We sweep around a bend, head for the slalom course marked by orange cones and trying to appear cool, I ask the AMG Advanced Driving instructor behind the wheel what stands out as the most frightening experience in the instructor’s life.
“Driving off a cliff,” comes the reply. I glance over, see the hands topped with immaculately manicured nails resting comfortably on the steering wheel and realise that she isn’t joking. I casually (I hope) rest my hands on my knees and try and dig through the denim to secure my kneecaps and concentrate on the track.
Natalie Weston picks up on my silence.
“It was for a movie,” she explains, adding that in a previous life in Cape Town she was a precision driver for the film industry.
All part of the deal
Part of her duties was to take the place of female stars who either couldn’t or wouldn’t do the tricky bits. (The truth is that their insurance companies probably said, “No Way”.)
Driving off a cliff face was part of the deal — and scary — even though the car had all the safety gizmos attached to ensure that the experience provided the visual thrill, but allowed the driver to live again.
I absorb this information and unpick my hands from my knees just in time to enter the slalom course. Natalie tells me she is going to “flick” the car and the next thing I am being shoved from side to side as gravity tries to pull me from my seat.
‘Would you like to try a hot lap now?’
The Mercedes-AMG A 45 S 4Matic pivots around the obstacles and, once again, heads down the track. The final ignominy occurs when we finish the lap of the Zwartkops Raceway circuit outside Pretoria.
“Wow,” I say. “That was great.” It was just as well that I couldn’t see her eyes behind the sunglasses.
“ Yes,” she says. “The car was cold and needed some warming up. Would you like to try a hot lap now?”
As the drive progresses, I realise why this is a woman whose idea of fun isn’t a Saturday afternoon book club.
Driving since the age of 11
She had no option other than to love cars. With a father who competed in Stannic Group N and drove in rallies and brother Clint, who cut his teeth on a track and took his first SA National Championship title in 1998, she had no option but to drive for a living.
Her father made sure that she could drive when she was 11 years old. She confesses that she spent time ferrying friends around and trying to evade Clint — the more law-abiding of the pair — who wanted to keep her off the suburban roads of Johannesburg.
AMG Driving Academy
Like her brother, she spends a fair amount of time at the AMG Driving Academy, where she teaches people how to drive correctly. Involvement with Top Gear and their South African drive from Umhlanga Rocks to the top of Sani Pass, new car launches, commercials and administering the Mercedes-Benz press fleet make sure that her days stay full.
At Zwartkops, where the AMG Academy has its home, she concentrates on ensuring that drivers who buy AMGs are taught the skills required to understand their cars and drive them properly. A dedicated instructor, she adds that the purpose of this course isn’t to develop racing drivers but to improve road skills for people who may be having their first experience in a high-performance road car.
‘Top Gun’-like vibes and natural finesse behind the wheel
But, even at an AMG driving facility, preconceived ideas can rule, Natalie says.
She points out that at courses, the male instructors are the first to get trainees. The people then remaining, join the ladies.
I think the answer lies somewhere in between. I believe that for a man, it can be intimidating to see three black-clad women with their eyes hidden behind sunglasses sending off Top Gun-like vibes while standing next to AMGs. (It’s a mercy that none of them even remotely look like Tom Cruise…)
If they think they are getting second-best, the men soon have that idea blasted away. It probably takes about 500m to realise that the ladies have long forgotten what the average guy thinks are driving skills.
But for some men, I suppose It’s a chastening experience to think that you are your neighbourhood’s answer to Lewis Hamilton and then be disabused of the notion very early in a drive. Natalie is philosophical about being typecast as, she says, the truth is that women are natural drivers.
Speaking of women drivers, she says:
“Women have a natural finesse behind the steering wheel. They don’t come with egos and testosterone. On a course, they come to learn, do what they are told, and once they have built up confidence are better, smoother drivers.”
Dream car? Eleanor the Mustang
No interview would be complete without the obvious question. What car (besides a Mercedes AMG, obviously) would Natalie like to own?
Her answer fits right in with her personal history. “ Eleanor, the Mustang used in the movie Gone in 60 Seconds.”
Good answer. Although different sources describe the car and its origins in various ways, most seem to agree that Eleanor was a 351 V8, which featured nitrous-oxide injection, and had a five-speed manual shift. Versions of the car used in the movie have sold for between $850 000 and $1.1 million (about R14.2 million to R18.4 million).