AMG track bash: At one with the car

By Alastair Sloane

Follow the rules and you can tackle any environment, writes Alastair Sloane.

Alastair Sloane (driving) found the car took on a life of its own on the skidpan - reportedly the most slippery in the world. Photo / Supplied
Alastair Sloane (driving) found the car took on a life of its own on the skidpan - reportedly the most slippery in the world. Photo / Supplied

The late racing driver and all-round good bloke Ashley Stitchbury used to say: "Only when you have found your way out of a corner have you found your way into it."

I used to sign off the final Good Oil column of the year with his advice. It was an attempt to reach holiday drivers, if only to say "take it easy out there".

Race drivers and qualified instructors use the same message. Brake in a straight line, let the car roll through the corners, get the steering wheel into a neutral position, don't load up the tyres, look forward, keep looking forward, trust your hand-eye judgment ...

Australian race driver Peter Hackett led a team of instructors - including New Zealand driver Daniel Gaunt and V8 Supercars pilot Dean Canto - who showed Mercedes-Benz customers and guests at Hampton Downs how to work at one with a car, in this case the high-performance AMG C63 coupes, sedans and station wagons.

Each instructor had a different approach but with one object: get round the Hampton Down circuit quickly and smoothly.

The skidpan - reportedly the most slippery in the world - was the exception. The car takes on a life of its own and trying to balance it on the throttle was like juggling popcorn.

On the track, some instructors wanted you to brake earlier than others; some would take a slightly different line through corners; one in particular insisted I breathe deeply, relax my shoulders and arms ... all this while building up to 220km/h, before braking and rolling the car through a downhill right-hander.

Hackett wasn't there at the end of the day - he left early to fly to Melbourne to race in the third round of the Australian GT Championship. It's a rule: drivers have to be on Australian soil 24 hours before a race. He is piloting a Mercedes-Benz SLS GT3 and has had three first places.

But before he left he talked about what every driver should know.

"From my point of view there are two really critical elements to driving a car in any environment," he said. "The first one is planning ahead and looking ahead, understanding that the further ahead you look the more time you give yourself to be able to react to any situation.

"The second part of that is to understand just how long it takes to stop a car. As the conditions change, as they go from dry to wet, the stopping distance changes, too.

"Most mistakes we see on the road are forced by people who are travelling too close to the car in front, or probably more importantly, are distracted.

"This is because of technology that's now available, particularly with SMS texts and phones, At 60km/h you are travelling at almost 18m a second.

"Every 10th of a second you are travelling 1.8m. Just a 10th of a second at any speed can be critical."

Hackett said that the correct seat position is vital. "Most customers sit very high in the seat.

"The problem here is that are forced to look straight down the bonnet of the car which automatically brings their field of vision much closer.

"We encourage most people to try and sit a little bit lower in the car and that automatically lifts their field of vision up, forcing them to look further ahead.

"We don't want them so low that they are looking through the steering wheel. But we do like to try and get the centre of gravity a little bit lower."

The position of a driver's hands on the steering wheel has changed with the advent of technology like airbags, which are stored in the hub of the steering wheel.

"Nine and three should be the position," said Hackett. "Most people were taught to have their hands at 10 and two. But this was taught before power steering.

"Now with speed-sensitive power steering and also airbags, nine and three keeps your hands in a nice safe position."

What about the best seating position and the distance from the steering wheel? "Again, most people sit slouched. You have no control.

"If you look at any racing driver, they sit quite upright and quite close. You need to have a nice bend in your elbow.

A typical old school rule of thumb is that you should be able to place your wrist on top of the wheel but still keep your shoulder flat against seat.

"In a modern car we have completely adjustable seating and steering wheels. The moral of the story is make sure you have a bend in your elbow and that you can reach the top of the steering wheel without getting off the seat."

- NZ Herald

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