Into the arctic
With winter now officially upon us, what better time to brush up on some ice driving.
Before social distancing was even a thing, Australian journalist Noelle Faulkner, took to the remote wilds of Sweden to sample the Audi Ice Pro driving experience.
1 June, 2020
There is a blanket of white snow as far as the eye can see, broken only by pine trees that meet an enormous black abyss speckled with glittering dots of light. The temperature is well below zero, past the point where it's just cold and any degree of reference in Celsius is useless. But for some reason, it doesn't matter. The tingle of the stars, the potential to see the majestic Northern Lights and the electric buzz of adrenaline from the past two days is warm enough. At this very moment, I'm speeding through a dark Swedish forest behind the handlebars of a 100hp snowmobile, flying across hilly snowdrifts and frozen clearings where the sky lights up like Christmas. It's my second night out of four out here in the Swedish Lapland as part of the Audi Ice Pro Driving Experience, and I couldn't feel further from home. It's a good thing I can't feel my arms because something tells me the next five days will involve multiple pinch-myself moments.
Arvidsjaur, Sweden is a small snow-coated town 110km from the Arctic Circle. In winter, it serves as a host for the automotive industry’s extreme winter testing, including that for tyres, heavy machinery and passenger vehicles. If you’re a car enthusiast or gear nerd, it is a fascinating place to watch out for camouflaged prototypes or overhear engineers talking about their latest icy frustration while downing a pint of Starköl at the pub. It is surreal and thrilling – the perfect location for Audi’s thrilling Ice Pro Driving Experience.
Arvidsjaur, Sweden is a small snow-coated town 110km from the Arctic Circle, that in winter serves as host for the automotive industry’s extreme winter testing
If you're thinking this is five days of epic chills, spills and high-speed, drifting thrills, you'd only be half right
For the purposes of our trip, the intensive five-day dynamic winter training program takes over an enormous frozen lake, upon which, stages of training tracks are set up, snaking across the white, shimmery surface. If you're thinking this is five days of epic chills, spills and high-speed, drifting thrills, you'd only be half right. Ice driving is not for those accustomed to instant gratification where you can just get out there and 'fang it'. Actually, it's the opposite – quattro-powered meditation.
As I learned very quickly, ice-driving is highly challenging, highly engaging and incredibly skill-heavy – it will trip you just when you think you've got it nailed. Luckily, the snowdrifts are forgiving. You might be well-experienced on the black stuff, but the ice cares not. Luckily Audi Australia's charismatic and incredibly patient Chief Driving Instructor, Steve Pizzati has many a yarn to make us feel better. Some of the world’s best racing drivers, including many Australian V8 Supercar pros have taken on the lakes of Scandinavia and have been defeated by it.
“I've trained both high achieving professional racing car drivers and total novices on the ice,” he says. “The biggest mistake both groups make is being impatient and too hard on themselves. For the pro, it comes from their massive experience and success. For the novice, it's the simple assumption that, when done well, it looks fluid and easy, almost like ballet.”
So here we are, looking out on to a breathtaking, stark white vista, ready to learn. Our line-up of S4 Avant TDIs (the 256kW/700Nm, 3.0-litre, V6 diesel Europe-only variant), are waiting to be put to the test.
The intensive training course moves fast, stacking small lessons on themselves. We start with rudimentary steering and peddling exercises, leading us into controlled power slides across the ice. And yes, a few necessary tows out of snowbanks… But it is all in good fun, without pressure or intimidation. The next few days we link said manoeuvres into a snake and eventually, Steve teaches us how to perform the iconic rally and ice racing move, the 'Scandinavian flick’. This leads up to a full-pelt attack on the course that bends around the enormous lake, our Audis gurgling with joy. Along the way, we learn how to pay close attention to the car's behaviour, balance, power and weight, as if it were a live animal.
My adrenaline sky-rockets and concentration reaches levels I didn't know I was capable of. My deadlines, stresses of work and worries melt away. I have no desire to think about anything other than what is in front of me. It becomes just the ice, the car and myself – working to balance speed with composure. This is also a testament to Steve's superior tutoring – he is, after all, one of Australia's best racing instructors. Having had an above-average share of advanced driving experiences, out here, the feeling of nailing that transfer of power and balance is a high few driving experiences can match. What else forces you to totally rethink everything you thought you knew about controlling a car on a ‘racetrack’, like steering with the throttle and the brake?!
"That's what makes driving on ice so challenging but also so rewarding," says Steve. "Some of it is familiar, some of it may as well be trying to fly a combine harvester in orbit around the earth. Working out which bit is which is where I come in..."
"That's what makes driving on ice so challenging but also so rewarding," says Steve Pizzati. "Some of it is familiar, some of it may as well be trying to fly a combine harvester in orbit around the earth."
For Australians, there is a romance about the ice. Just like our relationship with the sea, we know the frozen cold can be a biting experience, but it still possesses serenity and calmness
Of course, our S4's quattro system also lends a large hand in performance perfection out here. After all, this is quattro's home turf – the all-wheel-drive system was originally developed in the deep snow of Sweden and finessed over forty years of motorsport, including ice rally racing.
The Audi Ice Pro Driving Experience is an all-inclusive event and off-the-lake, the nights are just as sublime. Aside from the snowmobile tour I already mentioned, and the potential to see the exquisite Aurora Borealis, expect to eat your weight in traditional Swedish fare, including local delicacies reindeer and moose. We stayed at the storybook-like Skogen Hotell, set among the tall pine trees and deep snow, and spent the nights next to an open fire talking over the day and our love of cars (well, when our brains were not spent from all the information processed on the track!) before sneaking out for some stargazing before bed, ready to take on another day of power slides.
For Australians, there is a romance about the ice. Just like our relationship with the sea, we know the frozen cold can be a biting experience, but it still possesses serenity and calmness. Perhaps this is a trick of the mind? We associate being among the elements with feeling centred and grounded, especially if your job is mostly spent at a desk. Ice driving is a sport that truly plays on this serenity and grounding. Yes, it's fast-paced, thrilling, mentally involved and surprisingly physical, but it is also the anthesis of everything modern life throws at us. It is an act of mindfulness, balance and equilibrium with the car. More than anything, it’s a learning process. And one worth embarking on.
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