Kris demonstrates, barely moving the steering wheel and powering through each bend on the short track, adjusting the car with the gas. Of course, he’s used to doing this at much higher speeds between trees, so this must be child’s play to him. I’m sure I can get the hang of this. I step into the driver’s seat, confidence brimming. Although I’ve never really drifted, I’ve driven plenty of powerful cars and wagged the tail on lots of them for the cameras. All I’ve got to do is hold the slide and learn to transition between corners. Easy, right?
The GT’s electronic stability control is off, and I put the gearbox into manual – I should be able to do all of this in second gear. There’s a woofle from the exhausts as I move away, trying to gauge how much grip the studded Pirellis will offer. Not a great deal, as it turns out. The front turns in well, the short studs digging into the ice and dragging the nose in towards the apex. But the momentum caused by this change of direction overwhelms the rears quickly, and we’re sliding. Step one achieved.
Step two, however – holding the drift – takes a lot longer for me to learn. All my advanced driving training, and all my track experience in both karts and cars, has taught me that sliding is bad. Sure, it looks good for the cameras, but it slows you down, and it’s to be avoided. Consequently, I’m conditioned to avoid drifts almost instinctively. As soon as I feel the back stepping out, I feather off the throttle and apply opposite lock to catch the slide. And before I know it, I’m facing forward again. This would have been great if I was chasing lap times at the Dubai Autodrome, but it’s no good for drifting.
So I try again. And the same thing keeps happening. I can’t seem to program myself not to correct the slide, and when I consciously focus on what my hands and feet are doing, they get all confused. Barely a lap into my experience, I come out of a slide with the steering facing the wrong way, and ditch the GT into the snowbank. I am embarrassed, but it will not be the only time today.
Every half an hour or so, we change cars, the idea being that by the end of the day we’ll have driven every car in the range. And so I experience not being able to drift properly in the GT V8, the GT W12 and the Flying Spur Speed, before doing the same in the Flying Spur and Continental Supersports. I continue to struggle, and get increasingly annoyed with my inability to get it right. The Flying Spur Speed session is a particular disaster – even though the longer wheelbase means slides are more graceful and the car is slower to shift its weight around, I get barely a single lap in before ditching it again, and have to wait half an hour for the tractor to arrive. The reason for the delay, however, is that he’s busy hauling other people free. Thankfully, it seems I’m not the only one struggling to get the hang of it.
After getting used to applying gas to keep the slide going, the main issue I’m now having is balancing the levels of steering and throttle. Lifting off and turning in gets things sliding, and then applying the throttle spins up all four wheels. Exactly how much throttle I apply determines the angle of the slide and the balance of the car. Basically, more throttle means more angle. I have to wind on opposite lock to start with, and then the throttle takes over. But I keep applying too much lock, and I’m not syncing up the steering with the throttle use – as the gas goes on, the steering should come off. It all feels completely counter intuitive, and usually results in my flailing around from lockstop to lockstop, trying to correct the damage I’ve done with too much steering and all-too-often merely making it worse.
Mark Higgins tells me that I need to anticipate the change of direction faster, and he should know: you may remember this terrifying wobble while trying to break the lap record for a rally car around the Isle of Man TT course. He also teaches me to realise that power is really rather useful with a four-wheel drive car – with a hefty dollop of right foot, the Flying Spur we’re in can haul itself out of seemingly impossible angles. All I need to do is catch it when it comes back. Which I can’t seem to do with any kind of regularity.
With only a day to get it right, I start to feel rather down. Lunch has come and gone, and still I keep getting stuck. And on the final session of the day, in the hardcore Supersports, it happens again – the third time I’ve had to wait for the tractor. And then, with barely an hour remaining until the end of the session, it starts to click. Jamie Morrow tells me to relax, to keep my steering inputs small, and together with the advice from the other instructors, it stars to come together. My brain gets itself into gear and I manage to sync my arms and right foot. Turn, wait, slide, apply opposite lock, gas, unwind the lock, point front wheels at the next corner. Wait for the back end to swing round, apply lock, gas, unwind the lock. Suddenly the rhythm is there, I know what the Bentley is going to do and how it’ll react, and I can finally control it, even with the shorter wheelbase and huge amounts of power. Let’s face it, none of the cars are particularly lacking in grunt, but the Supersports is easily the most responsive and eager. It’s a superb feeling, sliding gracefully through a bend, holding it, and then seamlessly moving into the next corner. I can see why drifters find it addictive – it’s like golf. Maddening, but I just want to keep doing it.
Of course, I’m by no means perfect. A passenger lap with Juha confirms that – he barely moves his hands, and chats nonchalantly about his world-record-breaking run in the exact car we’re in, when he hit more than 330kph on ice. All the while, we’re gliding around the track, never in a straight line and always sideways. To watch his hands, you’d think he was manoeuvring around a supermarket car park. It’s a humbling experience, but I’m nevertheless delighted with my progress.
There follows, for us and for regular customers, a dogsled tour and a visit to a reindeer farm, all of which will no doubt delight those that have shelled out for the holiday. Later, I have the pleasure of heading to a dodgy karaoke bar in the town of Ruka, where Mark Higgins showcases his lungs with a rousing rendition of the Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love as Kris reminisces about his time in the WRC and Juha fends off a line of adoring locals. I’m not sure paying guests get to enjoy that particular unofficial extra to the trip. But that doesn’t mean that if I end up with a big cash windfall, I won’t be heading back to the ice as soon as possible. For sheer driving enjoyment, not much comes close.
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