Walking out onto the tarmac in the small Finnish town of Levi, just this side of the Arctic Circle, I quickly realise jeans and a T-shirt weren’t really cutting it, and putting my big jacket in my bag may have been a mistake.
I’ve flown to the top of the world to claim a prize, and it’s a pretty cool one. Literally! I’ve been invited by Porsche Australia to take part in its three-day Ice-Force S course, as part of the Porsche Driving Experience. I’m here because I managed to put my No Second Chance 911 into the top three of the Australian Porsche Carrera Cup Championship last year.
By plane, Levi is 1.5 hours north of Helsinki. Flying into the Finnish capital, and with snow as far as the eye can see, it dawned upon me that I’m not in Broadwater, Queensland, anymore. Coming from the Gold Coast, there aren’t many days where the temperature even drops into single figures.
On to Levi and the facility Porsche uses is quite new, and far enough north to ensure there’s a solid surface of ice to slide on, and less-solid mounds of fluffy snowbanks to hit, whenever needed.
I’m not just here with a few motor racing mates, though – a group of 15 Aussies are here as customers to put a range of Porsches through their paces on the slippery stuff. Many of them have been coming up for several years, so there must be something to it.
Before we got into the course proper, though, we do what comes as naturally to Finns as motorcycling does to Aussies – snowmobiling. The landscapes up here are hard to describe for this humble driving instructor, but it felt like being on the set of a Hollywood blockbuster movie. The place is so vast and the colours so incredible. It’s absolutely like nothing I’ve ever seen ever before. Incredibly special.
First things first: hanging with a bunch of car nuts wouldn’t be complete without a trip to a go-kart track… except this ice-covered circuit is nothing like the tracks I’ve driven on. The young guy who ran the place had a deal going: if you could beat him, you drove for free.
I’m a big fan of the word ‘free’, so I took him up on the offer. “Are you sure?” said young mate with the confidence of youth. “I’ve had 7000 people through here, and I’ve never been beaten.” We’ll see, shall we?
The Finnish kid and I lined up on the back of the grid for our first race. With several Carrera Cup and Australian GT racers in front, I was reasonably confident of carnage on the first corner. And... I was right. To be honest, I did my fair share of punting people off into the snow banks, but hey, there was money on the line!
I somehow found myself at the front by the end of the first lap, with the young Finnish guy in second right behind me. He had a good look up the inside a couple of times but I managed to beat him, becoming the first guy in 7000 people to drive for free. I like to think that Finnish and Australian ties were strengthened as a result, but young mate didn’t look super happy afterwards.
The course proper turned out to be nothing like what I expected. In my racing driver job, my main focus is finding and managing grip – and snow and ice don’t seem to offer much of that.
I’d spoken to a couple of other Porsche instructors, who had been over here a few years earlier, to hear their thoughts. Other than a few pointers you might be able to pick up, though, it’s one of those scenes that nothing can prepare you for it until you actually do it.
Lined up on the swept ice in front of the huts we were stationed at was an array of Stuttgart’s finest, including the Cayman GTS, Turbo S, GT3, Panamera, and even Carrera Cup cars. I’m pretty familiar with the Cup cars, but on ice? And, to experience the new 918 from the passenger seat would be the “icing” on the “frozen” cake.
In the spirit of jumping right into the cold deep end, I climbed aboard the 911 Turbo S. I know the car very well from doing stuff back in Australia, but what amazed me straight away was how much grip the standard winter tyres had and how forgiving they were. It’s very controllable in everything that you do.
It’s much slower on ice than on the tarmac, but there is still a huge amount of control available to the driver. As with all kinds of driving, your inputs have to be smooth and precise. It’s no different from what I do on the track back home. Now, it’s just on a cold and frozen surface.
The most fun car out there? Probably the Cayman GTS. The turbo Porsche and the GT3 had winter tyres with 4mm spikes and about 300 spikes per tyre. The Cayman GTS had 5mm spikes and about 380 spikes per tyre. The tyre difference between the cars was the real deciding factor as it gave the car more grip and improved the ability to do more and get away with it.
The Cup car was another level again. It had a proper rally winter-studded tyres, so the grip was just… insane. It had so much more grip than I ever believed possible in such conditions. The acceleration was probably the biggest eye-opener in the Cup car. You could feel it bite into the ground so hard. Even coming out of a second gear hairpin, the level of acceleration was unbelievable.
The grip of the Cup car could be compared to the grip a normal road car has in dry conditions on a race track. It was just incredible. And, the ability to throttle-skid the car mid-corner and have it react and be so precise was just amazing in terms of the amount of feedback the car would still give you in those conditions. I never believed it possible to have that much grip.
What impressed me most, though, was how much the other people on the course got out of it. A lot of them are business people who might do track days or some club racing. They find that snow and ice driving helps them sharpen up, and it gives them confidence that when the car starts to slide, they know what they need to do.
The way that the course is done, with all the safety and the professionalism, allows participants to push the cars hard. The only punishment for mistakes is everyone else laughs and takes photos of them stuck in the snow bank, while they wait for the Cayenne to tow them out.
It’s a very social experience, as well. The second night we visit a big igloo called the Snow Dome. The chairs, tables, everything inside is basically ice, including massive sculptures. Thankfully the service was fast because it wasn’t exactly the Gold Coast in there.
After three days of freezing fun, and a 36-hour flight home, I’m back out in front of the Movie World crowd in 32-degree heat the same day I land. I have to take a minute to re-adjust the internal-grip clock to suit the sticky, rubbery arena surface.
If you’re looking for an awesome way to sharpen up your sliding skills and to have a genuine once-in-a-lifetime experience on ice – and, err, can afford it – they don’t come much more unique than this.