As the temperature plummets in Northern Finland, the landscape crystallises and sets the scene for another wonderful winter period, the engineers at Nokian Tyres make themselves ready for another season of thorough winter testing at Finland’s most enduring winter testing facilities, amusingly named the White Hell. A name that wasn’t chosen for a reason and funny enough indirectly relates to that other test track in the hills of the German Eiffel.
The Ivalo Testing Center was my destination for two days experiencing the perfect winter wonderland 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle where Nokian Tyres, the northernmost tire manufacturer in the World, tests their winter tires rigorously on snow, ice and slush. Experienced test drivers put the tires’ performance to the limit in uncompromising tests in order to separate the best tires from the rest of the competition.
The journey started 120 years ago in Helsinki, when the Finnish Rubber Factory was founded. Initially, the company only manufactured galoshes and technical rubber products, but this changed after the factory was moved 200 kilometers North, to the town of Nokia six years later and the passenger car tire production was launched in 1932. In 1934, Nokian produced the world’s first ever winter tire, called the “Kelirengas”. Two years later, the first Hakkapeliitta tire was born and became internationally known at the legendary Monte Carlo rallies in the 1950s and 1960s. The cars equipped with studded Kometa-Hakkapeliittas dominated the snowy and icy mountain roads.
Since then, this tire has been with us for the last 80 years and created a name for itself as being the number one winter tire in the world. Any petrol head should be familiar with this snow tire, which carries a name that requires some kind of training to pronounce. The current studded Hakkapeliitta tire with hardened metal tips was created in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, the non-studded tire came to life and offered better driving comfort.
Initially, the most important properties for winter tires were structural durability and grip on icy and snowy roads. They were designed for challenging environments where the road conditions could vary and were only developed with winter conditions in mind. Over the years, our roads changed considerably and road maintenance services offered us more favorable and safer situations for the driver and their passengers. Not only offering changes to the roads, but also cars are in an entirely different class when compared to the early days of the tire industry. This required the development of a tire which improved the handling and grip of vehicles, while also valuing the eco-friendliness and materials used along with looking into subjects like low rolling resistance and low noise levels.
While we leave the history of the winter tire behind us, it is time to go back to Ivalo, the home of the company’s own testing center spanning over 700 hectares and with more than 30 different test tracks. The White Hell is unique place on its own, created in the mid-1980s, it has gained the reputation of the most rigorous, largest, most complex and most extreme natural tire testing center in the world. A place I was allowed to visit on a Wednesday afternoon in March, just before the season ended.
Nokian Tyres made sure that within the four different daily tests we got a good overview of the sheer capabilities of their tires while also enjoying the ease of driving on ice and snowy roads. Not something I would normally experience on a daily basis as a resident of a central European country. The most interesting test was the one in which three similar front-wheel drive Volkswagen Golfs where outfitted with Nokian’s latest lineup of winter (WR D4), snow (Hakkapeliitta R3) and studded tires (Hakkapeliitta 9). The sheer difference between each of the three vehicles driving across icy and snowy roads at speed of up to 40 kmh was remarkable. The stopping distances and steering abilities showed clear differences between each of the tires, providing you, as a driver a clear understanding that there is an immense difference between a winter tire required for central European countries, a snow tire for Nordic countries and studded tires used in ultimate winter conditions in the Alps, Russia and the Arctic areas.
The event in the Finnish winter wonderland not only provided us a great insight into tires, but it also marked the release of Nokian’s new WR SUV 4 tire, a really important product for the brand, which operates in an automotive market that is aiming at up to 50% of new SUVs sold. The new tire is specifically developed for Central European SUV drivers offering the best performance on snow, slush and in heavy rain. Not something we were able to test in the area of Saariselkä, the northernmost holiday resort in the world, but definitely characteristics that will benefit drivers when they drive on speedy autobahns, busy urban traffic or scenic Alpine roads. Instead, our SUVs outfitted with the WR SUV 4 tire were driven on snowy and icy roads on and near the testing center.
The winter experience in Saariselkä, Finland not only offered me a first taste of Nokians finest rolling rubber, but it also gave me the ability to indulge myself in a combination of the finest Arctic delicacies, a unique husky safari and millions of stars illuminating the night sky, alongside the Northern Lights, one of nature’s most spectacular phenomenon’s. On average the Aurora Borealis appears in the sky around 200 times per year and we were lucky enough that a clear sky allowed us to experience one of most special spectacles in its full glory.
After two days in the winter wonderland, this Arctic experience showed once again that there is an unique area in this world where not only the glorious, breathtaking white landscape is the main incentive to travel North for you as a petrol head. There is also the urge to have fun and the prospect of experiencing sporty driving on snow and ice from a completely new perspective: that of the driver's seat with Nokian Tyres being one of the best companions in these demanding conditions.