Vice on Ice

Audi Quattro vs frozen lake

-20 degrees on the weather app is more ominous a number than I’ve ever seen on my smartphone, but it strangely hasn’t put a seatbelt on my excitement. I’ve signed up for three days of drifting, on ice, on a frozen lake, 250kms north of the Arctic Circle in Finland…sounds like an unmissable event. Even if it means losing bits and bobs to a Finnish frostbite! This is the Audi Ice Experience, usually filed under the “Bucket List” category.

It all starts with KBC level fastest-finger-first round of online reservations, since the seats for an experience like this are understandably limited. But, Audi instructors collectively coach around 800 lucky participants every year, with typical groups consisting of 20 students. So it’s a better scenario than the Formula One grid for sure.

After a brief classroom theory session on the laws of physics that involved the all-critical weight transfer dynamics that come into play when drifting on ice, the exuberance to get behind the wheel was replaced with profound concentration. Thankfully, the temperature doesn’t allow for sweaty palms, so you can still smile and get behind the wheel with all the bravado of an 8-yr old jumping into a bumping car arena. Or the nervousness. Depending on the module you select, you can either spend 2.5 or 3.5 days behind the wheel of the car.

How to get there

When you sign up for an Audi Ice Experience, the package includes flights from Germany. There on, flights to Finland could be through Helsinki or directly into Kittila, which is the closest airport to Muonio. A small province in Lapland with an even smaller population, Muonio is home to many lakes, most of which are frozen solid in the winter months. The drive to Muonio is about an hour away by road. Airport pick-up cabs can be booked 24hrs prior to your arrival at Kittila.

Audi’s formidable RS4 Avant was the weapon handed to me and the group. With 450hp and 600Nm piped through its Quattro four-wheel drive system, the sports wagon had almost 10 kilometers  of ice to show us who’s boss. And clearly I wasn’t ready to be one just yet. There are other drive experience locations scattered across Europe too but like all things that are under the jurisdiction of mother nature, schedules can change depending on weather conditions and more importantly, the quality of ice. Frozen lakes in the Nordic region rarely misbehave though and the one prepared by Audi for our particular experience was in the Muonio region of Finland. With a robust sheet of frozen freshwater, approximately 1.6mts thick, the first view of a frozen lake that would serve as a private playground for three days is unforgettable. Any trepidation you may feel is quickly dismissed by the cheeky “Quattro Only” warning sign combined with the knowledge that you are indeed behind the wheel of one!

With strong winds over the frozen lake constantly changing the surface conditions of the makeshift tracks, predictability isn’t one of the characteristics of this experience. Nevertheless, the able instructors with more than 50 years of performance driving experience between them left no snow unmarked in the quest to get us up to speed. Pun intended. Having established the inextricable relationship between minute steering inputs, throttle feathering and precise braking points, we were set off to practice on an oval track dug out by the tractor at hand. Rule number one was “Turn ESC Off”! The idea was to master the art of controlled drifting on ice which then would allow you to flow from corner to corner much more fluidly out on the tracks. It’s a lot more tricky than it sounds, with the car having to be exactly at the right speed, in the right gear, with just the right amount of steering lock going into the corner.

A series of S-bends on a short track allow you to put all the theory into practice and the watchful eyes of the instructors never misses a wrong move, whether it’s incorrect steering input or not enough power. Too much power is the easy mistake to make and if you get struck by the spirit of Ken Block, you may end up in the snow banks. This is where the ice drive experience is different from ANY other kind of driver training…you almost cannot damage the car even if you tried. A fresh layer of icing almost every night means that the snowbanks are always mushy with fresh powder.

Try to give the overhead drones a money shot and you’ll end up in snow deep enough where Quattro territory ends and tractor territory begins. Help though, is just a radio signal away. The resident tractor is summoned instantly and tows you out in minimal time so you can get back out on the ice, honing your craft. But there is a price to pay for this ultimate convenience, in the form of shame. The stoic tractor driver unfailingly punches a hole in your lanyard that also doubles up as a scoresheet of your performance and needless to say, the more holes you have on your lanyard at the end of the course, the lower your head tends to hang.

But this doesn't mean that the Audi Ice Experience is a boot camp. Far from it in fact. Besides getting unlimited laps, the package also includes a snow scooter tour across the iced landscape, traversing along forests, rivers and lakes…all frozen of course. It’s an experience that goes beyond just dancing on ice, giving you a crash course on Finnish culture, food and if you’re lucky enough, even a sighting of the surreal Northern Lights.

Back on the snowy track, as you progress from being a rookie to well, less of a rookie, you start appreciating the Audi’s Quattro system more with every slithery turn. On the icy surface, without the safety net of traction control, the ability of the differential to transfer power to the wheels with grip and power out of a turn in the blink of an eye is more than impressive. It is unbelievable. It’s an eye-opener, especially for a Audi Quattro owner because you can’t experience this legendary systems capability in this controlled a manner anywhere else in the world and certainly not on your daily office commute. The RS4 Avant may not be sold in India anymore, but the Quattro system it uses is identical to the other RS models that are and if you’re a lucky owner or a curious enthusiast, even the 2.5 days is enough to realise the systems full potential and your own too. Practice does make perfect though and you most definitely might want to come back for more once you get the hang of making a full circle on ice, completely sideways. It’s exhilarating, satisfying and totally addictive.

Whether you want to enhance your driving skills or simply be a part of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the Audi Ice Experience goes beyond just the cars. But in the end, I came back with a new found respect for all things Quattro and that just proves how accomplished the RS4 is on the most challenging of terrains. To mix things up a bit, the session was ended with a few laps in the RS e-Tron GT all-electric sportscar too and that was a completely different kettle of fish. With a higher power output, more direct torque delivery and added weight of the batteries, it only whetted the appetite for another three days of mastering the art of drifting on snow. It’s a delicate dance of patience, concentration and commitment, all of which will require me to go back again. And again.