A FLURRY OF SNOWFLAKES greets me as I rush down the aircraft steps towards the warmth of the terminal, my face feeling as if flayed by icy razor blades, my teeth chattering and my fingers and toes fast becoming numb, in spite of gloves and two layers of socks. The spring equinox may already have come and gone, but up here in Lapland it's as brutally cold as on any midwinter night.
It's 10pm in Arvidsjaur, a remote Swedish community that lies within a glacial landscape of low hills, lakes and fir trees just south of the Arctic Circle. A centre for all manner of outdoor pursuits, this little town of fewer than 5,000 people offers skiing, sledding and ice-skating to winter visitors, while during the short northern summer, when for several weeks it's round-the-clock daylight, there's trekking, fishing, camping and even golf.
My arrival in late March is for none of the above, however, as Arvidsjaur is also a favoured destination for the world's automobile industry, a place where for several decades the manufacturers of cars, tyres and components have subjected their products to the rigours of the Arctic winter. For when the surrounding lakes – and there are literally hundreds of them – freeze solid between November and April, these flat expanses of ice become an ideal testing ground for brakes, tyres, traction control, stability and other key systems, as well as for monitoring overall vehicle reliability in temperatures well below zero. It's also in environments such as this that Scandinavians have traditionally learned to perfect the art of car control – an expertise that time and again has elevated Finns and Swedes to the pinnacles of international motor sport.
Testimony to the continual comings and goings of personnel from Stuttgart, Munich, Wolfsburg and Ingolstadt are the welcome desks bearing the logos of Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volkswagen and Audi (my own flight from Stockholm is carrying a team from Continental tyres) in Arvidsjaur's compact air terminal. Companies such as these take “ownership” of a particular lake, where they conduct their activities, and build rest and catering facilities on the shore. When these are not being used by vehicle testers and technicians, they're made available for customer driving-experience courses.
This explains my presence here – and that of 13 other auto enthusiasts from Hong Kong. We've signed up for a three-day Audi Ice Experience programme to learn the finer points of piloting a motor car on ice. We're staying at the Clarion Collection Arvidsjaur hotel, a clutch of pretty wooden houses surrounded by birch trees, close to the centre of town. From here, each morning we drive a fleet of red Audi S4 Avant estate cars – in a sedate convoy with ESP traction control fully engaged – to nearby lake Kilver for a day's intensive training on the ice, returning to the hotel late each afternoon.
Although it's virtually indistinguishable from an A4 Avant and wouldn't warrant a second glance on the street, the S4 is both an accomplished high-performance car and an ideal tool for the kind of activity we're about to embark on. Under the bonnet sits a supercharged V6 engine that produces a gutsy 328bhp, but equally important for our purposes is its quattro all-wheel-drive system. The latter's rearward bias endows the Avant with a discernibly sporting mien and, as we're about to discover, should prove a boon for the kind of driving techniques that we're hoping to master. As to why they've selected an estate over the regular, three-box S4 saloon, it's simply down to selling cars: the Avant is the preferred S4 model in Europe.
To our great good fortune, the morning after our arrival the clouds lift and though the mercury refuses to rise much above minus 10 in the shade, for the next three days the snowy landscape basks in bright sunlight under blue skies. Indeed, we can almost manage to remain outside of the cars for several minutes without heavy jackets. Various courses across the lake, which is around 3km long and perhaps 300 metres across at its widest point, have been ploughed free of snow by a large tractor, which also stands ready to pull us back onto the track in the event – highly likely, it seems to me – that we go off-piste.
Our schedule is pretty much the same for the next three days: two sessions of instruction each morning and afternoon with a short coffee break in between, and roughly an hour for a hot lunch served in a cosy wooden lakeside tipi. For each new track, instructors Stefan Eichhorner and Jerry Ählin – experienced rally drivers in their respective countries of Austria and Sweden – adopt the same routine: playing follow-my-leader, we first learn the layout by driving with ESP turned on. Once familiar with the course, we then switch it off and attempt to get round on our own.
This, of course, is where we all start slipping, sliding and spinning around – and, as predicted, crashing into the snow banks, keeping the long-suffering tractor driver constantly busy dragging us off. It's great fun, relatively harmless to both car and occupants, and has us all laughing like idiots. But as the aim is to get round the course as quickly as possible, it's hardly the point of the exercise. I'm not sure when the eureka moment comes. It's certainly not on the first day, when I pussyfoot around without too much drama but with way too little speed. But at some point during the second morning I start thinking that I may just be getting the hang of it.
Whenever I approach a corner – and remember this is happening in split seconds – I make a small steering input so the car's nose points in towards the apex, at the same dabbing sharply on the brake. This swings out the tail and rebalances the car's momentum. I then increase the revs to around 3,000, while counter-steering both to prevent a spin and keep me moving forwards. Assuming this has worked, it means I should be travelling through the corner sideways, which ought to have me pointing in exactly the right direction for the exit. Doubtless the experts would be horrified at my technique, but my hamfisted efforts do at least appear to serve as some kind of basis for improvement.
As we all grow in confidence, timed runs – two each on the second and third days – help build a spirit of friendly rivalry among the students. Our first such contest is on a roughly 3km course, which I complete in three minutes and 43.8 seconds, almost 10 seconds slower than the winning time (though I do claw back a modicum of respectability by coming seventh out of 14). In our second competition on a shorter course I place fifth, a spot I don't really deserve as I mess up my run with a brief excursion into the snow that costs me several seconds.
This particular afternoon, however, we're leaving the lake earlier as there's an additional treat in store. After wrapping up in padded overalls, boots, mittens, face masks and helmets, we board a fleet of snowmobiles and tear off noisily into the dusk on a 30km run across the frozen wastes to a banquet dinner. We arrive at a lodge halfway up a ski slope just as the sun is setting, from which vantage point we gaze out over a snowscape so epic and other-worldly it looks like a scene from Lord of the Rings.
And then it's straight indoors, for in spite of the heavy clothing and the super-heated handlebar grips of our machines we're almost rigid with cold. Fortunately there are warming bowls of thick mushroom soup and vast plates of salmon, moose and reindeer to revive us.
Back at the lake for our last full day of ice driving I'm determined to nail it. My first run – a 4.5km course combining two of yesterday's tracks – is clean but not quick enough. In fact, when the results are revealed that evening, it turns out my 4:04.7 time is 9.8 seconds slower than the winner's and only good enough for eighth place, my lowest position so far. I know I can get round tidily; now I need more speed.
Our last timed test is on the longest course of the programme: with a total length of 6.5km, its farthest point at the head of the lake is barely visible from the starting line. In the 90 seconds between the previous car's departure and my own I sit quietly in the driving seat, psyching myself into achieving that supposed union between man and machine. And then I'm off across the ice.
Have I found the rhythm that's eluded me till now? I can't be sure, but I know I'm faster. There are plenty of places on this lengthy course where I could come a cropper, but I don't, and by the time I've negotiated the long double apex corner and got through the slalom of short straights and wicked kinks, I'm daring to think I might just do it.
I pass the finishing line with the dashboard timer showing a fraction over seven minutes and four seconds. I haven't spun, I haven't crashed out on to the snow and I'm feeling rather pleased with myself. I may not have been the fastest – that we'll all find out later – but at least I've done it.
Back in the warmth of the hotel dining room and bar – the Scandinavians know everything there is to know about central heating – our farewell dinner is a jolly affair, for after three days on the ice in this faraway and beautiful corner of the world we've become good friends as well as good-natured competitors. The talk – inevitable when guys like us get together – is of cars, camshafts and cornering lines, and already there are plans afoot to join an Audi driving programme next summer in Europe.
We pose for photographs, promise we'll all do it again and applaud each other when the day's times and aggregate rankings are read out. And no one is more surprised than I am when we discover that the fastest lap in the final contest was set by ... me.