In the auto world the term "once in a lifetime experience" is an over used cliché. Every drive, launch and event is a once in a lifetime experience. At least until the next one comes along. But let me tell you now these unforgettable and epic 72 hours spent on ice at the Arctic Circle were well worth the cliché.
Arvidsjaur is the capital of Lapland in Sweden, an important town, but a small place with a few nice hotels, a picturesque city centre and a surprisingly busy, small airport.
The plane offloaded our large contingent of journos, Audi officials including Michael Perschke the India boss, select dealers and customers and one very lucky passenger. Anubhav Arya won OVERDRIVE's Audi Ice Drive Experience contest and his smile was brighter than the aircraft's landing lights! The extreme cold on the walk to the heated terminal was accompanied by the chatter of teeth. "Did you see the lake from the plane?" "Red cars! Awesome!" "Do you think we will be able to turn the electronics off?"
Our instructors at were ex-F1 and DTM racer Markus Winklehock and local doyen Jerry Ahlin. After a quick welcome, it was off to the hotel to drop our bags and have a quick lunch (lots of Reindeer) before heading off to the lake. The typical ice experience is spread over three days and involves one giant frozen lake. Our large platoon was split into two groups and assigned bright red Audi S4 Avants (Avant is Audi's name for estate versions). With their supercharged petrol V6s producing 333PS, quattro four-wheel drive, sport differentials and crucially studded snow tyres, the cars looked ready and the onus was on us to be worthy.
Anubhav and I set off for our introduction laps in one car with all the electronics on - five laps around the 1.5km course, drawn on the ice by bulldozer. We only had to keep respectable distances to the cars ahead as we got a feel for the cars, the surface and the grip levels. A few minutes in, the tension eased and at the end of our second run, we were asked to turn ESP off and get sideways.
Driving on ice is brilliant for all the obvious reasons. But the groovy bit is that excess snow from the course carving is heaped on the sides of the course creating soft, pliable barriers. My first attempts at getting the rear to kick out produced lots of oversteer, and then wide-eyed excursions off track straight into the snowbanks. The first time you crash, you think you're an epic arse. That your children will have to be sold into slavery to cover the damage and so forth. Then a hardy Swede arrives on a tractor, drags you out and you're free to be a prat once more. The only tool required is a little rubber shovel to clear the wheel wells. Once that penny dropped, the driving got appropriately aggressive with every one of us including a visibly excited Michael Perschke pushing harder and faster resulting in some pretty spectacular offs.
That night we assembled for a formal briefing at the hotel having left the lake with incredible reluctance. The plan was simple - understeer is bad, oversteer is good. Quattro will turn us into superheroes and finally, do not break the cars. After a substantial dinner it was time to dream of driving on the ice to fill the time until it was time to drive on the ice once more.
Day two was serious business. Up early, we went straight out onto the freezing lake. We headed to an oval track with Markus while Group Two went to a slalom course with Jerry to learn the Scandinavian flick. Markus gave us pretty simple instructions "Slow in, hard on the gas, counter steer and modulate throttle" and once the theory went into practice and the four-wheel drifts became longer, the width of our smiles increased exponentially. It was with great reluctance that we resigned ourselves to leaving the oval to Group Two heading to meet Jerry at the slalom course. But things only got better.
The Scandinavian flick, aka the pendulum turn was made famous by the fabled Scandinavian rally drivers of the '60s and '70s. As Jerry explained with typical Scandinavian understatement, it is all about transferring weight and using the car's momentum to break traction and swing it into corners at high speed. "Setup with the car in the middle of the road, tap the brakes and turn away from the corner. Dab the throttle and then lift off to shift weight to the front wheels and now turn the steering into the corner. Then just feather throttle to maintain the slide and focus on countersteering". I, for one, had a lot of trouble with this, but when you finally get it right the adrenaline is intense. The kind of intense that usually gets white powder banned as a narcotic.
Despite the studded tyres, grip levels were very low and as a result the cars were very twitchy and on the limit of adhesion at all times. That means that while steering responses still have to be lightning quick, the throttle and brake need more careful modulation. Racing drivers like Aditya Patel with their greater skill level and ability to left foot brake adapt especially easily and Aditya was soon teaching us how to use the brakes to set the car up for corners and maximise the effect of the Scandinavian flick. After a lot of practice, during which time the tractor, a bulldozer and then even a large pickup truck were pressed into service to tow us lot out of sandbanks, we had all reached what the instructors agreed was an acceptable level and called it a day.
Our final day was brilliant. The snowfall petered out and the sun threatened on occasion to join us, even. The support team had spent the morning opening up all the snow banks and produced a breathtaking 8km track filled with fast sweepers, technical switchbacks and enough hairpins to produce massive four-wheel drifts and even bigger grins. It took a few runs to get a feel for it but very soon the lake was full of opposite-locking, counter-steering, and always drifting red Audis. Our contest winner Anubhav had certainly made the most of his practice time and produced the photograph of the trip (bottom right) a full-on drift across the lens of our photographer Greg that looked normal enough until he noticed the massive thumbs up! As all of us fell into our own rhythm and tried to put special effort into our own favourite sections of the track. The instructors took a back seat allowing us to find our own comfort zone, occasionally coming on the radio to tell us to maintain gaps and occasionally calling one of us in for some special instructions.
The cocktail of stunning location, high performance cars, mainlining adrenaline and flying snow was so potent that day three saw journalists skipping the lunch break - imagine that - with Jerry finally being forced to call us in to give the cars a break. As the sky turned all too quickly from blue-grey to a deep reddish purple I had to stop hooning around and finish shooting for our TV special while the others kept hammering in the laps, maximizing every minute they had left.
But sadly all good things must come to an end and so at 5pm, we bid farewell to the lake, turned on the electronics and headed homeward. This was truly the once in a lifetime sort of experience. Unless I can come back next year, that is.