TG heads to Val Thorens to learn the graceful art of drifting over ice
Snow and ice, as anyone who takes their car into a wintry car park during a snow bomb knows, makes every car brilliant and every person a driving god. So imagine just how awesome things would be if the car was brilliant to start with, the location slightly more exotic than a Morrisons in Derby. Val Thorens is the highest ski resort in Europe and home to Ice Driving Alain Prost.
Not much of an ice racer, Prost, you’re probably thinking. Turns out he won the Andros Trophy championship three times, racking up 38 race wins. One of those championships was won at the wheel of a Dacia Lodgy. Maybe he started learning at a Morrisons. Or maybe not. Expect Alain’s Dacia was a bit more… fit-for-purpose.
But we have something better still: our reigning Performance Car of the Year, the Alpine A110, fitted with a set of suitably studded Michelin rally tyres. We, you’ll note, not I, because along with me is Editor-in-Chief Charlie Turner. This might turn competitive…
OM: Did you enjoy the driver briefing?
CT: Fastest meeting I’ve ever had. The circuit boss stood up, said two words “Drive. Slide” and that was it. Perfect. You go first, I’m going to sit here and watch you Drive. Slide. And probably Crash. I’m hoping the weather eases up before my turn. Can’t believe they’re letting us drive around here at night, in heavy snow.
OM: I thought this place would be floodlit. Bloody dark out there. Gonna be like a stage of the Monte Carlo, but with even more threatening ice walls. Better crash protection in this Alpine than an original at least. Alpine should go back to rallying.
CT: It should. Maybe your demonstration over the next 20 minutes will be all the encouragement they need. (Now, while clearly I should be hard wired to want to go first, I’ve always found in these situations that discretion is the better part of valour. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time skidding about on an ice lake in old 911s on the utterly brilliant Below Zero course. But this is very different. Get it wrong on a lake and you’ll fire across the vast expanse of lovely soft snow and when you eventually come to a stop a nice man called Sven will come and extract you. Go off here and you’ll hit an ice bank and have a challenging conversation with your insurer. The Alpine is well adapted to this environment, so I’m looking for plenty of Scandi-flick action here Marriage, provided you don’t run out of talent trying to persuade the studded tyres to dig through the deepening snow to the ice below. Anyway, off you trot. Irritatingly, I’m not allowed to give you ‘encouragement’ from the passenger seat, instead we’ve got Vincent. He’s a Porsche instructor at Le Mans don’t you know. Bon Chance Mon Brave.
OM: Of course he is. I’ve always said a Scandi flick is the right way to tackle the Porsche Curves.
20 minutes elapse with various levels of commitment being shown amongst the group. Marriage has been irritatingly proficient but I prefer not to mention that instead opting for the helpful…
CT: You didn’t crash.
OM: Not for lack of trying. It’s ridiculously slippery out there. And dark, and the corners are tight, the walls are close. It’s pretty nerve-wracking. Huge fun, but brain-ache levels of concentration and a good deal of flailing. The A110 is good in Track mode with the ESP slacked off – it manages traction really well until you get to a certain angle of oversteer, then it cuts power and hauls you back hard. Which means you lose all your hard-earned momentum.
CT: Hang on, you had the traction on?
OM: Some of the time. Just doing as instructor Vincent told me. We need to break him in gently.
CT: I had a word with him when you came back in. He was far too flattering about your ‘skeel’ at the wheel. Did you tell him you’re a pot-winning rally driver?
OM: Might have kept that quiet. Oh look, they’ve found the switch for the floodlights now. They want you to see the accident you’re about to have. Best of luck.
Another 20 minutes pass…
OM: You did crash. Must have, you were gone for ages down at that corner at the far end. Bet that made Vincent cross.
CT: Not me. Well, not first time round. On that occasion I had to get out and push/dig another Alpine out. Second time round, I took a somewhat overenthusiastic approach to the off-camber downhill right which would be charitably described as “keen” and more accurately as “Un accident” only avoided by the other Alpine driver getting out of the way of my bowling ball A110 which arrived stage right completely out of control. I fear I may have broken our instructor. The rest of the 20 minutes was punctuated only by occasional gallic shrugging, and my personal highlight which he muttered as he left the car… “I go now and call my mother”.
Anyway you’re right it’s VERY slippery, to be honest with this amount of snow and short studs you really are dealing with fine margins… The Alpine is a lot of fun, better with everything off (a decision Vincent regretted) but the combination of high jeopardy (big hard unforgiving walls) and zero grip is making this somewhat marginal. Still Vincent likes you so let’s see if we an coax him back into the car. After he’s finished necking that Calvados.
More turns occur…
CT: How did you get on?
OM: Vincent is ramping up the criticism. Apparently my throttle inputs are too ‘square’. And I need to look further along the track, and I’m “trying to take 1kmh extra each time”. I thought the idea was to go faster and faster?
CT: Nah, more and more sideways.
OM: Even better. Anyway, he’s trying to make us get the technique right and be precise. Which, to be frank isn’t as much fun as just pratting about. The irritating thing is that once he’d told me about my ‘square’ throttle and forward vision I could tell he was bloody right. I was jabbing at the throttle, rather than coming on and off it smoothly. And paying too much attention to how close I was to the wall rather than looking at where I wanted to go. He actually said to me: “I feel that you like to, uh… flirt with the ice walls”.
CT: I was watching. He’s got a point. You do love an Ice wall and your ice wall flirtation game is strong. Still, being accused of flirting with inanimate blocks of ice is better than being described as “aggreessife” which was the highlight of my latest foray onto the ice with an instructor who I seem to have turned to drink… I think I was more “posiitife”, necessary since the ice is now buried beneath a good couple of inches of fresh snow, so any progress requires a certain amount of commitment. Talking of commitment…
OM: I’m one step ahead of you. Bar?
The next day.
OM: Just been speaking to Olivier Pignon, who runs this centre. Last year a bloke skis up and watches the cars go round. Nothing unusual about that, the piste runs right past. But then he takes his helmet off and it’s only Seb Loeb. Here on his holidays. Anyway, Olivier knows him a bit from way back, offers him a drive and from then on Loeb was here every afternoon.
CT: Everything I hear about Seb reconfirms my impression that he is coolest most gifted Bloke in Motorsport of all time. But sadly I’m not sure I share Seb’s enthusiasm, Vincent has returned “after speaking to my mother and insurance” and seems determined to make us take ice driving seriously… Er, can’t we just do big skids?
OM: I know, I know. But look on the bright side, the Alpine is a honey out here, so light and adjustable. I thought it would need a proper limited slip diff to feel predictable while it was sliding, but actually it’s lovely as it is. So far I’ve spun it fewer times than I did at Clermont Ferrand. I’ve yet to spin at all here. I went round twice there.
CT: Ran out of talent, you mean.
OM: Lock, Charlie, I ran out of lock.
CT: Yes I’m very proud of you mate, well done. The Alpine helps though it is a wonderfully balanced little thing, but I think it could do with longer studs. Especially with the ice having been cleared overnight, longer studs will let you slide but you can work the car harder, and actually use the brakes… Rather than doing the dog on roller-skates impression.
OM: Ah, here’s Vincent. Wish me luck.
CT: Break a leg. Seriously watch that, the ice is super-polished today. It won’t be the crash that does it, but getting out of the car to assess the damage.
20 minutes later
OM: Right, got Vincent under control. A bigger bung. From further out. That’s the answer. Actually no, he said “I not say anything because you are doing well”.
CT: Teacher’s pet.
OM: No. OK, well, yes. I actually quite enjoyed the technique stuff. We pulled the corner apart and concentrated on entry for a while, as he reckons I need to give the throttle a firmer slap to initiate bigger oversteer sooner – especially at that long off-camber sheet ice hairpin. Bit difficult as the Alpine does have a bit of turbo lag, so you’re not quite sure how long to hold the power on for. Then it was trying to sustain the slide all the way to the next corner, but adjust line as you do so with the steering and throttle, so you arrive where you need to be at the right speed, angle and so on, and then adjust the weight balance to get some grip on the fronts to transition the slide back the other way. Bloody satisfying when you get it right.
CT: I’m glad you’ve got your entry sorted, you can mention that to the ice walls later when you’re flirting with them. More importantly, have you been out with Nicholas Lapierre yet?
OM: No. Worth it?
CT: Absolutely. He’s won LMP2 at Le Mans three times, but had never driven on ice until the day before yesterday and is a lot more fun than Vincent, he seems to come from the same school of ‘if in doubt sideways and smiling is the way to go’. Properly amusing.
OM: Right, I’ll go and do that, you go and have a drive with Marco, the instructor standing over there. He looks like he’ll tolerate flailing and giggling.
20 mins later…
OM: You were right, Nicholas is fun to sit alongside. At times there was a lot of frantic arm-twirling and probably way too much throttle. He likes the high revs, does Nicholas. But he was also very impressive at dealing with the corner we all hate. Managed to get the braking just right every time, never quite triggering the ABS, but always on the exact same line so he knows where the grip is. I can’t be that accurate. A handful of inches one way or another and the grip is entirely different due to blown snow, ruts in the ice, where the shadow is and so on. I though Ice would be consistent, but it’s not.
CT: Getting the braking nailed is what modern circuit racing is all about. Everything flows from there – the aero grip, chassis balance and other racing driver stuff. But can I be honest, I don’t every want to be an ice racing God, I just want to go sideways for as long as possible with a big stupid grin on my face. That for me is what ice driving is about…
OM: And how was Marco?
CT: Marco was amusing and amusingly complimentary. Apparently I have “very natural feeling in a car”, so take that Mr Ice Wall flirter. I think he and I may be wired the same. I was honest from the outset and told him I just wanted to slide, to which he said, “so do I, that’s the point isn’t it?” Perfect. 20 minutes later and with barely a few hundred feet covered in a straight line our time on the ice was up and ending with a big grin.
OM: Apparently Alpine is leaving a car here for the rest of the season. We need another excuse to get out here. To, um, perfect our techniques…
CT: Have you seen what’s in their shed here? Four words: Ice. Racing. Go. Karts. With spiked tyres. This can only end well…