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Snow drift: Taking it ice and easy with racing superstars

Snow drift: Taking it ice and easy with racing superstars

By Swansway Motor Group 24-08-2018


Ever wondered how a hatchback would fare on ice? Rebecca Chaplin tests out the latest Seat 4×4 technology on Finland’s most treacherous ice track

“It’s all about looking at where you need to go next and steering before you reach that point,” explained Alex Halen as we skidded across the ice.

“Keep your movements smooth and counteract where the car is turning to keep it going in the direction you need.”

Halen is a racer in the Legends series, but today he’s showing me how to manoeuvre round a track etched into a frozen lake in northern Finland. He’s got the natural mix of calmness and confidence you’d expect of a Finnish racing driver who’s been traversing tracks such as this since the age of six.

Never stop racing.

“If we stop racing then we stop going where we need to go,”

He said as the back end of the car I’m steering overtakes the rear and he forces the steering wheel in the opposite direction to realign us on the track.

Driving on ice is something you’d expect to be unnerving, but in our Seat Leon Cupras with full traction control on you’d barely notice the difference. As long as you’re driving carefully, that is.

Push the car a little too far and even equipped with snow tyres you’ll find yourself sliding, until the electronic stability control kicks in and narrowly saves you crashing into a snow drift.

Turn that off, as we did, and it’s a very different story. The car effectively becomes a giant ice skate, with traction in a straight line but little grip as soon as you attempt to turn.

That’s exactly what we would be learning about over the next few days; how exactly do you propel yourself on such inhospitable terrains?

Seat has brought us to northern Finland where the snow is thick and the temperature is below zero to demonstrate what its 4Drive four-wheel-drive system can do in extreme weather – with the aim that it’ll show us how this clever tech can benefit drivers in the far less extreme UK.

We’d try what are more conventional methods in these parts, from huskies to snowmobiles, which have been carefully honed to work in these conditions. However, Seat’s SUVs and sporty hatchbacks are not what you would usually associate with snow, let alone ice.

Maroon red SEAT Cupra driing through the snow in the winter

Ateca SUV

Our day started in a far more civilised manner, testing out the car maker’s latest addition to its range, the Ateca SUV, across the snowy roads of Kuusamo. It had taken three hours in the air with an overnight stay in Helsinki to get us to this location in the north of Finland, but the crisp white snow and bright sunlight made it a worthy location to try out the Spanish car-maker’s 4Drive technology.

These family-sized cars, with the angular styling recognisable to modern Seats, transported us to our ice lake adventure with poise and grace.

Halen sat in the back of the Ateca, directing me to the Juha Kankkunen Driving Academy where he works. We travelled up steep inclines through forests and bounded across the snow with surprising ease as we took in the bleak but beautiful snowy vistas.

Kankkunen will be a name you’ll recognise if you follow rallying. This Flying Finn, for those not in the know, has won the World Rally Championship four times between 1986 and 1993, with Peugeot, Lancia twice and Toyota.

So, what else would you do as one of the most famous rallying drivers in the world but to buy a frozen lake in your home country to turn into your ideal race track. And what could possibly make a better location for learning how to tackle these conditions.

Halen takes me for one lap, which seems only suitable for trained racing drivers, before pulling over and telling me to get in the driving seat. With one foot sliding underneath me as I step out of the car, the idea that I’ll be driving on this seems daunting, if not physically possible.

We try first with all of the electronic elements of the car allowed to do what they want and keep me out of the snow. He’s confident that I can cope, or at least that there’s enough snow to cushion me and the Leon from any mistakes, and turns off the ESP.

It’s unnatural at first to counter-steer away from the way you want to go, but once you get into a rhythm it begins to make sense. It also helps that Halen is shouting at me to turn, brake and accelerate, which I follow diligently.

To my surprise, Halen sounds vaguely impressed with what I’m doing as I turn the car into the corner on the approach before straightening it as we hit the apex to slide through the remainder and power to the next turn.

“Power on to move the car to the inside and lift off to keep to the inside,” is his next piece of advice as we slide around a hairpin bend. Sure enough, by adding some power the car carries on sideways, and as I ease off we slow to keep tight to the apex.

Orange Brown SEAT 5 door SUV parked in the snow

Learn Fast or get passed

I soon learnt what can happen if you don’t follow instructions carefully, as one false move placed me nosefirst in the snow. We weren’t out of the rally though, Halen told me, as we forced snow out from under the front wheels and reversed off the drift.

Maybe he was being kind, as I’d mentioned early on that at the age of 12 I wanted to pursue a career as a rally driver which soon turned into reporting on the subject instead, but the cheers from my instructor encouraged me that I hadn’t completely embarrassed myself. And I only beached the car in the barrier three times.

To show me how it is really done, I get a trip round the circuit with World Touring Car Championship driver Jordi Gene and, the man himself, Juha Kankkunen. Modest Gene takes me round first, explaining that he’ll be nowhere near as smooth as the Finn.

Fearlessly, he speeds around the track, explaining that he’s going for fun skids rather than the fastest time – but he could have fooled me.

Next I get a chance to meet Kankkunen, the calmest man I’ve ever met. He acts as if he is cruising around the track, with the smallest inputs made to the steering wheel, but attacks the corners with speed. Unsurprisingly, the few laps I get with him are over extremely quickly.

I left the car feeling that I needed to move to Finland and rekindle my dream of a career as a racing driver. Although my time on the snow was short, it certainly showed me what a challenge ice driving is and gave me some insight into how to handle a car should UK roads turn arctic.

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