Johnnie Walker have been sponsoring the McLaren team since 2005; as with all sponsorship deals, it’s more than just the name on the car and the drivers, but an opportunuity to provide something more for fans of the brand, to get them closer to the action. For the last 2 years, they’ve been running the Step Inside programme, with lots of exclusive digital content and activities around each grand prix. They also run a series of competitions, such as the Johnnie Walker Drive of a Lifetime, run globally, with country winners taking part in a 3-day assessment in the UK with the overall winner getting the opportunity to drive an F1 car. On a slightly smaller scale, they also run Driving Experience competitions in the UK, where winners get a morning at the Mercedes-Benz World driving cars around their tracks and then a tour of the McLaren Technology Centre.
This week, I got the opportunity to take part in one of these days. It started early in Weybridge, with breakfast at the centre before we had a short talk by Gary Paffett, the McLaren reserve and test driver, about how he contributes to the team and his own racing career in DTM. Then, after a short safety briefing, we were allowed out onto the track, 2 to a car, with our instructor. We were driving Mercedes AMG cars; first up for me was the C63, then I got another go in the E63 (I think these are the right model numbers, I’m never fully sure.)
The experience starts off pretty slow, with you driving around the smaller of their two circults, so you can get used to the car and the instructor can assess you. then you start to do the fun stuff. First, straight line, foot down, accelerate as fast as possible before slamming the breaks on to bring the car to a halt in a far shorter distance than i expected. Next, setting the cruise control and swinging the car down a slalom of bollards, getting faster each run, feeling how well the car sticks to where you want it to go. Then some final tests of the car features, playing with the ABS and ESP. Head towards the straight-line skid feature at a reasonable speed, slam the breaks on and take your hands off the wheel. The car slows in a perfectly straight line. Try that again with no ESP and it fishtails all over the place; you’re keeping your hands on the wheel this time to keep control.
Then we got to go round and round the circular skidpan, learning how to drive sideways…or drifting it. A nice steady 10mph, hit the power and let the back end slide out; release the power, turn the wheel and then gently back on the throttle to keep the car sideways. I’m not very good at this, getting the right balance on the power, getting the timing right on the right foot was hard, but I did manage half a circle, so I was very happy with that! We got an expert lesson in this from Gary Paffett, who jumped in to drive us round a few times sideways.
The final section was round the longer track, practicing aiming for the corner apex, following the racing line learning when to apply brake and accelerator. This was a lot of fun, I mange to keep the car on the track, but still got thrown a little with squealing tyres as the car just held onto the corners. They go through about a set of tyres a week for each car, with all of the track driving.
The final element of the morning was the presentation of the certificates to say we’d completed the Johnnie Walker Driving Experience. That’s where I left the group, tucking into the lovely lunch provided. That afternoon, they were all off to tour the McLaren Technology Centre, something I’ve already done so having to go back to work was not too much of an issue.
I had an absolultely brilliant morning and learnt a lot about car handling that I’d never even thought of before. I’m not sure if I’ll ever own a Mercedes (actually, I’m not sure if I’ll ever own a car again, if I stay in London) but was really impressed with the cars I drove and can see why people love them. Thanks to Johnnie Walker for providing the opportunity.