Drifting at Brooklands

Standing on the banked corner at Brooklands, Britain’s first ever dedicated motor racing track, it is impossible not to feel the rush of history breezing by, making the weeds – growing through the cracks in the concrete – flutter in its wake. Some of the fastest and bravest drivers in the world, men and women, raced here in the 1920s and 30s, but all that’s left of the original circuit is the historic banking, curving around the Brookland’s museum. But, while standing there on the empty track, under the iconic iron foot-bridge, listen carefully, and something spooky happens.

Reverberating through the ages, the unmistakable sounds of high performance racing cars echo across the track and send tingles through every spine within ear-shot. The soundtrack is not a recording, fed through speakers to make the huge museum piece seem more authentic. It comes from the Mercedes-AMG Performance Centre at Mercedes-Benz World right across the road.

You might say it is the Ultimate Car Dealership. Mercedes-Benz World in Byfleet, Surrey, will service your Smart Four-Two city car or your customised Maybach limousine. They’ll sell you an Electric EQ SUV, a Diesel C-Class, or 1:18 scale model X-Class. You can wander through the three or four floors learning all about the Mercedes Brand and History, dine in a classy rooftop brasserie or, for a slightly astronomical fee, one of the AMG Performance team will teach you how to extract the very best from your AMG-tuned Mercedes.

An introduction to the capabilities of these cars comes on a section of the Campbell Straight, another part of the old Brooklands Circuit (Named after Sir Malcolm Campbell, the land speed record holder). Mind-boggling acceleration sees speed piled onto more speed before heroic braking brings the machine to a safe and sudden stop. The same exercise is repeated, only this time into a corridor of fine spray, to demonstrate the intelligence of the vehicle, working out how best to apply the brakes to compensate for road conditions. The same exercise again, only three feet to the left, so only half the car is riding on wet ground. Again impressive technology makes me look like a far better driver than I am, by keeping the power and brakes adjusting at each wheel to keep the car facing the right way.

But in one of the more practical demonstrations, my tutor, Mark, explained why, in an emergency, slamming on the brakes in a car and letting the Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) do all the work, doesn’t actually stop the car faster than smooth, progressive thoughtful braking. In fact, being more steady with the brakes pulled the car up far shorter than I managed when slamming on the anchors and hoping for the best.

Once I had a feel for the car, Mark guided me onto a large wet circle where I was told to drive around at a low steady speed (around 15mph) as if I was travelling around a huge roundabout. As I did so he explained that the spray over the circular driving area was a mix of water and silica, creating an extremely slippery surface. Flooring the accelerator at his command, the car started to lose traction and oversteer – that’s when the rear wheels try to overtake the front and spin the vehicle around. But, immediately, the electronic gadgetry cut the power to the rear wheels and gave me plenty time to correct the car and continue around the circle.

I didn’t see exactly what he did next but he told me he had disabled the traction control… a bit. When I floored the accelerator, the car went into a bigger slide which took some quick reactions to correct, but I could still feel the car helping me keep it controlled. It was a peculiar feeling, but very reassuring.

While I was watching the road, Mark told me the driver assistance had now been completely turned off. I have no idea what he did to achieve that, but I suppose it’s best I don’t know. This time when I floored it, while steering into the circle, I was all on my own. It took all my best efforts to keep the car pointing the right way. Only when you have to do everything yourself, can you appreciate just how much the technology looks after you when it’s switched on.

Now, time to have a little fun with my new found freedom from traction control. Mercedes-Benz World provides a safe, purpose-built area to learn how to control a continual slide or drift. The next time Mark instructed me to induce oversteer, fighting every instinct to correct the spin, I learned to “feather” the throttle, continually adjusting the pressure on the accelerator. The aim was to keep the pressure too high to allow the wheels to regain traction but lifting off just enough to stop it from spinning around. This is the bit that takes practice to master.

Sadly, time was running out so Mark guided me away from the skid pan to have a go at some high performance driving on the short racing circuit on the site, before he took over to show just how much more performance a professional could eek out of the incredible AMG-tuned Mercedes saloon.

The experience left me keen to do more, and there are other driving experience packages available that allow more time, and more activities, but I was very impressed by quality of the experience offered in this, the most basic package.

Mercedes-Benz World in Byfleet is well worth a visit if you find yourself in or near the West of London, and don’t forget to head across to the Brooklands Museum to see where organised motorsport really began in the UK.

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