Silence. Silence apart from the sound of my breathing, each breath hanging in the air before me. The stillness is punctuated by the occasional staccato hammer of a woodpecker in the nearby trees. Take a couple of steps forwards and there’s a crunch, crunch under foot. We have to be careful not lose our footing as looking down, we’re standing on hard ice, almost half a metre thick, it’s top surface both scarred and polished, showing arcs where heavily studded tyres have carved into it, in the quest for grip. Deeper below that lies the black, icy water of a lake. On either side, waist high snow banks have been blown by snow clearing machines to create a race track in the ice, the brilliant white reflecting the piercing sunlight making sunglasses essential, The vast expanse of frozen water stretches away into the distance, the silver Scandinavian birch trees on the opposite shoreline must be a good half a mile away.
Then, in the distance, there’s a familiar sound. Car. Driver. On it. The sound builds and while still distant, the shape of a classic Porsche 911 is evident. The bark of the flat six rising and falling as the tyres lose and then find traction, the driver balancing the available grip, using his feet on brake and throttle to transfer the weight of the car front to rear, side to side, the front wheels constantly changing angle to adjust the oversteer attitude as the Porsche arcs it’s way between the snow banks, throwing a rooster tail of snow high in the air behind it, revs singing higher on the corner exit as the car surges forwards before setting up for the next bend.
Closer now, the air is full of barely silenced flat six noises as the car charges towards us before slowing, a leisurely heel-toe down the gearbox and the Porsche rolls to a halt beside us. The familiar whiff of hot oil from the air cooled 911 engine, water dripping from the red hot brakes, hard ice packed into the arches. The driver opens the door, flicks of the engine. That singing silence returns once more.This is ice driving. And it’s something that every historic motorsport competitor should be doing each winter. We travel to Scandinavia to talk to Andy McKenna, professional driver coach, historic motorsport competitor and head of Ice Driver to talk about why it makes the perfect winter training ground for a season’s historic racing.
Now in his tenth year, McKenna and his team have been teaching drivers from literally all continents the skills and techniques of driving on frozen lakes. From car enthusiasts to car development engineers, even multiple Woirld Champions of motorsport, all have travelled to spend time alongside McKenna in Scandinavia. “Early on, a common theme developed amongst racing drivers. Firstly, drivers used to high grip race tyres found they were struggling to come to terms with historic race tyres. Leading on from that, the same drivers found that by coming here and being taken out of their traditional comfort zone, it gave them massive confidence in racing with big improvements in race results the following season.”
Ice driving is a remarkably accurate replication of a historic race tyre. The competition specification ice driving tyres have a very similar feel to the Dunlop CR65 tyre used by many competitors. It gives a feel very similar to driving on wet tarmac, with the ability to transfer weight around the car and brake heavily. Many people expect driving on frozen lakes to be slow speed, in fact Andy’s whole coaching philosophy is one of carrying speed wherever possible, using weight transfer and cornering attitude to achieve that aim.
It’s not ‘drifting’…. “If you want to drive on the lockstops everywhere after yanking on the handbrake, I can teach you that in one hour. For me, a car should be oversteering simply because it’s going so quickly it’s run out of grip. Overtseer should be a tool in the driver’s aresenal to be used to win, not for gratuitous showboating. But many drivers relatively new to the feel of a historic race car do struggle to feel comfortable initially. Used to a high grip tyre, the natural reaction is to catch the slide and kill it. Then the car sits back up, before assuming the oversteer attitude once more and the process repeats. It’s the reason why you sometimes see dricers ‘sawing’ at the wheel. The result looks like a thrippeny bit cornering line. More of a hexagon than a curve.”
A day on the ice alongside Andy and his team gives skills, knowledge and confidence to live with cornering attitudes at varying degrees of oversteer so that it no longer feels like the onset of a ‘moment’. “Many highly experienced drivers still tense up when they feel the car moving around. We aim to make this feel normal, it’s not a big deal, just something the car happens to be doing.”
“Once that feeling is there, we move on to planning lines and using power adjustments, left foot braking and other elements to affect the cornering attitude of the car in subtle ways. In a race situation, it’s a constant balance between carrying speed, losing speed, overheating tyres and being confident with your handling skills. You can actually overheat an ice driving tyre. The heavy blocks and studs twist, just like a readed race tyre and it can ‘go off’, which people find quite remarkable at -25c”
McKenna runs a fleet of cars that combine front wheel drive, four wheel drive, plus front and rear engined rear wheel drive. Uniquely, every combination of drivetrain is covered and he encourages drivers to try more than one. “Inevtiably, the air cooled Porsche 911 is popular, but you can learn an awful lot by spending time in the Ford Focus front wheel drive or even the Subaru.”
Until around ten years ago, driving on frozen lakes in Scandinavia was the preserve of the die hard rally enthusiast and driver. Travel into the interior of Norway, Sweden and Finland was an arduous process and the term “Winter Rally School” was used to describe it. Those three words deterred many. Winter = ‘Cold” . Rally = “Colder, standing in a forest and getting blasted with gravel” As for School, well that was never fun, it hardly sounded like something you’d pay to do. Ice Driver changed all that.
“The first thing we realised was that the infrastrucre had to be there. People do not want to take a week away from business and undertake an arduous road trip to reach us. Our location at Hotel Vestlia in Norway makes travel easy, flights and trains are straight forward. Additionally, people want to do other things as well as driving. The ski resort here has lots of other things to keep people occupied. You can come with your partner and your family and make a holiday out of it. Our local partners are massively enthusiastic, without them we could never enjoy the facilities that we do.”
Ice Driver’s season runs from the end of January and as the daylight hours grow longer, you will see the team spending more and more time out on the Scandinavian ice as drivers from all walks of life come to home existing skills, learn new ones and enjoy the spectacular arctic wilderness.
Full details of Ice Driver are available at http://www.icedriver.com