It’s a tough job, this. Ok, no. It really isn’t, it’s great, but it is more complicated than you would think because, I’ve said this over and over again and I’ll never stop repeating myself, this is a writing job. Sometimes I spend days, weeks actually, agonizing over words and synonyms to use and their meanings. And I still get it wrong. Writing is a skill and like any talent it has to be trained and can be honed, but you’re either born with it or you’re not. Much like everything else. Like waiting, or public speaking, or driving, or making tyres.
After a few hours in Northern Finland, you begin to understand why the Finns are so good at driving. This is a cold and icy land and while our drive to the office is merely a matter of reading a couple of road signs and sitting and waiting at the light, theirs is different. Ice is predictable but unforgiving and it’s funny, in a way. I don’t know if you’ve ever lost control of your car on ice, I hope not, but if you have you’ll know it will happen suddenly and slowly at the same time. One second you have grip, the next you lose it, and you understand immediately you’ve lost it, which is why it is predictable, you don’t really have to guess as the car quietly but inevitably steers into the nearest tree and there’s really not much you can do about it, the car slides and glides and slips and it’s unforgiving. You can brake, accelerate, steer, do what you want but in the end ice driving is a bit like binge drinking: the only effective cure is prevention.
I’m in Ivalo, Lapland. Santa’s on holiday and so I’m staying at his hotel, Santa’s Hotel Tunturi in Saariselkä. A big, wooden structure with open spaces and saunas in each room. Not even Las Vegas hotels have an individual sauna in every room. A stone’s throw from Saariselkä, after a short drive made even shorter by the racing driver we’ve been assigned as a bus driver, there is the White Hell, a winter testing facility divided into 2 separate areas where tyres are tested and stressed to the point of molecular exhaustion to make sure they perform as they should. They do, even when driving on ice at a million miles an hour you feel in control, but then again speed and ice are two very fluid concepts in Finland as the receptionist at the hotel explains eagerly; she’s a very quick driver, too.
At White Hell, after being briefed by racing drivers, and after being shown around the place by a different shuttle driver, he’s also a very quick driver, I’m handed the keys to four VW Golfs, each with a different set of tyres. We begin with the exhilarating summer tyres. The car makes a lot of different noises and does a lot of different things, none of which include actually moving forward. I’m supposed to reach 40 kph and then brake which is simply impossible because of the lack of traction (they know it is, that’s part of the test) on these summer tyres. Best I can do is around 30 kph, I hit the brakes… and nothing much happens because the ice is too smooth and flat. I stop, eventually, after about 100 yards, and get into the VW Golf equipped with the Mittel-Europe tyres. Little difference under braking, still requires a lot of space, tangible difference when setting off. Then, after the Nordic tyres, I have a go with the Nordic extreme tyres and it’s as though I’d been driving on smooth tarmac the whole time. The car starts, stops, grips and brakes normally and I only know I’m on ice because absolutely everything around me is white.
After lunch, the chef too is probably a racing driver, it’s the Audis. I have pines and forest and white ice and snow and a bright sky in front of me, and a few Audis at my disposal. We begin with the silver Q5, which is a bit cumbersome and bulky. The ice racetrack is quick, with long sweeping bends, which allows for decent pace and speed but you know the drill with these crossover SUVs, they can go fast, you just can tell they don’t really want to. The traction control system is constantly cutting in and adjusting and correcting, the car goes sideways and then back straight and it does all of that pretty much on its own; partly because the electronics are constantly interfering, but chiefly because the tyres are very grippy. Things change, for the better, in the white Audi RS5, the red Audi RS5 and the yellow Audi RS4 (the only manual car here).
These cars, especially the RS5s that are newer, have a very clever 4x4 system, the Quattro system, that essentially uses the “brain” of the car to provide the best possible grip at all times. On the shorter, more complicated ice circuit that’s been selected for the sporty Audis the feeling is much better, especially with the RS5. The car feels composed, and I’m not a very good driver which means that it must be down to the car and the tyres. My co-pilot, test driver for Nokian and a racing driver, takes the traction control off and says I should have one more lap so, having gained a bit of confidence with the first lap; I try to get the car to misbehave but it simply won’t. Quattro system too good, tyres too grippy.
Then we get to the most interesting part of the test, the slalom with the cones. Theoretically, I’m supposed to accelerate as fast as I can in the red RS5, then brake when I go past the first set of cones and handle the slide under braking. Easier said than done because there’s simply no slide. The car just decelerates and stops. To be honest, I may have misheard what the instructor from Nokian said, he’s another racing driver, because when he said “accelerate, then brake and control slide”, what I heard was “go out and drift on ice”. Which is what I did. With the RS5 on Nokian Tyres you get endless grip and then when you feel you’re about to lose it, you just press the throttle gently and on you go for another 100 yards. It’s hilarious. Slide and drift, accelerate, steer past the cone, drift in the opposite direction, accelerate, steer past the cone, drift in the opposite direction… ok. You got it.
Then we get to the cherry on the top of our cake. Nokian Tyres currently holds the world speed record on ice, achieved when Janne Laitinen, Finnish racing driver, reached 355 kph (208 mph) at the wheel of an Audi RS6 on Nokian Hakkapeliitta studded tyres. Well, that very car is here and we’ll be driven around, well in a straight line actually, in it at 260 kph (approximately 160 mph). By yet another racing driver of course. It’s a weird feeling. The white panorama around me becomes a fading blur of whiteness, the car wobbles and moves around while I’m deep and planted in this incredibly uncomfortable bucket seats with the 5-point harness seat belt. I step out of the car and it feels odd, it was very exciting but somehow didn’t feel remotely dangerous. I soak it all, including the pungent smell of burnt petrol.
Horsepower and brakes make very little difference on ice, traction is important and weight is crucial, but it’s the tyres that make all the difference. The different feeling between regular tyres and Nokian Nordic winter tyres was frankly incredible. They’re both tyres, they’re both made mostly of rubber, they both keep rolling and they both go on cars. But that’s a bit like saying that you can dine both with a cheap wine in the carton box and/or a Cabernet Sauvignon.
photo credit: Alessandro Renesis
I’ve learnt a few things in Finland. I’ve learnt how to say hi, thank you and beer, the three most important words in any language if you ask me, but more importantly I’ve learnt, the hard way, that you can’t outdrink the Finnish, and you can’t outrun them because they’re faster than you. And you can’t beat their Winter Tyres because they’re just better at it, and they’re very good at making Winter Tyres because they were born, carved, sculptured, moulded, shaped by the cold and the ice. I was given a certificate to commemorate and celebrate the experience, a sturdy, nice little wooden sheet that acknowledges my participation and certifies that I’m Northproof, I’m very happy with it but there’s no getting away that in these northern, glacial skyline I’m a tourist, a visitor. They call the shots. And run the show.