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You’re probably used to watching Formula 1 racing star LEWIS HAMILTON speeding round a track, attempting another aggressive overtaking manoeuvre for his McLaren team, but did you know he supports a pace setting driving academy here in Surrey too? Matthew Williams meets the former world champion at Mercedes-Benz World in Weybridge to learn more

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Originally published in Surrey Life magazine September 2011

Photos by Mercedes-Benz World

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A gleaming Mercedes comes screeching to a halt on hallowed tarmac, while children, and their just as excited parents, vie for the attention of the young lad sat smiling broadly behind the wheel. 

Two years after the driving academy was launched at Mercedes-Benz World, in the heart of the world’s first racing track at Brooklands, Weybridge, Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton has returned to visit its pupils to celebrate.

“When I was younger, I didn’t have these opportunities,” says the 26-year-old ambassador for the scheme, who was admittedly already winning karting championships at the age of ten.

“They take kids from about 12 here and it’s nice seeing them getting behind the wheel at a younger age. When you’re 17, you think you know it all – I was no different – but this gives them the chance to overcome some of the pitfalls and mature before they are out on the road.”

Famed for his fearless driving style, of course, Lewis is quick to point out that track driving is a very different proposition from most people’s average day behind the wheel, however.

“I don’t want to sound like a parent, but when you’re racing on a track, everyone’s going in the same direction; you don’t really have to worry about anyone else’s safety and you are in a relatively controlled environment,” he says. “But when you’re on the road, you might think that you’re comfortable in your own driving but there are other people around you.”

Pole position
Since it was launched, the Mercedes-Benz driving academy has achieved a first-time driving test pass rate of 78 per cent, which is almost double the national average, and they are now set to go global.

Their first overseas venture will open in Los Angeles, which in some ways is quite timely as Hamilton has just appeared in his first Hollywood feature film (at least, he’s lent his voice to Disney Pixars’ Cars 2 alongside Michael Caine, among others). 

The reason for the success of the courses stems from the fact that the lessons go far beyond just car control, covering psychological issues such as dealing with peer pressure in the car, personal motivations and time pressures.

They also take on students from as young as 12, which means by the time kids hit the road they’ve already got years of car control under their belt.

“When I turned 17, I wanted to do my test straight away and be out on the streets. You have that buzz, that excitement, but maybe not the maturity,” explains Lewis. “Fortunately, I passed first time.”

As one of the world’s best drivers though, the excitement of being on the road does lose its buzz after a while.

“I try to drive as little as possible these days to be honest,” he laughs. “More often than not I’ll get chauffeur driven, but sometimes, if it’s a beautiful day, I’ll take the cover off one of my babies and head out for a drive. Generally though, I don’t need the stress of traffic.”

Or the potholes of Surrey, I suggest, to a laugh.

When not on the track driving for the Woking-based McLaren team, which he has been part of since before his teenage years, or being chauffeur driven, he still enjoys cutting loose in his Mercedes black series, which is “one of the best ones they’ve done”, and his McLaren MP4-12C supercar, which costs over £150,000.

A life in the fast lane
His introduction to McLaren is now the stuff of legend; the story goes that he introduced himself to chief executive Ron Dennis at the Autosport Awards, saying, ‘I’m going to drive for you one day.’

Having seen this prophecy fulfilled, his mentor, who lives in Virginia Water, stood down as McLaren F1 team principal in 2009 to take on an executive chairman role with his focus on the company’s new commercial supercar. I wonder if that has affected their relationship at all?

“I probably speak to him more now than ever,” says Lewis. “Ron was always at the races but these days it’s more relaxed. It’s not the boss and competitor now. He’s an old friend, a dear friend, and I wouldn’t be here without him.”

Lewis’ early Formula 1 days were spent living close to the McLaren Technology Centre in an apartment near Woking train station, often jogging to work. He has since moved to Zurich but still travels over “as much as I can to work with the engineers”.

Life for a racing driver has changed much since Britain’s first world champion, the Farnham-based Mike Hawthorn, set the pace and much of their time is spent travelling the world satisfying commercial commitments.

“Back in the day, it was just race weekends,” says Lewis. “The guys were sharing cars, working to keep them going themselves, and now it’s hugely political and massive business. “

Sat behind the wheel, aiming for the chequered flag, remains Lewis Hamilton’s natural environment but back in the more mundane world of road safety, he suggests first time drivers should: “relax, make sure you’re aware of your surroundings and always, always keep your eyes on the road.”

Wise words indeed from one of the world’s very best drivers.

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Get behind the wheel: the essential facts...

What? The Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy is, they say, a whole new philosophy for driving tuition: from learner to licence to lifelong skills.

Where? Mercedes-Benz World, Brooklands Drive, Weybridge KT13 0SL

Why? Lessons take place on purpose-built handling facilities, where kids who are at least 1.5m tall can begin to learn the basics in a safe, traffic-free environment.

How much? A six-hour pre-road package is available for £370 and a similar licence package is available for £220 (a 12-hour package comes in at £395). There are also one-hour packages available for all levels.

More info? Visit http://uk.mbdrivingacademy.com.

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