of a rear-wheel-drive, 375kW twin turbocharged C63 S is not the calm introduction to snow driving for which I was hoping. Something with all-wheel drive and a bit less power and torque might be handy. So with Jason sitting behind me, I’m about to drive on the snow for the first time in my life. No pressure then.
I spin within the first five seconds. Maybe less.
Worse still, I spin again trying to recover from the first one. Embarrassed I’m not. I’m more astounded by just how unpredictable this is. What I learn fast is that everything that applies to driving on the road is the opposite here. I also learn just as quickly that for those of us who are of ‘normal’ driving abilities, snow is fun. Ice is not. The problem is sometimes you just cannot spot the difference between the two, especially when driving at speed.
But when you get it right on the white stuff, the sensation is about as good as it gets on four wheels. But getting it right on the snow and ice is measured in seconds and nothing is predictable. Especially in a rearwheel- drive monster like the C63, a car that can be provoked to be a handful on dry tarmac. After five minutes of attempting to gain control while doing loops around a single witch’s hat (sounds boring, believe me it’s not) it’s time to swap positions with Jason.
Annoyingly Jason is doing this a whole lot better than me and more than once I say ‘bastard’ aloud. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have his moments in the C63, his are just not as big as mine. Everyone, even those of great experience can have things happen here that they are not expecting. The difference is the ability to adapt. That is the difference between our instructors and us. While we adapt in a corner they have adapted to the corner after the next one. My respect for just how talented AMG’s instructors are increases by the minute. These guys are different to you and I. They drive on snow and ice like they have been doing it their whole lives, the confidence and understanding they have of the conditions is the same as if you or I were doing a lap of Phillip Island or Sydney Motorsport Park.
It’s also very clear that while Jason is the boss outside the cars, when inside, his team of drivers wear the captain’s stripes. What they say goes without question. As the day goes on, I begin to discover that snow turns into ice very, very fast. You can drive over the same stretch of ground and discover it has changed dramatically in only 30 seconds. Cruelly, just as you think you have the hang of it, the surface changes and spits you out sideways.
Throughout the day we progress through AMG’s entire range, all the way up to the GT S super coupe. If you want to be challenged forever, buy yourself an AMG GT S and take it snow driving. If you can master that feat within three years, you could master any driving challenge. But if you want to drive fast with the knowledge that the car will back you up, buy a 4matic-equipped AMG.
Within a week, not only will you be able to drift past 90 degrees, but you will be able to hold it there and make the next corner.
Unless you’re a driving god with preternatural talent, snow and ice driving is not easy. If any of us thought that we’d quickly master long, gliding drifts, we were sorely mistaken. Instead, we spend more time facing the wrong way with a few witch’s hats knocked over for good measure.
More than anything, though, it just feels special to be here. Adding to the mystical feeling of the place is that everything here is secret. You see things that you are instructed not to see. In a world where spy shots are the norm, the level of respect is quite heartening.
On more than one occasion, I see cars I’ve only read about and that I know aren’t due for release for years.
But when something drives past, no one is reaching for their cameras in an effort to catch some manufacturer off guard. Far from it in fact, to the point that the level of respect for each brand’s privacy is a special experience in its own right.
As a display of this respect, and to highlight just how tough this place is on driving skills, another German marque’s prototype, driven by a highly experienced test driver, requires the services of Mercedes-Benz’s own G-Wagen to pull it off a high snow wall. Help is given, a few smiles are exchanged, but like Sargent Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, I, along with everyone else, see nothing.
Everyone took a lot out of the day and by the time we make it back to our rooms in Queenstown we are stuffed. The day is a mental assault.
On the flight back the next day, staring out the window at the winter wonderland that is the South Island of New Zealand, my mind is scattered. But one thought occurs that I had not had less than 24 hours before. It’s a gutsy move for Mercedes-Benz to expose a fleet of its cars to its customers in such conditions. I can’t wait till they do it again…
by MATTHEW O’MALLEY
PHOTOGRAPHY by CHRIS BENNY
& CAMERON MURRAY