Driving – nay sliding – on ice reveals truth in engineering clearer than covering ground on any other surface. Unfortunately, it also shatters any hopes of becoming the next Sebastian Ogier…
Most of you will be familiar with the term ‘Scandinavian flick.’ No, it has nothing to do with shoving a Norwegian! It’s a technique used by the best rally drivers in the world (the majority of whom have emerged from this region) that allows you to be incredibly fast through a tight bend on gravel or snow. Also known as the pendulum turn, it involves initially pitching the car in the opposite direction to the intended direction of travel and then using the momentum of the chassis to flick the car the other way so that you can head off down the road in a sea of glory and wheelspin.
The first time I tried this in my rally Gypsy – that horse-cart on wheels masquerading as a competition vehicle – it nearly fell over. With a little practise, I became proficient enough to perform what could best be described as a ‘right turn.’ Let’s just say that the Scandinavians would not approve. The next time I tried it was on an ice lake in Sweden a couple of years ago. I was there for Rally Sweden and Volkswagen was kind enough to let us loose on a frozen lake one morning in a Golf 4motion fitted with studded Yokohamas. This time it worked!
Boy, do those steel studs make a difference. Whereas the car was previously skating around on snow tyres, it was completely glued to the ice once the studs got the chance to dig in and extract grip where there was none. That was at minus-15 (degrees C, that is).
This time we were in Lapland, Northern Finland, and it was just below freezing. My steed for a full two-and-a-half days (I recount with glee) was the Audi S5 Sportback, with a supercharged 3-litre V6 that produces a substantial 328 horses – all of which felt considerably more potent on snow and ice. On top of that, the lower temperatures meant that there was a film of water and black ice on the surface that made it even more slippery than normal. What made it worse (no offence) was the fact that I had Audi racing driver, Aditya Patel, sitting next to me the entire time – well, worse because it laid my ham-fistedness completely bare. The flip side was that I may have actually learned a thing or two over those few days.
In fact, there are some basics of driving a race car that Aditya reinforced – which is to say that he had to gently remind me about two dozen times over the course of the weekend. One of which is a constant in every racing school program and handbook out there – ‘look as far ahead as possible.’ This is important so that you can anticipate and prepare for what lies ahead – because, if you don’t, on ice there’s simply no margin for error whatsoever. Get it wrong, and there’s no coming back.
In addition to looking ahead, another phrase that all racing instructors try and din into your head is ‘look where you want to go.’ If you’re looking at the snow bank that you’re trying to avoid, you’re very quickly going to become a part of it – a lot like that lamp post that you’re careening towards on a wet road and trying desperately not to hit.
Suffice to say, it took a while to get used to the conditions and the machines. The S5, fortunately, is state-of-the-art and very easy to drive fast – even on ice. The chassis is extremely well balanced, and the Quattro all-wheel drive system was perfect for the conditions. When you got it right, there was nothing quite like it – you could pitch the car into a corner, balance the power to hold it sideways all the way through the bend, and then Scandinavian flick it the other way to repeat the process in the opposite direction. The trouble was when you thought you had got the hang of it, and became over exuberant with the loud pedal – that’s when the snow bank would come calling.
Fortunately, Audi had thought of that too. There was a very friendly Finnish tractor driver named Jarmo who would come to our rescue every time we beached it in the snow. And that’s the beauty of this exercise. With the exception of the embarrassment of having Jarmo fish you out of the snow there’s simply no risk involved in pushing the limits – both your own, and those of the machine. But that’s not to say we spent the entire time aiming for the snow banks. It took a lot of patience and self control, but I learned to temper the enthusiasm of my right foot and was finally able to find some kind of rhythm towards the end of the weekend.
Nothing teaches you vehicle dynamics quite like driving on snow and ice – no other racing school program comes even close. And it’s fun to boot! So, if you ever get the chance of making it to Audi’s ice driving experience, take it. It’s something you’ll be telling your grandchildren about one day.