Right on track

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 06, 2012 19:11 hrs

Mercedes-Benz opens a driving academy and brings its sports cars to the Formula One circuit near Delhi. Aabhas Sharma gets behind the wheel for a first-hand experience.

Two months ago, driving to the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida near Delhi was an absolute pleasure. Wide roads on the new expressway, enough signage and marshals deployed on the road ensured that the entire experience of watching Formula One was one to savour. But then two months is long enough time for things to change.

On Wednesday, a cold January morning, we set off for the Buddh International Circuit to spend a day at the track. The experience of getting to the circuit is nothing like it was when Formula One came to town. Much to our bewilderment, the expressway is shut to public because of maintenance work, which means we have no choice but to take the service lane all the way to the circuit — a good 15 kilometres from the point where you enter Greater Noida. The smog doesn’t help, but some signage indicating Jaypee Sports City — and not the circuit — ensure that we reached our destination.

Post-F1, the Buddh International Circuit is like a well-guarded fortress. A lot of construction work is going on around the circuit. If you were at the races in October and thought it seemed like a dust bowl then, try visiting it now. It’s worse. There are construction workers everywhere — in the area around the premises where the track is located and outside it.

The guards scrutinise the passes; entry without permission is strictly prohibited. There is only one entry and exit gate, and if you are at the Paddock End, then getting to it is quite a walk. The track looks well-maintained and there are workers cleaning the stands. We are at the Pit Lane and entry to any other part of the track is barred. The fencing around the track is in place and there are marshals looking after it.

But enough about the track. There is a reason we’re back at the F1 venue. Mercedes-Benz is inaugurating its fourth Performance Driving Academy at the Buddh International Circuit with Jaypee Sports International, and experts from Germany, including Bernd Maylander, the current driver for safety cars in F1, are here to explain how the academy would function.

There are two cars from Mercedes — the C200 and the AMG C63 — for us. Before getting on the track, a brief session is held about the safety aspects, handling of the car, braking and how the AMG performance works in a Mercedes. For those who cover the auto sector, this might be just another day at work. But for an ‘outsider’, a thrilling ride is in store.

Maylander, who was a race car driver for about a decade and has been a safety car driver for a year, takes us on what is called a “Hot Lap” in his C63. With a balaclava and a helmet on, we ride with Maylander on the track. A helmet inside a car, especially when you aren’t even driving, might appear odd. But safety is of utmost importance. and once the lap starts, you realise the importance of the helmet. Maylander, being a pro, drives at breakneck speed — touching almost 270 kmph on straights on the track. On the turns, he brakes immaculately and you get half the sense of what it would be like in an F1 car. Sitting beside him you keep on swiveling to the left and right on turns. It’s a rollercoaster ride — exhilarating, fun and with adrenaline pumping.

* * *

Soon after the “hot lap”, in groups of four, we get into the C200s and C63s and follow another expert who takes us for slaloming on one part of the track. Slalom basically is zigzagging through the cones and making sure that you are able to manoeuver the car at sharp turns and learn how to brake properly. We first try it on the C200, which isn’t equipped with AMG performance engine. The C200 is — as blasphemous as it may sound — pretty ordinary to drive. The Mercedes expert insists that one has to drive this to understand the difference between an AMG and an “ordinary” car. Once behind the wheel of C63, you realise the power of the engine and how it takes off. Though you can’t drive fast while slaloming, you get the sense of what it would be to drive this car on open stretches. The steering response of the car is fantastic. Just a swish of the hand and the car turns instantly.

The next step is what is called “Lead and Follow” where the instructors take you on a lap of the track in the C63. We follow the instructors while driving, learning how to brake on the turns. Since this is no ordinary road and the turns are sharper than what you are accustomed to, it is vital not to get too excited behind the wheel and make sure that you don’t get off the track. The C63 on the track is a great car to drive, and as I said, for auto journalists it could be pretty normal, but for someone who doesn’t do these things often, well almost never, it is an exhilarating experience. The throttle response of the car is extremely good and on tighter corners, the steering response is excellent as well. On a straight, the car touches 240 kmph easily but then the turns are tricky, especially turns 9 and 10.

Driving on the track itself is a great experience. Mylander finds the track extremely slippery, but thankfully not too much of dust is flying around. Not that it would have mattered much because once behind the C63, one is captivated by its performance and beauty.

Long after the session ends, the hangover stays.

The driving academy at the Buddh International Circuit will become operational in March and will hold eight sessions a year (two sessions every quarter) for a fee of course — Rs 75,000 per day, for non-Mercedes customers and Rs 50,000 for those who own the three-pointed star machine. A small price for driving the sports cars from Mercedes, including the jewel in its crown — the SLS AMG.

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