“More power, more power,” my instructor screams at me as the car skids sideways into a tight right-hand corner. Well, he didn't exactly scream it as he is a mild-mannered Finn, but he definitely should have, given my inability to master the basic ice-driving skill as we speed across one of Finland's many frozen lakes in a high-powered Bentley Continental. Risto Virtanen, 39, my driving instructor for two days, is one of many Finns who has excelled in the world of motor sports.
In fact, Finland has produced three Formula 1 world champions and countless World Rally winners. Not bad for a nation of just over five million, the same population as Singapore. So it made perfect sense for prestigious car marque Bentley to host its Power on Ice driving experience in this country, given this rich talent pool. And not to mention its abundance of frozen lakes, beautiful scenery and a chance to experience Arctic conditions.
We are near a town called Kuusamo in northern Finland, an hour's flight from Helsinki and 50km from the Arctic Circle. The vast majority of Finland's 1,800 lakes freeze over in winter, providing the perfect opportunity for automakers such as Bentley to lay on exclusive packages for owners across the globe to pit their driving skills on a truly unique and vastly challenging surface. Driving cars with more than 600bhp over a surface so slippery and unpredictable is a worry, however — the thought alone gave me sweaty palms, despite the near freezing environment of northern Finland, which includes the Lapland region that is home to wolves and bears.
To be allowed to legally drive on the frozen lake, the ice needs to be at least 50cm thick. The lake we drive on (or rather, skid and slide on) is actually 60cm thick, so no concerns about falling into the ice however hard we pushed the cars. It is also comforting to see 11-tonne tractors preparing the ice tracks, safe in the knowledge that the Bentleys we will be driving weigh a quarter of that.
This is also the first time Asian owners are given the opportunity to take part in the Power on Ice event and many jumped at the chance. Daniel Khoo, Bentley's director of operations for Asia-Pacific, calls such events “touch points” for him and his team to connect with prospective and existing owners. Khoo says the prestigious British marque will also be launching more limited edition models in Singapore this year to help raise brand awareness. A selected few were invited to take part in this unique event for the first time, including Singaporean couple Jinny and Benny Lim, who have had a long history of Bentleys in their family. They relish the chance to get out of their comfort zone to test Continentals and Flying Spurs on ice, very different from Singapore's hot tarmac.
Jinny, a 26-year-old entrepreneur, says: “I have been to many track events but nothing compares to ice-driving. I didn't know such a powerful and big car could perform so well on ice. I loved the way it handled on big corners.” When asked if any of the skills she learned can be used back home, she adds: “I feel more confident now that I can handle it in any road conditions. I'm small so I have always loved big and powerful cars.”
For me, the toughest aspect of driving on ice is that it went against everything I've learned driving on tarmac. When you take a corner, the idea is to brake hard to force the back end to slide out and majestically glide round the bend. To achieve this, you need to put your foot on the gas and counter-steer the car. However, putting your foot on the gas when a car is veering out of control goes against basic driving principles, but that's exactly what you need to do.
Hence, my Finnish driving instructor's constant calls for ‘'more power, more power'' as I fail time and again to apply my foot to the gas pedal boldly enough. It is a difficult exercise to turn one's driving instincts on their head and it takes me until my last few laps on day two of the course to finally master this crucial element of ice-driving. But what fun I'm having along the way as I spin the car 360 degrees forwards, backwards and crash it into the snowbanks countless times. On the odd occasion (four actually), I went so far onto the snowbank I needed the rescue tractor to tow me out. On ice, it's actually best to start with a less powerful but heavier vehicle until you get the hand of ice-driving dynamics. This makes Bentley's Flying Spur the best choice. It weighs two tonnes and gives you 616bhp, compared to the more powerful Bentley Continental Speed (626 bhp). The difference may not seem like much but on ice, this extra horsepower can have quite an impact.
My personal instructor has been racing for 20 years from go-karts to Formula 3 cars. With so much experience behind the wheel, he is in an ideal position to tutor novices who are ice-driving for the first time: “It is all about speed and steering. Too much of one and not enough of the other, and you'll see the fishtail effect. The great thing about driving on ice is that you learn a lot about your own driving style.”
On why Finland has produced so many good race drivers, he explains: “It's a big country with just five million people, so that means lots of empty roads and fields to practice on. And as you can see with ice-driving, we can even turn a frozen lake into a racetrack.”
His idol, Juha Kankkunen, holds the world ice speed record, which he achieved in a Bentley Continental in 2007. In 2011, he decided to beat his own record with a blistering 330.695kph in a convertible Bentley Continental Supersports. The four-time World Rally champion is actually on hand to impart his decades-worth of experience to drivers like me, who are still skidding and sliding across the ice as we attempt to complete a full lap without crashing into a snow bank.
As I take a pulsating hot lap with him around the frozen lake, Kankkunen tells me of his plans to improve again on his record: “I would like to try again this winter to see if I can break the record, but it has to be cold enough and in the right conditions.” For such an act of bravery and speed, the ice needs to be as flat as possible. For this reason, he prefers driving on frozen sea, compared to lakes, where the water is deeper and smoother when it freezes.
As he puts the Bentley Continental GT3R through its paces on ice with me clinging on for dear life in the passenger seat, he contemplates using this same car for his latest record-breaking attempt. “I like its horsepower and how it handles,” he adds. I, too, have lots of admiration for the GT3R, which is one of just 300 limited edition models Bentley will produce. It is 100kg lighter than other Continentals and powered by a retuned version of its 4.0-L twin-turbo V8. This impressive power plant delivers 572bhp and a whopping 700Nm of torque. In practical terms, this means it can reach 0-100kph in just 3.6 seconds, the fastest-accelerating Bentley ever. The car was developed in conjunction with the automaker's Motorsport division and hand-built in Crewe, UK, with the limited edition model appropriately only available in Glacier White.
According to British racing driver Andy Meyrick: “A lot of professional drivers go ice-driving to sharpen their skills and advance themselves as drivers. The principles are still the same as driving on tarmac, such as driver input, weight distribution and control, so it's of great value. Driving on ice is a bit like driving in slow motion, so it gives you the chance to analyse your style and break it down piece by piece.” One of 30 Bentley Boys in the world (an exclusive group of professional Bentley racing drivers in its 100-year history), he himself has yet to try ice-driving on four wheels.
There is some structure to the chaos of driving on ice; firstly, in the set-up. The track has to be specially prepared once the thickness of the lake has been established and carved out of the ice, while a tractor or snow plough needs to be on hand to rescue overenthusiastic drivers from snow banks. A total of 11 circuits has been carved out across the lake, including one main course — a tricky complete circle track and one for go-karts.
There is also a skill to ice-driving that, once mastered, can have you gliding around the lake like an Olympic ice-skater. Professional drivers, such as Kankunnen and Virtanen, make it look so annoyingly easy when it really is difficult to learn for a beginner. The challenge is knowing when to apply the gas and how hard to counter-steer. When you get it right, it feels so good. But when you get it spectacularly wrong, you end up in the snow banks waiting for the tractor to come and pull you out. Then there's somewhere in between, where you make it around the corner without hitting the snow banks, but the car is “fishtailing” as you swerve from one side of the track to the other, trying to straighten it up. You learn a lot about yourself as a driver when out of your comfort zone, and the arctic conditions test your resolve even further.
I am fortunate enough to have an incredibly patient and skilful instructor in Virtanen. While weather conditions are strangely warm for the time of year, it is of course cold by Singapore standards. Mostly one degree C during the daytime, the temperature can drop to -30 degrees C in these parts.
I feel it made me a better driver as a result, while enjoying an incredible amount of fun. (The package includes other snow-based activities such as sledge-riding with huskies and driving snowmobiles through the forest.) Add in the chance to see the Northern Lights and it really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.