What's more fun than drifting an ice lake in a modern Porsche? Doing it in an old one...
The cold does funny things to your brain. It’s why I decide to warm my hands on a scalding-hot chimney, melting my gloves and giving my colleagues much ammunition with which to attack me for the next two days.
Words: Tom Harrison
Images: Rowan Horncastle
This feature originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Top Gear magazine.
It’s also why, I maintain, at first I struggle to find third gear in Below Zero Ice Driving’s Tuthill-prepared Porsche 912. My instructor Simon Redhead just used it, as he demonstrated the correct and most consistently sideways way of guiding the 912 around a short, twisty circuit that feels barely one and half times its width. But the first few times I go for it up the back straight, it’s first or fifth. I nail it after 20 minutes and can instead concentrate on the surprisingly hilarious business of keeping the thing pointing in the right direction, which is easier said than done on sheet ice. Even on spindle-thin 195-section button-studded tyres.
We’re on Below Zero’s lake, which is much bigger and much grander than ours. You pull off the access track – a bona fide rally stage – onto an arrow-straight ice road that runs the length of the lake. Must be a mile, if not longer. Resist the temptation to immediately do something silly and you arrive (backwards and on fire, if you haven’t resisted) at base camp. Lined up outside are BZ’s cars. All Porsches, most 911s (and a fantastically odd 914-6), all a little different. Idling away, fumes from their exhausts forming the immaculately white snow banks they’re butted up against into interesting sculptures. Our little blue 912 is second in line.
It and its stablemates spend the best part of three months in Sweden. Rarely does a day pass they’re not out on the lake, earning their, we’d imagine, considerable keep. Punters booking on to Below Zero’s one- or two-day ice-driving courses range from the terminally inept (such as myself) to proper racing drivers, desperate for a bit of light relief from spending all day trying very hard to not go sideways. “We start the first week in January and finish mid-March,” Simon tells me. “We’ve probably got three, four days in that period when we’re not on the lake. But then we’re still busy maintaining the cars, so it’s seven days a week for three months.”
It’s a sizable and hugely popular operation, which is why it’s a bit of a thing that we’ve managed to pinch one of their cars for a couple of hours. Might have had something to do with the car we’ve brought along to meet it. It’s a 911 – obviously. A GT3 (big yes), with the newly available manual gearbox (bigger yes) and some very serious-looking studded tyres (biggest yes). I promise Simon he can have a go.
But we start in the 912. Its narrow button-studs are the kind of tyres paying punters start off on before they graduate to grippier spikes. The speeds are slower – we saw no more than 45mph – but the technique is the same, Simon promises, in between admonishing me for having not been able to grab third with any dignity whatsoever. “The main thing is weight transfer,” he says. “So when you come off the throttle, whether you’re braking or just coasting, the weight transfers forwards. That gives you the time and feeling to give the front instruction. To tell it where you want it to go. As soon as you turn and you feel it bite, back on the gas and balance it around the bend.”
Predictably, this is easier said than done. But the 912 is friendly enough. Its steering and throttle are responsive and predictable and the weight of the 2.2-litre, six-cylinder 911 engine gives good traction at the rear axle. A dab on the brakes with your left foot mid-corner helps adjust the car’s attitude, tightening your line when long sweepers turn without warning into tricky hairpins. Its interior is stripped bare, the skinny pillars affording excellent visibility of, well, a lot of snow. But it’s still tight enough in here – I worry about clouting Simon with my elbows, as I flail about wildly, fighting to keep control and look cool for Rowan, who quite sensibly is stood about three miles back from the edge of the track and using much zoom. I sweat through three of the six layers I’m wearing. My arms start to ache. But within ten minutes I decide that yes, Chris Harris was right. This is, in fact, the most fun you can have in a car. After 20 minutes, I’m penduluming the car this way and that with a measure of style.
The new car is trickier to master. I give Simon a go first and he, entirely predictably, emerges from the driver’s seat smiling the smile of a Very Happy Man. “That’s nice, that’s really nice,” he enthuses. “I think I could get carried away with that. I think you could lean on it in third. There’s so much rear grip. Even round here – you could carry a bit more speed.” Encouraged, I try, and come unstuck almost immediately. It’s not as forgiving as the 912 – you have to get it right on the way in because you can’t trim the line on the brakes in quite the same way. But, because the engine’s further forwards, the pendulum effect isn’t as pronounced. So it’s more balanced front-to-back, and those Lappi spikes mean it grips hard. You feel the extra half-tonne or so in weight, and the carbon-ceramic brakes are quite hopeless (maybe it’s the cold) compared with the 912’s unassisted steels, but it’s just so controllable, so exploitable that you start taking liberties. Like using all 9,000 glorious revolutions per minute to break it loose, just for the hell of it. It feels a bit grown-up for Below Zero’s practice track, but on ours it runs rings around everything bar the RX2 car and similarly-tyred Nomad.
Proper cars, these. And proper fun, too.