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Warm reception for Mercedes-AMG ‘Festival of Snow’

Snow joke: More than 30 cars – including the mighty Mercedes-AMG GT S – are shipped to Queenstown from Australia for the annual event.

Mercedes invests heavily in ice-driving event to give customers a unique experience

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Mercedes-AMG logo8 Aug 2017

By TIM ROBSON in NEW ZEALAND

WHEN it comes to driving experience days, there are none more unusual than the Festival of AMG – Snow, held each year near the New Zealand South Island tourist town of Queenstown.

Even though each customer pays $4500 for the privilege, Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific spends a considerable amount more setting up and hosting the unique day in the picturesque mountains around the ski resort town.

Despite the cost, the company is investigating ways to expand the event in 2018.

“It’s incredibly popular with our customers,” Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific director of marketing, Jason Nomikos, told GoAuto in Queenstown. “There’s definitely scope to expand it.”

Mr Nomikos acknowledged that the event, which is run at the Snow Farm winter testing facility at Cardrona, is one of the most expensive events that the company hosts in a calendar year, beaten only by the Australian Formula One Grand Prix and Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

He said that he believes the outlay is worth it.

“A customer said to me that if you tried to put this all together yourself (for the same price), you couldn’t do it,” Mr Nomikos said. “We wanted to keep the cost reasonable, but the expenditure on the event far outweighs the return.”

The format of the event is also designed to give clients an education in low-grip driving techniques, something that Mr Nomikos says is a big drawcard.

“It’s a combination of something new and unique, as well as actually getting to learn something as well,” he said.

Mercedes-Benz provides two nights’ accommodation, airport transfers and all meals, along with a full-day, multi-discipline snow-driving event that features a wide array of Mercedes-AMG vehicles.

Customers drive AMG GTs, Mercedes-AMG C63s, A45s, G63 wagons and C43 Convertibles on selected courses at the world’s premier winter testing facility.

The Snow Farm testing facility is not open to the public. Instead, the world’s largest automotive vehicle and parts manufacturers pay upwards of $15,000 a day to use just one of 21 tracks at the facility in peak season.

Mercedes uses five tracks per day over the three-day event, while transport and logistics for up to 30 vehicles from Australia is also handled by the company.

Mr Nomikos said the biggest challenge in expanding the event relates to timing.

The Snow Farm’s peak season runs from June to August, and finding slots there that do not compromise the facility’s testing customers is difficult. Security for its clients is taken very seriously by Snow Park staff, who caution guests not to photograph camouflaged cars.

“It’s about getting time at the facility when the weather is good,” he said.

“We currently run it over three days, but we could even expand it to run over two weeks if we could get the slots.”

GoAuto arrived at the 2017 Festival of AMG – Snow on day two last week, greeted by crystal blue skies, almost no breeze and an air temperature of around -5 degrees Celsius. Just 30 guests were on site, under the guidance of experienced instructor and GT3 racer Peter Hackett and his team – and Mr Hackett was forthright about the challenges that awaited us.

“If you think this is going to be easy, stay in here by the fire,” he said bluntly while we are assembled in the facility’s main lodge. “Take whatever belief you have in your own skill, and start from scratch. Today will be a challenge.”

The cars we used were all standard mechanically, save for the fitment of a set of Continental Winter Contact tyres, and our test tracks were snow-dusted solid ice very different to normal Australian driving conditions.

“Don’t forget, though, 50 per cent of drivers around the world drive on this stuff,” Mr Hackett reminded us.

The tyres were not studded, but made from a softer rubber compound with unique sipes (small incisions) across the tread face that are actually designed to attract, rather than repel, snow.

“The idea is to pack those sipes with snow, which then sticks to other snow it’s literally a snowball effect,” Mr Hackett said, before sending us out to a huge, flat ice rink where our AMGs were waiting.

The first exercise – simply driving 200 metres and stopping – highlighted the challenges that we were to face that day. The Mercedes-AMG GT we selected simply sat in place and threw snow out the back like a steam shovel, spinning its tyres all the way down the straight before slithering to a stop.

“You’re looking for grip today,” said instructor Ben Porter. “It’s hard to find, but it’s there.”

It was initially unnerving – even though the top speed of the day wouldn’t have exceeded 40km/h, it’s plenty fast enough when you feel like you have next to no control on where the car will end up.

Even seasoned racers – like Stephen Grove, who races Porsche Carrera Cup and owns a couple of AMGs – found it difficult initially, but Mr Hackett’s advice to “laugh it off – everyone starts at the same level” was sound.

There’s just one problem for Mr Grove: “My young bloke is showing me up big time on the drifting!” he said with a grin. “At least I know why I’m always changing the rear tyres on his ute now.”

Slowly but surely, though, the idea of using the rear end of the car to steer as much – if not more – than the front end became more natural. Using the throttle to break initial traction and simultaneously using the steering wheel to guide the trajectory became fun, even if you have to stare out the side window rather than the windscreen to see where you are going!

By the end of the day, every guest graduated to the Big Circle, a kilometre in diameter and lined with snow banks that bear the witness marks of less-than-successful attempts to hold a long third-gear slide in a C63.

After a couple of attempts, it clicked. Minimal throttle and a quick row through the gearbox to find third, a gentle but measured prod of the throttle and about half a turn of lock, and the C63 serenely held its poise in a perfect oversteer slide for the better part of 200m.

A change of direction and we were into a series of left/right pendulum swings that, when linked up correctly, felt absolutely incredible. Ken Block who?

None of the exotic AMGs got any higher than third gear, and we barely crested speeds that would trouble a school zone police officer, but in terms of learning car control in one of the most spectacular places on the planet, the Festival of AMG – Snow is impossible to beat.

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