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December 20, 2013 7:13 pm
The satellite navigation system in the car I am driving is confused – its display confirms that I have parked in the middle of a lake. “Please make a U-turn if possible,” it suggests repeatedly. If a satnav could sound worried, it would. My co-driver Bengt Norberg is unfazed: he has driven to this spot hundreds of times. We are indeed in – or rather on – the middle of a lake, but there is a metre of solid ice between us and the bitter depths of Kvarntjarn.
Norberg is a former rally driver who now teaches people how to control a car in a skid on icy or snowy terrain. For that, we need a lot of ice or snow, so we are in Are – 300 miles north of Stockholm and very, very cold. Temperatures here often drop to -20C, freezing the hairs on the inside of your nose and ensuring a regular influx of frostbite casualties at the local hospital. It’s a balmy -9C today but a heavy snowfall made for a hair-raising drive to Kvarntjarn. The snow and ice is so treacherous that top rally drivers regularly fly in to practise – we can hear nine-times world rally champion, Sebastien Loeb, thrashing his car around in the next valley.
Kvarntjarn is 100m deep but from the end of October to late April the crust of ice seals the surface. This is nature’s equivalent of a skid pan, except on the man-made version you won’t hear the disconcerting sound of cracking beneath your feet when the sun comes out. “That’s totally normal,” Norberg reassures me. “We drill holes to check the depth of the ice and we use an electronic scanner that also tests the thickness.”
The skills I’m about to learn will be as relevant for a British winter as they are in these icier parts. In Sweden, though, unlike in the UK, drivers must by law use winter tyres during the colder months, to improve grip and reduce stopping distance. Indeed, skid-pan training forms part of Swedish driving instruction. For our session today our cars are fitted with optional, studded tyres – a popular choice with Scandinavians because the 180 metal studs around the circumference act like crampons.
Not even studs will help much on sheer ice like this though, so I fear that I am likely to spend most of my time scrabbling for grip as the car drifts sideways around the bends on the track scored into the ice. Norberg’s initial advice is familiar enough: “Whether you are driving on ice or snow, here or in the UK, keep the speed down and always leave up to three times the normal stopping distance to the car in front.”
Norberg takes me on a demonstration lap first – a fast driver can slip around the lake in under two minutes. There’s no wheelspin as his car picks up speed to 30mph, approaching the first corner from the widest and most gentle angle. He eases off the power without touching the brakes, cuts a line across the apex of the curve and then smoothly presses the accelerator. The wheels struggle for grip as Norberg slips sideways but he maintains momentum through the bend.
After four or five corners, Norberg has the car performing like a downhill skier. “If you travel too fast, the car loses grip through the curve and you cannot get the speed out the other side. This may be a frozen lake in Sweden but the idea is just the same on a British road. I always want the front wheels to have grip to stop me losing control of the steering and ending up in a ditch,” he explains.
Norberg was just six years old when his father taught him to drive. Crashing around a field in an old banger, he soon progressed to rallying and raced in local events. He went on to work with the late Colin McRae’s team, helping the Scotsman win his 1995 World Rally Championship. From 1989 to 1999, Norberg was also a world record holder himself – driving a car 310km around a track, on just two wheels. He only stopped when the car ran out of fuel, after seven hours.
I’m more intent on keeping my vehicle on four wheels, as I set off solo with Norberg flagging me away. In a straight line, the studded tyres give my Volvo remarkable grip, as I confidently flick into third gear and the speedometer clips 40mph. I follow the Swede’s driving line through the first corner, a long, sweeping bend that does little to unsettle the car, then run wide to prepare for the next curve.
At first, it seems my only problem is distinguishing the ice of the track from the snow-covered edge of the circuit. Both are glistening white in the sunshine, which makes it difficult to judge distance and speed. Unlike a typical British road with hedges and trees, there is nothing on a frozen lake in Sweden to offer a driver perspective. One second my car is lined up perfectly for the corner – the next I am careering off into deep snow. Norberg arrives to tap on my iced-up window and remind me that too much speed is the most common mistake.
For my next run, I deliberately keep the speed down to 30mph and put the car in fourth gear as quickly as possible. This should help reduce the likelihood of wheelspin if I tweak the accelerator. The difference is tangible, as I can maintain complete control over the front wheels, which hold their line thanks to those ingenious studs. So as my back wheels start to drift sideways through the bend, it’s easier to turn the steering wheel into the skid, then gently increase power and drive out the other side.
After a couple of laps, I’m drifting round bends like a rally ace, throwing up showers of ice and snow with abandon. The line between control and loss of traction is a fine one though – the moment I become too enthusiastic my car careers off the track into a bank of snow. I make a mental note to just stick to what I’ve been shown.
So long as I do that, I tell Norberg, I’ll be a safer driver back home, surely? Norberg hopes so but warns that British drivers have a problem. “You travel too fast,” he tells me bluntly – before softening that with a Swedish saying: “man marker andras fel och glommer sina egna” – “we notice faults of others and easily forget our own.”
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