By: Justin Harper
“Putting your foot on the gas when a car is veering out of control goes against every basic driving principle.”
“More power, more power,” my instructor screamed at me as the car skidded sideways into a tight right-hand corner. Well he didn’t exactly scream it, as he was a mild-mannered Finn, but he definitely should have done given my inability to master one of the basic ice-driving skills as we sped across one of Finland’s many frozen lakes in a high-powered Bentley Continental.
Risto, my driving instructor for two days, is one of many Finns who have excelled in the world of motor sports. In fact, Finland has produced three Formula One world champions and countless world rally champions. Not bad for a nation of just over five million, the same population as Singapore.
So it made perfect sense for prestigious car marque Bentley to host its Power on Ice driving experience in Finland given this rich talent pool. That, and the abundance of frozen lakes, beautiful scenery and the chance to experience Arctic conditions.
Finn and four-time World Rally Champion Juha Kankkunen was actually on hand to impart his decades-worth of experience to drivers like me, who were still skidding and sliding across the ice as we attempted to complete a full lap without crashing into a snow bank.
We were near a town called Kuusamo in northern Finland, an hour’s flight from Helsinki and 50 clicks from the Arctic Circle. The vast majority of Finland’s 1,800 lakes freeze over in winter providing the perfect opportunity for high-end car brands such as Bentley to lay on exclusive packages for owners across the globe to test their driving skills on a truly unique and vastly challenging surface.
This was the first time its Asian owners were given the opportunity to take part in the Power on Ice event and many jumped at the chance. To be allowed to legally drive on the frozen lake, the ice needs to be at least 50cm thick. The lake we drove on (or rather skidded and slid on) was actually 60cm thick so no concerns about falling into the ice no matter how hard we pushed the cars.
Having said that, driving cars with more than 600 brake horsepower (bhp) over a surface so slippery and unpredictable was a worry, and the thought alone gave me sweaty palms despite the near freezing environment of northern Finland, which includes the Lapland region that is home to wolves and bears.
For me, the toughest aspect of driving on ice was that it went against everything I’ve learned driving on tarmac. When you take a corner, the idea is to brake hard to force the back end to slide out and majestically glide you round the bend. But to achieve this you need to put your foot on the gas and counter-steer the car. However, putting your foot on the gas when a car is veering out of control goes against basic driving principles, but that’s exactly what you need to do. Hence my Finnish driving instructor’s constant calls for “more power, more power” as I failed time and again to apply my foot to the gas pedal boldly enough.
It was a difficult exercise to turn one’s driving instincts on their head, and it took me until my last few laps on day two of the course to finally master this crucial element of ice driving. But what fun I had along the way as I spun the car 360 degrees forwards, backwards and crashed it into the snowbanks countless times. On the odd occasion (well, four actually) I went so far onto the snowbank I needed the rescue tractor to tow me out.
A selected few Bentley owners were invited from Asia including Singaporean couple Jinny and Benny Lim. They relished the chance to get out of their comfort zone and test Continentals and Flying Spurs on ice, very different from Singapore’s hot tarmac. Jinny, a 26-year-old entrepreneur, said: “I have been to many track events but nothing compares to ice-driving. I didn’t know such a powerful and big car could perform so well on ice. I loved the way it handled on big corners.”
Talking about if any of the skills she learned can be used in Singapore she added: “I feel more confident now that I can handle it in any road conditions.”
There is some structure to the chaos of driving on ice, firstly in the set-up. The ice track has to be specially prepared once the thickness of the lake has been established. Tracks have to be carved out of the ice while a tractor/snow plough needs to be on hand to rescue over-enthusiastic drivers from the snow banks. A total of 11 different circuits had been carved out across the lake including one main course, a tricky complete-circle track and one for ice go-karts. There is also a skill to ice-driving that, once mastered, can have you gliding around the lake like an Olympic ice skater.
Maybe I’ll need to go back next year to reach such dizzy heights.
This article first appeared in EX Magazine.