It starts to feel like a proper adventure when we switch planes at Hanover and transfer to the terminal serving Arvidsjaur in Sweden. There's not a business suit in sight, but the lounge fairly bristles with moustaches and assorted facial fungi. German automotive engineers, we astutely surmise, many sporting full winter plumage and all off for a spot of cold-weather testing.
Cars at the AMG 'Garage' in Arjeplog
I've wanted to witness the winter migration north to the edge of the arctic-circle ever since I first started seeing fuzzy pictures of taped-up car prototypes in magazines. Now, thanks to an invitation from Mercedes-Benz, I'm living the dream and for once I already own a suitable wardrobe. This far from the equator you wear multiple fleece layers or die of exposure, and as we step off the plane onto the icy Arvidsjaur tarmac, even the handlebars and mutton-chop whiskers start to look sensible in the sub 20C temperatures.
Inside the terminal our group separates itself from those travellers with proper jobs, and we make for a welcoming sign proclaiming the reason for our visit - the AMG Winter Sporting Academy. We're filtered into a trio of minibuses, and set off by road for Arjeplog, the heart of Sweden's winter testing industry, with (who else?) a genuine racing driver at the wheel.
The lake viewed from the AMG Lodge
If you've never driven on ice-surfaced roads with studded tyres, you might be surprised at the grip available. Hari Proczyk, our minibus pilot, racing driver and one of the AMG Academy instructors, found plenty of the stuff on our transfer to the AMG Lodge hotel. (Later, we were all a bit taken aback to discover the Vito minibus was a regular model, thinking it must have had four wheel drive...)
The AMG Lodge is a luxurious 'boutique' style hotel recently built on a hillside close to the lake at Arjeplog, and is exactly the sort of remote yet upmarket venue that a chap might helicopter into with a jumpsuit-clad nymphomaniac Russian double-agent on his elbow. If this was a James Bond-themed weekend, that is.
Is this Narnia for petrolheads?
Sadly, the place was built specifically to look after wealthy car geeks on AMG winter sporting adventures, so the luxuriously-appointed sauna probably doesn't see much action. Still, there's not too much time for disappointment as we barely have a chance to throw down our bags before boarding the Vito again.
At 4pm local time and in the gathering darkness, 12 hours after getting out of bed in the distant UK, we're back on the bus and heading down the snowy forest trail to the lakeside via the AMG Academy Garage.
Sweden's deep-frozen landscape is pretty eye-opening in its own right, but throw in a couple of dozen AMG cars in matching silver at dusk, headlamps piercing wreaths of exhaust smoke curling from tailpipes and V8s growling ominously, and the place is a bit like Narnia for petrol heads.
Yes, it's a wheel with ice on it...
Lined up in the darkness are the AMG machines that we're going to be driving, and what a feast for the senses it is. There are SLK 55s, C63s (saloon and estate versions) and E63s to choose from - six apiece, in matching silver, and all standard apart from some polycarbonate deflectors pop-riveted to the corners and running on studded winter tyres. We'll get to drive them all.
The AMG Academy is noted for the quality of its instructors and 'learning from the fastest' is the phrase they use in the bumph. Apart from minibus driver Hari who we've met already, we've got F1 safety car driver Bernd Maylander and former Mercedes DTM driver Thomas Jaeger on the roster for our weekend. 'Awesome' doesn't begin do it justice.
Cars and landscape - both spectacular!
We're split into three groups and ours finds itself in the capable hands of Thomas. There's a five minute familiarisation session with the C63s we've been paired-off into and then, in total darkness now, we set off for the lake. The convoy is accompanied by the delicious rumble of AMG thunder, and despite a sedate pace set by Thomas it's already insanely exciting.
We're onto the ice at 4.45pm, with two hours of driving scheduled on this first evening for 'warm-up training'. We're all in radio contact with Thomas, who orders traction control off and unleashes our group at 30 second intervals onto one of several handling circuits bulldozed out of the snow. Hilarity ensues, at least in our car, at the sudden implausibility of the challenge we've been set. We're all over the place, and keeping the car on the circuit and out of the snow banks seems impossible. We change drivers every 25 minutes or so, and when the two hours are up we return to the hotel for drinks and dinner - somewhat humbled, but eager for more.
Bernd Maylander - instructor/legend
Needless to say Thomas has seen it all before, and is upbeat about our potential for improvement when we return to the ice the next morning, which we do after a 30 minute technical briefing that covers ice driving technique and information about the lake surface itself. The ice is half a metre thick and could take the weight of a 40 tonne lorry, although it still creaks when you drive on it, and makes eerie shivering noises when other cars pass.
Thankfully that's about the limit of the classroom theory as all anyone wants to do is get back out on the ice. It would be wonderfully addictive in any car, but the rear-drive V8 powered AMG machines make the experience genuinely blissful - and for a bit of extra spice there's a competition, too.
Yes - you did that!
Points are awarded for speed during a timed lap of one of the handling circuits mid-way through the course, and later deducted for significant 'offs' that require the assistance of a bright orange Unimog. It's kept very busy trundling around the ice rescuing victims of over-enthusiasm or under-achievement, and is supported by a pair of gorgeous AMG G-wagens for the lighter work. Camaraderie soon builds up within the team as shoulders are called upon to shift errant cars out of snowdrifts without losing points. Thomas masterminds operations and shovels with unseemly enthusiasm, which is possibly his way of keeping warm but more likely an indication of the racing driver's competitive edge.
As well as the handling circuits, our Academy course includes exercises such as slaloms, brake tests and a big drift circle where, unlikely as it seems at first, our entire group slowly but surely under expert tutelage learns to master the art of spectacular power slides balanced with steering and throttle.
We can confirm drool freezes at -20C
In spite of the power available in all the cars, it soon becomes clear that smoothness is the key to rapid progress, and as a result the big AMG V8s are worked less hard than you might expect. It's also interesting to note the difference in character between the three models, with the short-wheelbase SLK feeling sharper and more nervous than the E63s which waft around the ice in a distinctly more stately fashion, and certainly with more room for essential elbow twirling.
It's all over too quickly, and the final day ends with a special-stage style challenge dubbed the Race of Champs. The overall winner? A charming Aussie AMG enthusiast named Lew, who claimed never even to have driven on snow before arriving in Sweden, although I reckon he must have spent a few hours on 'circle work' in the paddock back home. Oh well, hope you're enjoying the cricket, mate!
Thomas (left) and Lew (Aussie)
AMG Academy courses are not cheap, but 'ultimate experiences' never are. Our trip involved two full (six hour) days of shared driving, plus the two hours introduction on day one, and also included luxurious full board accommodation and transfer flights from Hanover. The cost is 3,590 euros, but I guarantee the thrills and memories will last a lifetime while, on a more serious note, the skills you'll learn could even keep you out of serious trouble on the road in the UK if this weather starts to become a habit.
But let's not kid ourselves. The AMG Winter Sporting programme could easily prove to be the most fun you'll ever have behind the wheel of a car. If you can - you should.
Chris-R: Fastest lap. Just for the record...
Unimog to the rescue
Mercedes-Benz keeps it in the family
That's what it's all about!
Is it port and starboard out here?
Mmmm. Available with RHD soon...
Open Season doesn't apply at -20C
Ice deflectors are the only mods