Rallying: The ultimate rallying test: learning to drive on water

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The Independent Online
When rally drivers need to improve their technique they head north to hone their skills on a frozen Norwegian lake.

Andrew Martin found that slip, sliding away was both exhilarating and enjoyable.

Remember those rather spiteful jokes about Skodas? Well, you won't have heard the one about the rally car, a frozen lake in Norway and a daunting initiation into the frantic art of ice rallying. No, it's not funny. In fact, it's pretty bloody frightening.

For those of us who equate nudging the Ford Fiesta towards 80mph on the M4 somewhere between Reading and Swindon with pushing back the envelope, taking the wheel of a proper rally car is as far removed as the Noggin the Nog-like landscape of mountainous Scandinavia is from a dreary day on Hackney Marshes.

Yet that is precisely what a group of novices, including myself, experienced this week. We were among a small party whisked to Geilo, a small town some two hours' drive north of Oslo, near where John Haugland runs an unusual school for rally drivers.

Haugland's rally credentials are as impressive as the wing-flaps on his imposing fur hat. A works driver for Skoda for 20 years, Haugland amassed some 104 class wins between 1971 and 1988 in the RAC Rally. Graduates of his rally school include such muddy-lane luminaries as Alister McRae and Richard Burns. Haugland also laughs a lot, particularly when demonstrating to the faint-hearted what it really means to push a car to its limit.

But before that white-knuckle ride, we were given the chance to hurtle around one of his confounded circuits at the wheel of one of Skoda's robust Felicia rally cars.

What was really daunting was that the course was carved on to the surface of a frozen lake. Assurances that the ice was some 35cm thick still failed to dispel the nagging fear that one might disappear down some unforeseen pot hole into the icy briny below. The prospect, however, did not appear to daunt my instructor, Per Steiner, an alumni of Haugland's high-speed academy who possessed a Zen-like calm in the face of my ineptitude at the controls that betrayed a hint of ice in his veins.

"Take it gently," was his advice as the soft-compound tyres first found their grip on the lake's glistening surface, the air outside chilling to a bracing minus 15 degrees Celsius.

Into the first tight bend and the car's own will appeared to take over. As I piled on the power and yanked the steering wheel right, the Skoda, like a headstrong thoroughbred, refused to respond. Instead, alarmingly, it made straight for a snow bank.

"Ease off the throttle," urged Per. I did and car somehow edged round. Phew. "Faster, go faster," coaxed Per, and into the next bend the rear end spun out. "More power." Again, much to my surprise and relief, I regained control of the car.

"OK, a little faster now," purred Per, "and brake a little later...no, more power..."

Thunk.

Oh dear. We had struck a snow bank, spun through 180 degrees and were now perched on a snow bank. It was like being in that coach stranded on the edge of a precipice at the end of the Italian Job. Except that, unlike Michael Caine, I had no bright ideas about extricating us from this embarrassing predicament. Instead, we had to wait for a jolly Norwegian in a four-wheel drive to tow us out.

This pattern was repeated for the rest of the morning: brisk progress and a mounting sense of confidence punctuated by gut-wrenching moments of terror as the Skoda mounted banks at pace, and narrowly avoided flipping on to its roof. Throughout these fearful moments, Per's expression barely flickered from one of mild amusement.

Such frippery and fun aside, Haugland's school does serve a real purpose for rally drivers. Accompanying us were two British drivers whose skills have been honed on Norway's frosted waterways.

Anna Tait is an elegant, softly spoken lady who can also drive a rally car at a pace capable of inducing bowel movements in those of a nervous disposition. Indeed Tait is so rapid behind the wheel that she is Skoda's first woman works driver. Part of her preparations for this year's Network Q RAC Rally included a visit to Haugland's rally school in January.

It was worth the trip, as she could hone the left-foot braking technique that enables rally drivers to gently slide through corners without shaving off too much speed. It takes plenty of practice, and an iced-over lake is the perfect place to try, as there are few hazards to bump into and damage a car as caution is thrown to the bitter wind.

"On an ice track you can get up to very high speeds and keep your momentum up - and that's how it works," she said.

We were also joined by Carl Stevens, a Mika Hakkinen lookalike who is this year's British champion in the 1300cc class and a rally instructor at Silverstone.

"This is the perfect place to practice our art," he said. "The slippery surface means it is easier to go sideways and practice other techniques that are difficult to master on other surfaces. You can quickly master what you are doing right and wrong."

The ultimate heart-stopping ride, however, is to be experienced alongside Haugland on one of the special stages he has prepared that flank the lake. This is what rally driving is all about. It is also very scary.

Fir trees flanked the twisting, narrow snow-covered track, standing tall and ominous like sentries on every bend as Haugland hurtled along merrily at 70mph-plus speeds, unblinking in his yellow-tinted John Lennon glasses, his hands a blur on the gear stick and steering wheel. I attempt to hide my welling terror as we roared up a sharp rise, then a narrow left, the Skoda's straining motor emitting the pained howl of a wild beast.

The car twisted and careened along and yet, under Haugland's expert control, we could have been travelling on rails. That inspired confidence and gradually my tight grip on the roll bar eased as the longest seven minutes in a motor car in my life sped towards its conclusion.

"Did you like that?" beamed Haugland.

"Yes," I lied, making a mental note never to laugh at another Skoda joke again.

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