Top Gear on Ice: The Wacky Racers

What do an Ariel Nomad, a skidoo and a rally car have in common? An appetite for ice...

We start with a drag race because that’ll give me a clue what I’m up against. I’m in the Ariel Nomad, and beginning to suspect we’re both out of our depth. Yes, the Nomad as well as me. I know, I know, it’s wearing spikes ’n’ spots and looks about as at home out here as the snowmobile. And around the other cars, the ordinary cars, it looks epic, ready for an expedition to the North Pole. Just hook it up to a team of huskies and say mush. Frame the Nomad against the M5, the NSX, even the Ignis, and it looks Scandi-native.

But now change the frame and view the Nomad against the backdrop of an RX2 ice racer and a Polaris 800 Switchback XCR. Both are products of this environment. They exude fitness for purpose. Snow and ice is all they know, not something they’ve adapted to by bolting on a different set of wheels. Same applies to the humans involved. One is called Mattias Lonn and pulls wheelies (trackies?) on snowmobiles; another is called Kevin Eriksson and he’s famous for performing one the best rallycross moves ever (Google Kevin Eriksson overtake), and the third? Well, he’s adapted to this environment by putting on another layer or two and bringing along a Thermos of tea.

Words: Ollie Marriage

Photography: Mark Riccioni

Engines are revving. Can’t hear the Nomad’s 235bhp 2.4-litre when the Fiesta’s 310bhp 2.4-litre is making a noise that must have aroused every elk in a five-mile radius. Fiestas don’t come with 310bhp 2.4-litre engines. But then this Fiesta isn’t a Fiesta. The snowmobile is a snowmobile, however. It’s also making so much noise the soundwaves are physical. These are being emitted from an 800cc twin. Its pilot is looking worryingly confident.

I did a bit of maths while I was talking to Kevin earlier. RX2 cars have a minimum weight of 1,200kg he told me, which by my reckoning means a power-to-weight ratio of about 250bhp/tonne. That’s pretty good, but the 735kg Nomad has 320bhp/tonne. Two fewer driven wheels, true, but surely I’m in with a shout? At this stage, I haven’t been informed that the Polaris has 145bhp and weighs 200kg, giving it a power-to-weight ratio of 725bhp per tonne. Even now I’m struggling to think of a road car this side of a Koenigsegg or Hennessey that can match that.

So here’s what happened. If you look closely at the opening image of this story, you can see the puffs of snow and ice rising from behind wheels and track, and you can tell the start was fair. Well, what happened afterwards wasn’t. Reader, they left me chewing on their snow.

A second after that image was taken, I knew two things: that I’d lost, and that I didn’t know which way I was going. Turns out a full-bore start in a snowmobile and an RX2 car lifts so much snow into the air, so fast, that anyone attempting to follow has to immediately stop due to being lost in a whiteout. But of course I didn’t stop. I held on to the vain hope that they couldn’t carry on accelerating like that and that the Nomad, now it had traction, would soon reel ’em in.

However, because my rivals are making so much noise, I could tell something else. They were still pulling away. I emerge from the fog to see Mattias pulling some victory donuts. Yes, on the snowmobile. I didn’t even realise that was possible. Then Kevin, far from being disappointed by his second place, joins in, donuting around the outside of the snowmobile. This makes our video crew very happy indeed and makes our health and safety representative turn so white we temporarily lose sight of him against the snow.

How fast was the snowmobile? The course was around 200 metres long. Mattias reckons he was up around the 100mph mark by then. 0–60mph? Something beginning with a two. Clearly I need to have a go. Operation is simplicity itself. Probably more simple than it ought to be for something capable of superbike acceleration. Twist the key to start – it’s single-speed with a centrifugal clutch, so you simply press the thumb throttle and you’re away. I potter about for a bit, getting used to the size and the way the skis steer. I can’t make it change direction anything like as deftly as Mattias, but it’s clear body positioning is crucial – 75kg, even if it’s soft British flesh, makes a difference when the machinery only weighs 200kg. Get your mass forward and the skis bite better, lean in to corners to help the sled stay level and combat the centrifugal forces.

But what I really want to do is nail the throttle from a standstill. This requires some preparation, partly mental, but since I don’t have much imagination, mostly physical. Mattias tells me to hold on tight. Only no, he doesn’t, because he’s Swedish and has a more open approach to risk, “Just go for it!” he grins. Because I love my family and would like to see them again, I decide on a more pragmatic approach. I stop in soft snow (for better traction), grip the heated grips as hard as I can, kick snow off my boots, dig my feet into the metal rails, lean as far forward as I can, square my shoulders, squeeze my buttocks, then run through a mental checklist until the only thing untensed is my right thumb. Then I tense that as well.

The rear squats into its 14 inches of travel, the nose comes up, the exhaust barks and then we’re skating across the surface at what must be eleventy-million mph. Yes, we’re going so fast I’ve reverted to being eight years old. I haven’t felt speed like this in years – so joyful and carefree. Motorbikes are too threatening, cars too isolating, jetskis too rough. This? Surrounded by soft snow and spectacular scenery, this is just dazzling. Mind you, it is noisy enough to make me wonder how long it’ll be before electric snowmobiles are here and wonder if they might be better suited to an environment as silent as this.

The Fiesta that isn’t a Fiesta is currently without most of its bodywork so you can tell just how much of a Fiesta it isn’t. At the front, a few strands of metal hold a thin veneer of fibreglass in approximately the right place. “We can change the car from a Fiesta to a Peugeot 208 just by changing the headlight stickers and grille shape,” Kevin tells me. Under the rear clamshell sits the longitudinally mounted engine, that feeds its power through a Sadev 6spd sequential ’box to all four wheels.

Because the formula is in its infancy and they want to keep costs down, there’s no four-wheel steering, no trick diffs and only limited suspension adjustment. Looking more like something you’d find in a medieval dungeon, the most ridiculously intimidating set of skinny, close-packed spiked tyres transfer power to the ice.

RX2 is the feeder series to World Rallycross. The cars are built by Olsbergs MSE, who, wondering what to do with their racers when rallycross wasn’t happening, came up with RX2 On Ice. I ask Kevin what they have to do to convert them. “Well, we put on a different set of tyres and put in a heated windscreen and that’s about it.” So having said the RX2 was a product of this environment, it turns out the changes are about as extensive as those we’ve applied to the Nomad. Hmm. Nevertheless, Kevin promises there is nothing faster on ice than this. Anywhere. But 310bhp isn’t that much, I counter. “We thought that, so a couple of years back we converted one of the turbo World RX cars to ice specification. 600bhp. And you know what? It was slower! You just couldn’t get the power down as accurately”.

The throttle is hilariously sharp, a brush of boot tread sending the revs soaring. But once you get going, once you get confident, this is utterly addictive. Inside the tin-can cockpit it’s utterly frantic, unsilenced noise, vibration and diff racket, while I’m there bashing the clutchless gearlever, sawing the steering, jabbing the brakes and hooting with laughter. The cornering speeds are beyond ridiculous –you lob it in, nail the throttle, the engine zings, all four wheels spin and you come out bang on line. At every corner. It reminds me of the Hyundai WRC car I drove a couple of years back: astonishing agility, hair-trigger reactions, yet a sense it’s looking after you.

Where does this leave the Nomad? Holding its own, surprisingly. I continue to adore it, to love the way it moves around on these hardcore tyres. So at the end of the day I let Mattias loose in it. Three laps of flapping aerial later, he’s back. And converted, “It’s great, like one of Below Zero’s old 911s – the rear engine helps traction without dragging it too much into oversteer. It could have been designed for this place!” All of which means, I’m the only thing that’s out of place here. Only one thing for it – I’m going to change my name to Olafur.

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