HIt The Road

13th February 2015

Jill Glenn experiences Mercedes-Benz World, located at Brooklands, near Weybridge, Surrey… the birthplace of British motorsport and aviation

Historic Brooklands has been surrounded – almost consumed – by modern industrial developments. The first hint that you’re arriving somewhere special is the sight of the model Concorde at the entrance (the first UK meeting between Great Britain and France to discuss the innovative aviation project took place at Brooklands and more than 30% of every Concorde airframe was manufactured here). Turn off the main road, and you start entering another world.

Big Brother is watching you from the moment you drive in. In a friendly, caring way, of course. Passing that iconic aircraft you drive up a long straight stretch – 30mph restriction, not another car in sight – and I’m mildly amused to be chastised by one of those automatic warning signs: 32mph, slow down. And you know the point at which you reach an unfamiliar car park and you’re just wondering what the protocol is…? Up flashes my registration number on an electronic sign, along with an instruction to turn left. Truly, they’ve thought of everything. I’m quite surprised there isn’t a coffee with my name on as I enter the building.

Not for nothing is this place called Mercedes-Benz World. Everything about it serves the brand. Total immersion. You enter a dramatic atrium, open to three floors, with café and restaurants, shop, access to sales and aftercare departments and several exhibition areas with both current and classic cars, including drop dead gorgeous models from the 1950s and 60s; think 1962 Mercedes-Benz 300 SE Cabriolet, for example, in gleaming white with a sumptuous red leather interior. There are endless galleries, a cinema, a track viewing area, countless meeting rooms and enormous posters of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, Mercedes-Benz’s successful 2014 Formula 1 team.

It’s designed to impress – and I’m impressed. I’m also early, and nervous. I’m here to try the Best of Both 1 hour Driving Experience: 30 minutes on the track in a Mercedes-Benz AMG and 30 minutes off-road in an M-Class – and 30 minutes lying down in a darkened room. I jest. The excellent safety briefing calms my inner wuss. The knowledge that the whole thing is being recorded (the cars are equipped with cameras that capture both what you see and how you look as you face it), ramps it up again.

You’re not let loose in the cars alone, of course; you have a ‘driving specialist’ on hand to ensure that you take everything in your stride – and there are certainly moments when I outsource my safety, thinking ‘Well, if Barry thinks I can do this, I guess I can,’ and, ‘even if I don’t know what’s coming at the top of this hill, he does, so it must be okay.’ Hmmm.

We start off-road; initially, I’m disappointed by this: of the two sessions, this is the one I’m most looking forward to and I’d hoped to save it until last… but I buy into the wisdom that it’s good to build up speed and trust slowly. We drive round to the 4x4 course via a small section of the original Brooklands circuit – the Railway Straight – and it’s surprisingly moving to be on the territory which saw so many records set and broken in the early days of motor-racing. There’s scarcely a moment to reflect, though, because almost as soon as I’ve taken the wheel of this ML350 I’m driving along a water course – yes, actually in the water – to my first challenge.

The off-road area covers some ten acres, and includes everything from water crossings to seriously steep inclines. Described as ‘controlled driving in extreme situations’, it offers the opportunity to drive a vehicle dedicated to eating up such terrain across a variety of obstacles including The Stairs, The Ski Slope and The V-Gulley, where you will – involuntarily – balance the vehicle on two wheels.

You are, of course, at the mercy of your instructor/mentor/saviour here. There’s no way you could do this on your own. The car may well be rugged, bold, designed to cope with such conditions – and the whole affair is as much about demonstrating the car’s capability as it is about challenging you – but the process is intricate; the manipulation of the mechanics is best left to an expert. The in-car display shows angles and gradients and God knows what. I just do what Barry says, and drive. That’s not to say it’s easy, but you really don’t need to know what you’re doing; you just need to trust: him, the car, and yourself.

After the watery approach, we creep up a little hillock to tip over the edge at the top – “let the brake off, the car can help” – and descend into water again. It’s a deceptively innocent introduction. Then we tackle the log section, reminiscent of a giant muddy collapsed game of jenga, where we’re thrown around the cab however slowly I try to crawl forward, and I’m immensely grateful that it’s not my own vehicle whose suspension is on the rocks (or the logs) here.

Next ­– there’s no let up – we’re at the base of short, steep, rocky incline. I’m more inclined to climb it with ropes and crampons than I am to drive up it, and as I edge the car forwards, with nothing in view other than sky, I think my initial reaction was the right one. When we reach the top, the short level stretch gives way to a descent that is even more daunting. It’s a staircase. No, really. Reviewing the recording afterwards I see genuine fear and doubt on my face at this point. Barry assures me that the car will “walk us down”, and helps me set all the parameters to ensure that the gradient doesn’t run away with us. Then, reluctantly, I inch forward. I stop, as instructed, on the first step, and then let the car bump us all the way to the bottom. It’s not quite as stylish as The Italian Job – but you get the idea.

The V-Gulley is designed to let you experience the car at astonishing sideways angles. And you do. Coming to rest, intentionally, half-way up (so that I could fully appreciate the fact that I only had two wheels on the ground) I felt the need to prop myself up on the inside of the door. These are ridiculous things to do to a car. But fun, too.

On the final downhill (the twin of the one I thought I needed mountaineering equipment to climb) Barry makes me take the car down in manual on the footbrake. It’s too much even for the refined capabilities of one of Mercedes-Benz’s finest. The recording shows me clapping the heel of my hand to my forehead in disbelief… but I do it. Very slowly. At its steepest the gradient is 69%. It’s great.

I’ve barely caught my breath before we’re out on the track, in one of the performance division cars: a C63 AMG saloon. It’s sleek and powerful, and the next half an hour is a chance to push its limits, and your own. Once you’re acclimatised to the new driving position and the pulsating beast under the bonnet – achieved by driving very fast towards a set of buffers and braking on command at what feels like a ridiculously late point in the process – you move on to the wet straight and the wet circle. The latter results in several exhilarating 360° turns, and demonstrates how hard it is to retain control of a car in such conditions.

Then there’s the north handling circuit, for the exercise of speed and cornering. My natural caution kicks in here, and I find myself more bothered about driving well than driving to the full potential of the vehicle… although I do, just as my time behind the wheel is coming to an end, begin to dare a little more.

Watching the recording afterwards, I’m struck by how often I laugh – possibly in hysterical relief – as I surmount (or perhaps that should be survive) one of the obstacles. Don’t get me wrong… these are not, actually, particularly challenging, but there’s enough of a frisson of fear to make each of your achievements feel like a success. And if you get it wrong, it’s a hell of a lot of expensive motor car to fund. Accident Damage Protection, surprisingly not included in the package as standard, is an extra £15. It’s worth it for the peace of mind.

The other thing I notice, particularly in the off-road session, is how much instruction is going on: Barry is constantly telling me what to do. He knows the cars inside out, and that’s what makes this experience manageable for a novice like me.

The one thing I’d fault is that it is only after my stint on the track that Barry offers to take the wheel for a couple of laps and show me how it’s done. I go back later for my stomach. His deft handling and daring approach make me realise that I hadn’t capitalised enough on the potential for speed – especially for cornering at speed. If I’d appreciated the possibilities earlier, I might have been braver. Or more scared.

Either way, it has been, as the brochure promises, an experience I’ll never forget.

for more info, see www.mercedes-benzworld.co.uk

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