Dissecting a fast lap with Matthias Kahle
The plain and simple truth is, I can't see where I am going. The light has fallen fast at the ice track in Arvidsjaur, the air is cold and dry and I'm beginning to believe that my contact lenses will soon be permanently frozen onto my pupils. To counter this, I decide it's a good idea to blink a lot. That just makes it all worse. I can't distinguish between the white of the ice track and the white of the snowbanks, and just when I think there's a distinct possibility that I ought to be going flat out on this stretch, the highly experienced ice driving wizard sitting to my right screams. "Where do you want to go?!"
Of course, at that point I think it must be some sort of motivational spiel that is meant to get me to push the throttle down with the sort of firmness that says, "I want to go to my destination and I want to go there fast!" So push the throttle down I do only to find the ice driving wizard now screaming "Brake! Brake!". There also appears to be a pair of hands grappling with the steering wheel and wrenching it right. And as the car turns, and we have one of the latest apexes in the history of apexes, snow flying everywhere, I realise "Aaaah! So that's where I was meant to be going!". Just in case I hadn't made it clear before, this figuring out which white stuff you're meant to put your tyres on, and which white stuff you're meant to avoid, is quite the conundrum, especially in the low light.
Ensuring the nose of the car sticks to the inside line at all times is one of the best ways to make sure you're driving the ideal line
Let's rewind a little though. What was I doing careening around an ice track in a Volkswagen Golf R in any case? Well, sometimes it's the small matter of being at the right place at the right time. In this case, the right place happened to be a frozen lake in Arvidsjaur, Sweden. And the right time happened to be precisely when one instructor from the Volkswagen Driving Experience was looking to teach another instructor, with the help of a test student, exactly how the course worked. In retrospect, I realise that I needn't have waved my arm quite so hard in order for them to pick me to be the aforementioned test student because, well, there was quite simply no one else around. But it isn't every day that you stumble upon a huddle of ice driving wizards, especially not ones who are keen on imparting their magical wisdom. And if one of those instructors happens to be Matthias Kahle, seven-time German National Rally Champion, with years and years of experience going flat out on racetrack and rally stage alike, a smidgen of enthusiasm is allowed.
Don't those ice tracks look terrific?
There are a few basics that I am told I need to get right at the very beginning. The first is that you need to be fully connected to your car. Of course, you can choose to look into the car's headlights and have a long heart to heart conversation about life, the universe and everything. But more than that, you need to make sure that your seat is positioned absolutely correctly. The more contact you have with the car - shoulders pressed firmly into the backrest, feet that are able to depress the pedals completely, without you needing to lean forward, and hands that are bent at an angle that allows you to turn the steering, without getting uncomfortable - the better it is. The tyres register whether there's enough grip or not, and this is relayed to you via the steering wheel. If it is too loose, you have no grip. So pay attention. Listen carefully.
Ice driving wizard say:"Listen to the voices in your head if it's the car that's speaking to you."
We then head over to a vast expanse of ice with neat little orange sticks drilled into it. Just how much can a slalom teach you, even if it is on ice, I wonder. Well, evidently a lot. It is an exercise that is meant to make you slip up if you aren't careful, and it's meant to teach you precision along the way by training your eyes and your mind. You need to focus on the gaps and make it a point to steer your car towards those gaps. If you look right at them, you're likely to end up taking one of them along with you, handily packed into your car's front grille. Not something you'll want. And you're meant to concentrate one hundred per cent on what you're doing. Which is why you'll want to make sure, after about 40 repetitions of this, that you don't let your mind take a stroll to take in the sights. I'm also wishing, as the car tosses from side to side, that I hadn't had quite so big a lunch.
Ice driving wizard say: "We're not driving on the beautiful sunset. So stop looking at it."
Don't be alarmed if you end up going 'whump' into the snow banks on more than one occassion as one of the other rather experienced students managed
Then it's on to the endless corner. What's an endless corner, you ask? When you think about it, it's really rather simple. An endless corner is a circle, and it's this circle that I'm told will teach me absolutely everything there is to learn about entering and exiting a corner the right way. "Go on then," I'm told. So off I go. But, somehow I'm beginning to get the feeling that I'm not doing the same thing that Matthias did. When he demonstrated how one tackle this circle, it was a smooth seemingly endless drift, with the nose of the car always at the very inside of the corner. I think I'm drifting, in that the car is going sideways, but the nose of the car isn't always smack dab towards the inside of the corner. I'm running wide, and on occasion with a gentle 'whump' sound, I'm in the snow wall. The more I run wide, the greater the distance I go, and the more time I take. Which means I'm losing time instead of gaining it. Which, quite simply put, is rubbish. I'm told I must first set my steering angle in such a way that the car points to the inside of the corner all through. And I'm not meant to deviate from that position. Then, I'm meant to control the car with just the throttle. On the throttle to get it moving, and then a steady foot to keep inside the corner. The minute I feel the car running wide, just ease off the throttle and it comes right back where I want it. Catching a drift and then holding it. That is quite something. And I'm beginning to have fun and get rather comfortable. But I have a feeling it isn't going to last.
The many moods of an ice driving wizard
Ice driving wizard say: "To be really fast on the track, stay slow enough."
Of course it doesn't last. Just when I think I'm getting pretty good at this drifting business, and getting the hang of driving this endless circle, the ice driving wizards introduce another endless circle. I'm meant to switch between the two circles now, flicking the car from one to the other. Of course, at my first attempt, things get very sideways and very, very wrong. When I try to brake and flick the car from one circle to the next, I find that I am pointing in entirely the wrong direction. And then in the process of correcting that, I spin. "Modulate the throttle and learn when to keep your steering straight," I'm told, like it's the simplest thing on earth. So I start going a little slower, trying to understand what the lesson is here. No, I don't figure any of it on my own, but then again, I have help. That too from someone who wasn't of legal age when he decided to steal his grandpappy's Trabant to practice driving and in the process terrorised the townspeople years before he became a multiple rally champion. So we do this again. I'm in the corner, catching the drift when I come to the point where I can see the exit. And here I am meant to straighten the steering wheel, and go flat out before braking to enter the next circle. The ultimate lesson in this exercise is that speed also lies in braking at the right time - a short, precise jab of the pedal, and getting back on the power at the right time too. And that you must create a straight wherever you can.
Boy, he can drive a mean lap!
Ice driving wizard say: "Be a straight seeker. Go flat out. And don't get cocky."
These, I am told, are the basics. The snow is now falling fast, and the conditions at the ice track have changed. Parts of it that once exhibited extreme amounts of grip, now cause the car to roll around the place, much like the behaviour a drop of water might exhibit on the back of a duck. Feels like driving on oil to me, something that I'm not all too thrilled with. But of course, those ice driving wizards are excited. Catching their drifts here and there, comparing the lines they took to tackle various corners, and generally gadding about with smiles on their faces. They nod to each other, yes, the tenderfoot must start driving the whole track. No more of the braking and slalom and circle and drifting for her. The whole track. Gulp.
So once again, off I go. I learn by imitation and instruction in this case. And it isn't easy. Of course, I have in theory learned what goes into a fast lap. Keeping the points in mind seems simple enough. You need to stay focussed. You need to look where you want to go. You need to brake precisely and then turn the car in. You need to accelerate just a wee bit, under thirty per cent, to get you towards the apex, by the time you hit the apex you can be on the throttle sixty per cent, and when you exit you can move from sixty to one hundred per cent. You need to be able to identify that the shortest distance between two corners is a straight line and you need to mash the throttle on this straight line and make up a heck of a lot of time. But more than anything else I am learning that I have the attention span and reflexes of a rather inebriated bumblebee. Which is what leads to moments like the ice driving wizard screaming at me and asking where I want to go.
Ice driving wizard say: "You are the most important fuse between the car and a fast time."
So how does someone like me go from just assimilating the theory of a fast lap, to actually driving fast. Well, you need to repeat the story, is what I'm told. So while those ice driving wizards are out bettering each others' lap times and generally being rev-happy, I have a rather miserable expression. I want to get better, but I want to get better fast. And I am beginning to feel a little like Daniel LaRusso when he's made to 'Wax on, wax off'. When I manage to do five runs, I have dropped my time by two minutes. But it's the last ten seconds or so that I realistically can make up that elude me. Because every time I am on my way to setting a halfway decent time, I make some tiny error and end up with the exact same lap time once again.
"Don't worry. If you want to get a black belt, you need to repeat a punch one billion times," one of the ice driving wizards says to me before wandering away to do whatever it is that people as quick as him do when they need to relax. And I'm sitting there wondering how the deuce he knew that I was making Karate Kid comparisons in my head.
A few days later, after having all of this ice driving knowledge sink into my head, I am sitting with Walter Rohrl. And given who it is that I am speaking to, it is hard not to ask him what he believes a fast lap is made of. His words are simple. "A fast lap must first of all be a clean line. That is you must not go sideways, you must go straight ahead. And if there's one secret in car driving, it is this - steer as less as possible."
Matthias says the same thing to me. You need to find speed, and this is a combination of acceleration and traction. But you need to reduce resistance, which means you need to brake and steer precisely. And then, finally, I am given the dragon scroll of a fast lap -
Ice driving wizard say: "To be fast, do as much as necessary, and as less as possible."
Images by Vaishali Dinakaran