Slippery customers

Learning to drive a supercar on snow and ice at Switzerland’s glitziest resort is a boy racer’s idea of heaven. Simon de Burton drifts, understeers, tail slides and J-turns to his heart’s content.

November 28 2009
Simon de Burton

Back in 2006, the kind people at Mercedes-Benz lent me a CLS 55 AMG in which to drive from London to the Basel watch fair, then on to Geneva for the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie. With its 476 horsepower engine, startling acceleration and luxuriously appointed four-seater interior, it acquitted itself as one of the most effortlessly efficient continent-crossing cars imaginable. Up to a point.

That point came on a Saturday morning when I and two colleagues decided to break the journey towards Geneva with a diversion to an Alpine restaurant for lunch. It was during the early stages of spring, and while snow was still lying on the mountains, the roads had long been clear save for one small patch measuring 10sq m on which, by some coincidence of nature, the sun had clearly not shone for months.

The thick blanket of frozen snow that remained on this otherwise innocuous piece of road appeared as we rounded a bend. It looked so insignificant that I didn’t give a thought to the possibility that the mighty AMG – £100,000 with extras – might not tackle it with the utmost aplomb, but no sooner had the car’s enormous rear tyres alighted on the surface than forward motion ceased. Pressing the accelerator, either gently or brutally, resulted in the same, hopeless sound of spinning wheels and the acrid pong of burning rubber.

We remained in that spot for more than an hour, only managing to extract ourselves after ignominiously clawing through to the road surface with a combination of bare hands and makeshift shovels. To add insult to injury, a teenager on a £100 moped cheerily breezed by, rode up the mountain, did what he had to do, and came back down again to find us just as stuck as we were when he first passed.

Of course, we had a good laugh about it once we were back on the road, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to admit that a year before I had been taught precisely how to handle such a situation on the winter driving course run by Mercedes-Benz Germany in one of the most snowbound places on earth, Swedish Lapland. This is where manufacturers such as Porsche, BMW and Audi bring their prototypes for winter testing, and it has also become a popular destination for drivers who want to learn just how to handle high-powered cars in harsh conditions.

Snow and ice, you see, are the great levellers of the automotive world. Your Ferrari may sound fabulous and go like the clappers, and your Maserati may look magnificent and eat up the miles with ease, yet once you hit the white stuff, horsepower, acceleration, top speed and a growling exhaust note invariably count for nought. In fact, the best cars for tackling slippery surfaces are the lowly powered, skinny-tyred and ultra-light motors of old, à la Citroën 2CV or Fiat Panda 4x4.

But supercar manufacturers have observed that increasingly large numbers of their clientele are using their vehicles year-round, not just on high days and holidays. As a result, most offer winter driving courses to demonstrate just what these cars are capable of if they are handled properly and, importantly, if owners make correct use of the built-in electronic safety systems that are now part of the standard specification on virtually all high-end vehicles.

Porsche runs its Camp 4 winter driving schools in locations as diverse as Arctic Finland and Colorado, and has also invested hundreds of thousands of pounds on winter simulation equipment for its Driving Experience Centre at Silverstone in the UK. Anyone who places a deposit on a Porsche is automatically enrolled on the course, which includes sessions on a mock “ice hill” and a slalom area that combines a wet, glass-like surface with a kick-plate that causes the back wheels to step out, just as they invariably do on ice and snow.

But the best, most fun experience is to be had by driving a supercar on real snow and ice, which is why Maserati, Aston Martin and Lamborghini hold winter driving courses at some of Europe’s glitziest ski resorts, where a stay in a luxurious hotel and some fine dining are all part of the overall package.

Maserati’s winter driving courses for 2010 start in late January at St Moritz and coincide with the Polo World Cup on Snow. Open to a maximum of 24 drivers per day, the course will feature two levels: “sport” to teach the basics of ice driving, and “high performance” for more advanced techniques, including the black art of “heel and toe” throttle and brake control.

Last year, Aston inaugurated its Aston Martin on Ice events at the same location. As someone who has always marvelled at James Bond’s deft handling of his V12 Vanquish on the Icelandic tundra as he coolly outmanouevred Zao, Gustav Graves’s henchman in Die Another Day, I was especially eager to take part.

At first glance, the 2cm of sheet ice topped with 10cm of snow that blanketed the surface of the small airfield where the courses are staged appeared impassable by any vehicle other than one with four-wheel-drive. To be completely frank, the powerful rear-wheel-drive Aston Martin DBS and V8 Vantage cars that we were provided with seemed to be about the most impractical vehicles imaginable for the current task in hand. But, according to Les Goble, Aston’s performance driving guru, an Aston with someone competent behind the wheel and the right tyres fitted can be a veritable snowmobile.

“So long as the car is fitted with some good-quality winter tyres intended for use at below -4°C and the driver has been trained how to deal with the conditions, a high-performance car, such as an Aston, can be incredibly competent on ice and snow,” explained Goble.

“The state-of-the-art active safety systems and almost 50-50 weight distribution that is designed in the cars makes them extremely predictable and forgiving on ice and snow, so if you have the necessary skills and confidence there is really no reason why an Aston should be left in the garage during a harsh winter. One of the messages we are trying to convey with these courses is that the cars are perfectly practical for year-round use.”

Although the principal reason for offering these courses is to instruct owners in how to drive confidently in severe winter conditions on the road, there is also an element that will appeal to everyone’s inner stuntman (or stuntwoman) and that is the fact that courses such as these give pupils the chance to learn to drift, understeer, tail slide and J-turn to their heart’s content in the complete safety of a controlled, off-road environment. Believe me, it really is a hooligan’s paradise.

Each participant is accompanied at all times by a qualified instructor, and the course begins with a sedate drive around a large, figure-of-eight circuit, first with the Dynamic Stability Control and Traction Control systems switched on. Then follows another drive with them switched off in order to learn the principles of how a car travelling on ice and snow needs to be pointed in the right direction with a combination of deft throttle control and “opposite-lock” steering wheel.

Next is a long slalom course that ends in a simulated lane-change situation followed by a speed trap and an “emergency stop” parking box. On the first run, I managed to enter the speed trap sideways and out of control, scattering marker cones hither and thither before sliding to a halt in an embarrassing cloud of snow that screamed “incompetent” to anyone who was within a 400-yard radius.

After a gentle talking-to from my instructor, we set off again and this time the car danced delicately between the cones, entered the speed trap at a reasonable 69kph and drew to a well-controlled halt in the parking box. I was learning already.

Next, we were taught how to execute a perfect J-turn by reversing at high speed before “flicking” the steering wheel to the left in order to bring the front of the car around in a smooth arc until it faced the opposite direction, while simultaneously dipping the clutch and engaging third gear in order to continue forward progress (it looks harder than it is).

The day ended with all we rookies – now tail-sliding and opposite-locking like professionals – competing to achieve the fastest lap of an extended ice circuit. Most of us were so confident in our new-found skills that we opted to drive with the safety systems switched off in the belief that we would be able to achieve greater speed.

“The winner will be the person who has enough self-control to keep the speed down at all of the crucial places in the course in order to prevent the car from spinning,” explained Goble.

He was completely right. And that winner certainly wasn’t me.

See also

Sports cars