How to give ice the slip

Simon de Burton goes north to get a grip in difficult driving conditions
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Spring is just around the corner, but it's still possilbe there will be another decent dump of snow before the clocks go forward on 27 March. If it comes, parts of the UK will no doubt grind to a halt again as motorists glide into one another, get stuck on the gentlest of slopes and generally show a great British inability to deal with anything other than normal conditions.

Spring is just around the corner, but it's still possilbe there will be another decent dump of snow before the clocks go forward on 27 March. If it comes, parts of the UK will no doubt grind to a halt again as motorists glide into one another, get stuck on the gentlest of slopes and generally show a great British inability to deal with anything other than normal conditions.

But anyone who has visited a country where roads are covered in snow and ice all winter will have noticed that life goes on as usual -- cars start, brakes work and tyres (usually) grip. Take Swedish Lapland, where temperatures routinely drop to minus 30degC and carparks are equipped with points where you can plug in your car to keep it warm overnight.

It's up here that marques such as Porsche, BMW and Audi bring their prototypes for winter testing. A popular area is Arjeplog, which lies 600 miles north of Stockholm and boasts around 200 square miles of solidly frozen lakes.

Audi has its own, highly secret winter proving ground in the area (surrounded by a specially grown forest and complete with a 130-bedroom hotel), and Mercedes-Benz operates its fahrprogramme, a public, two-day course on how to handle the worst of winter driving conditions.

That means being able to realise the dream of many an enthusiastic driver - on a vast, frozen lake, you are given carte blanche to perform powerslides, donuts and handbrake turns to your heart's content. It's brilliant.

I was lucky enough to spend two days driving a selection of absurdly powerful AMG Mercedes, ranging from the SL55 roadster to the Q-ship E55 estate. Pumping out a minimum of 360hp, these cars should be impossible on ice, and when you don't know what you're doing, they are. But, thanks to some guidance relayed via radio from the trackside instructors, handling a four-wheel-drift soon becomes second nature.

Apart from an insistence that you leave plenty of distance between cars there are few rules, because the worst that can happen is that you bury your wheels in a track-side snow field and have to be dragged out by the support vehicle (in our case an AMG-tuned G-Wagen).

To keep the risk of collisions to a minimum, no more than 30 cars are used and these are split into at least three groups with two people in each car. The groups peel off, each one driving to a different exercise - a slalom sourse, a handling track and a pair of large, ice ovals.

The cars are equipped with a one-way radio, so each group can be looked after by a single trackside instructor, a safe distance from the hysterically laughing punters who can't believe they are being encouraged to mash the throttle, swing the back end out and see what happens.

The instructors are all professional drivers and most have been dealing with snow-covered surfaces since they were old enough to get behind a steering wheel, so they can see by the way your car is reacting exactly what it is your doing wrong and give you the relevant guidance.

My first stop was the handling course, a large track with left and right hand bends, chicanes, hairpins and a couple of fast straights - just like a racing circuit except, of course, the surface was ice.

After a couple of sighting laps behind an instructor, we were let loose, and told to drive without traction control and let the car "dance", controlling it with oversteer and dabs on the throttle.

You soon discover that, while it looks dramatic to have the rear of the car swinging like a pendulum you make much faster - and safer - progress by keeping it nice and tidy and learning exactly how much power you can apply before traction is lost.

Two specially prepared ice ovals teach you how to drive in a steady "drift" and a long slalom course makes you realise that, contrary to what we are led to believe when there's snow on the ground in Britain, it is possible to make a car go just where you want it to on a traction-free surface.

A number of similar courses are run around the world. It should almost be compulsory for British drivers to do one - it would certainly keep the country moving when there's snow on the ground.

Mercedes offers two days for £1,350 ( www.mercedes-benz.de/fahrprogramme).

An ice driving course in Sweden with three nights of accommodation is from www.arctic-experience.co.uk (01737 214214).

Or try Cortina, Italy from www.activitysuperstore.com (0870 1118283)

TIPS FOR ICY ROADS

* Clean all windows and check the windscreen wipers and tyres.

* Skids are almost always caused by the driver, not the conditions.

* If one happens, lose speed by easing the pressure on the accelerator pedal and, if appropriate, de-clutch. Always steer in the direction of the skid.

* Give motorcyclists and cyclists a very wide berth.

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