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It all starts with power. Power, power and more power! Sure you could use the handbrake to yank the tail out, like we did all those years ago with our mum’s Zen on the local playground, but getting the tail out for those long slides, smoke billowing out of the rear wheel arches, that’s all down to power. And the Mercedes-AMG C63 S has more than enough power, all 503bhp of it. It is also nice to have a lot of torque – a peaky engine demands much more effort whereas a wall of torque lets you stay in one gear and just surf the wave. 700Nm is a very big wave, that’s what this hand-built 4-litre twin-turbo AMG V8 makes. It’s more than enough to rip off 10 feet of tarmac when you step on the gas.
You also need space. I made mistakes when I started, you will make mistakes when you get started, and I’m sure Gautam Singhania made mistakes when he started. I only had a ruined Zen to show for it whereas Gautam did something productive – he built a drift track right in the heart of the city. The Raymond drift track in Thane is heaven for a petrolhead who loves to burn rubber and Gautam’s annual Will It Drift event opens up the track to enthusiasts to shred their rubber. Professional coaches also offer driving tips before a competition for drifting enthusiasts and at the end of it all Gautam brings out his monster drift machines and goes on to make tyre manufacturers all over the world very, very happy.
Today we have the drift track to ourselves. The track manager has provided us with an army of workers to sweep away the standing water that is but to be expected in the peak of the monsoons. And we have the Mercedes-AMG C63 S to play with. I check my phone for the tenth time but the message from Mercedes to take care of the tyres hasn’t come. I’m as amazed as Gaurav and the rest of the team that they’re really okay with this story – after all we’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve had to entertain calls from manufacturers drawing our attention towards ruined rear tyres. Better not jinx it, phone is switched off, and so is ESP.
It’s stating the bleeding obvious but ESP needs switching off. Completely. Not the namby-pamby Sport Plus mode that gives you some leeway before the safety net is thrown over you – you need to swallow your brave pills and completely switch off all the safety aids.
And then the skies open up.
You know Mr Murphy. The guy that on the day you have an AMG and no warning to return it with its tyres intact, on the day you have a drift track at your disposal, on the day you have no where else to go and no one else to call – he shows up and makes it rain. Right then. We’re not going to let him completely rain on our parade.
Wait for the rain to ease out. Check the tyre pressures. Don’t bother with sending in the army to sweep out the puddles. Click first and make the AMG engine emit its own thunder through those quad pipes as the tyres light up and we slither out on to the track.
Okay, let’s be serious here. First things first, your seating position. Backrest in a relatively upright angle, steering close to your chest so your arms are free to twirl the steering wheel, seat low so that you’re sitting within the car, not on top of it. Next recce the track. You don’t want to bust a radiator or yank off a bumper before you even begin destroying the tyres. Grip levels change depending on how hot the conditions are; now with the rain it’s not only slippery but there are puddles of water to deal with. I can avoid the puddles but that means cutting out that gorgeous long sweeping right at the far end of the Raymond track, and that’s like saying no thank you to a bottle of cold beer on a hot summer’s day in Goa.
The technique. The lower the gear the easier it is to overwhelm the rear tyres when you give it the boot – and you have to give it the boot. But with 503bhp and a slippery track there’s actually too much overwhelming going on and the C63 S can become a bit of a handful. Short shift to second then, turn in, squeeze the accelerator to use that mountain of torque to get the rear tyres spinning and sliding. And then – the most important bit – quick reactions on the steering wheel to dial in just the right amount of opposite lock to catch the slide. Too little and you won’t catch it in time and the car will spin. There’s no harm in dialling in too much lock but you have to be quick to release lock when the car straightens out otherwise it will snap the other way. In fact, that’s where the biggest accidents can happen when you attempt this drifting lark, when you don’t straighten it out properly and the car snaps around the other way and heads for something hard to hit.
Tip. Look where you want to go. If you look at what you’re afraid you’re going to hit, you will hit it. It’s called target fixation. Even when you’re fighting the car, look where you want to go and seven times out of ten you will go where you want to.
To recap; turn in, kick the throttle, feel the rear break traction and slide out, trying to overtake the front. Dial in opposite lock on the steering wheel. Well done, you can now put power oversteer in your resume.
Now the difficult part, holding the slide. This calls for finesse, a delicacy to your throttle and steering game. You’ve got the tail out and caught it, but you don’t let go off the throttle. You ease off and correct the initial slide and then get back on the power, playing with the throttle depending on the grip and the angle of the slide, making small steering corrections to maintain the angle of the slide depending on the degree of the corner and revel in the plumes of tyre smoke behind you. It takes practice, no question about it, and you need to feel what the car is doing with your backside (along with your inner ear, this is the most sensitive part of your body when you’re behind the wheel!). In a powerful rear-wheel drive car like the C63 S, it’s best to leave it in a higher gear and ride the torque when you’re doing a long slide, the power is not as peaky at high revs and there’s enough power to keep the rear spinning and sliding. The S also comes with an electronically controlled limited-slip differential that lets the outside wheel rotate faster than the rear allowing long, controlled, smoky drifts.
The third trick – the transition. This is where real skill comes in, when you make the car dance to your tune. You need an S bend; let’s take a right in to left as an example. The first part is the same: turn right, gas, get the tail out, opposite lock, and smile for the camera. But you’re not done, you want to keep it sideways for the next left hander so what you do is you give it a little more gas on the exit of the first corner, get more crossed up than you normally would and then aggressively get off the gas. This sudden lift upsets the weight balance of the car, shifts the weight to the front unloading the rear and making it even more frisky. You then use that weight shift, in the transition phase, to steer the nose to the left, in to the left hand corner, and at the same time all the momentum will have the back end snapping the other way. Then use your cat-like reflexes honed over many sessions of tyre destruction to catch the slide and back on the gas to powerslide in a blaze of glory. It looks awesome but more than that, from behind the wheel, it is the absolute best feeling in the world.
You see, anybody can drive fast in a straight line. Anybody with two grains of intelligence can drive relatively fast round a corner. Driving fast round a corner with the tail hanging loose, rear tyres spinning up, front wheels pointed in the other direction, your eyes glued on the exit, and everything looking well in control – that takes skill. That’s called wheelsmanship. And you’re not just doing it for the cameraman perched at the apex. Mastering the drift hones your reflexes and sharpens your sensitivity so the next time you hit a patch of dirt or oil on the road catching the ensuing slide will be second nature. It makes you a safer and more skilled road driver.
It is also a skill that will come in handy when you set out to tame an awesomely powerful, rear-drive AMG like the C63 S – a car that can hammer in quick lap times round the Buddh circuit (as we saw at the launch), shame supercars at the drag races (like I did at the Valley Run a few months ago) and also drift till the tyres scream blue bloody murder.