Learning to Fly

Mercedes-AMG and the Portimão circuit have joined efforts and created the most advanced driving school Portugal has ever seen.

Apparently, Mercedes-Benz is beating BMW unconscious in almost every tangible aspect of brand awareness there is. This was illustrated by a series of graphics and tables the guys from Mercedes showed the press. I was there and I looked at those Power Point slides with a mix of astonishment and sadness.

Astonishment because Mercedes really is knocking their rivals from Munich down very, very hard, and sadness because it only confirmed what I had been thinking for a while now: BMW is kind of lost at the moment.

For a petrolhead, it’s never good to see one of the most important names in the car world without a clear direction.

Anyway, this one is about Mercedes. And Mercedes is doing well. Very well. They are only beaten by BMW at the eyes of the public in one – yes, one – aspect: sportiness. Which is kind of weird, since Mercedes-AMG offers 26 different models which we can choose from, they outsell BMW’s M department two to one, and if you set aside the diesel variants, AMG even sells more than Porsche.

No matter: the world thinks BMW is sportier than Mercedes and they are having none of that. Task number one: build a driving school with your sportiest models. Task number two: get your clients in the cars and show them what AMG is all about.

And so the press was summoned to the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, the world-class race track located in Portimão, to uncover the secrets of this unique driving school.

There are different levels for different prices for different clients, depending on skill, wallet size and amount of octanes running in your blood. But, fundamentally, Mercedes wants you to work with your dealer to book a programme at the track. Yes, you can just show up at the AIA and sign-in, but trust me, it’s much better if the dealer is your driving school agent.

At the track, you can experience some hot laps, either driving or being driven. Now, don’t think being driven is any less interesting because the team of instructors is made up of former and current racing drivers who can drive around the circuit with their eyes closed. And fast. Get it? F-A-S-T.

The only downside of being driven by a professional is that it takes two corners to realise you don’t know how to drive. Oh yes, you can make a car move from A to B, but drive? Nah. That is not driving. You’re just trying.

Then there’s the skid pad, with or without added water, where you learn car control and how to use the electronic safety equipment to improve your chances of not crashing; the gymkhana circuit, for discovering a car’s agility; and the off-road course. Now this one is spectacular. I did it in a run-of-the-mill diesel GLC and it is incredible what it can do. Trust the car and it becomes unbeatable.

Of course, the 5km racing track is the main attraction and there is a raft of AMG models to choose from. Even the AMG GT is available. Portimão is a very challenging course, but an absolutely amazing place in which to flex some AMG muscle.

Each lap you feel you’re getting better, and the sense of pleasure builds up as you go along.

As Miguel Praia, the lead instructor at the AIA, says: “If you don’t master the car and the track, then you are just praying for it to be over. No pleasure – just panic.” He’s right. The transition from panic to pleasure, when you feel in control for the first time, truly is amazing and you can count on those guys to help you uncover it.

Prices start at €95 but you can spend thousands if you start adding up everything on offer: the track, the hotel, the go-kart circuit, the food, etc. I am happy to say it is worth it. How often do you get to wake up in the morning knowing it will be a day you will never forget?

By Guilherme Marques