Trail of the unexpected: Ice driving in Finland
A frozen lake offers an unusual platform to perfect your driving skills.
Saturday 19 March 2011
It was minus 26C, the ends of my hair were turning white and every time I blinked my eyelashes started to freeze together. I was standing at the edge of a frozen lake in Kuusamo in north-eastern Finland, waiting for my driving instructor. Today, I was going to learn how to drive on ice.
A car appeared in the distance, flying over the frozen lake, a cloud of snow streaming out behind it. My instructor had arrived.
Juha Kankkunen is a four-times world rally champion and a legend in the rally racing world. He now spends every February and March teaching people to drive on snow and ice at the Juha Kankkunen Driving Academy in Kuusamo.
In the north-east of Finland, close to the Russian border, Kuusamo is one of the most beautiful and unspoilt regions of Finland. Majestic, snow-laden pine trees stretch as far as the eye can see, broken only by flat expanses of frozen lakes and hillsides jutting out of the landscape; a paradise for nature lovers and winter sports enthusiasts. While the driving academy feels as though it is out in the wilderness, it's just a 10-minute drive from Kuusamo city centre: a hub of winter activity from December through to April.
There are over 500km of cross-country ski tracks nearby, several hundred kilometres of snowmobile trails; four national parks to explore on skis and snowshoes; and the popular ski resort of Ruka, with 30 downhill ski runs, is just a 20-minute drive away. There is also a host of other activities to take part in: reindeer sleigh rides and husky sledding; ice climbing and Northern Lights trips; Finnish sauna and ice-hole swimming.
The county of Kuusamo is larger than Lancashire and yet is 90 per cent forest; it's one of the few true wildernesses left in Europe. During the winter the temperature is frequently between -10C and -25C and by February the ice on the lakes is around 80cm thick. Perfect for driving at speed. Nowhere else in the world can you drive as safely in such stunning surroundings. And certainly not with one of the world's greatest rally drivers at your side.
As I climbed into the passenger seat next to Juha Kankkunen, I was surprised to discover that the car was a normal two-litre Golf TDI. "The only difference with these cars is the tyres we fit. They are special, studded tyres for extra grip," Juha told me. There were no roll bars or cage as I had been expecting. No harness, bucket seats or helmets. "We want to teach people to drive real cars in real conditions," he said. "Of course we still have the Subaru sports cars and the occasional Maserati and Lamborghini to play with," he added with a grin.
We set off across the ice after he assured me it was over half a metre thick and perfectly safe to drive on. "We won't be going fast," Juha said. "We work at normal driving speeds, so from 40km to 100km per hour." I must have still looked quite frightened because he then laughed at me. "You are not afraid to drive at these speeds on the road with other traffic, so why out here?" He waved his hand at the scenery around us; there wasn't another
person or car in sight. A vast white lake lay in front of us surrounded by tall pine trees, bending under the weight of the snow, the white of the trees a stark contrast to the bright blue sky. It was beautiful, mesmerising. Until it started to fly by at great speed, that is.
As Juha expertly slid the car around the track, completely at ease, I tried to act cool and not grab at the arm rest. I'd never seen trees travel past a car window in that direction before. Juha quietly explained what he was doing but I didn't know where to look. Should I be concentrating on his arm and leg movements or at the world rushing past as the car seemed to slide backwards around one of the bends? Sitting next to a rally racing legend, flying sideways around a race track made of ice is one of the most exhilarating things that I have ever experienced.
There were nine different tracks on the lake, each one offering its own lesson. There was an oval, a figure of eight, hairpin bends and wide roads for learning object avoidance and breaking. "We want to teach people how to drive safely. If we can save one life through what we teach here than it is all worth it," he said. They also have another track which is built on land but covered with five million litres of water to turn it into a slick ice road.
The driving academy is for drivers of all levels of experience. From people like me that barely know what make their own car is, to professional race drivers and even security personnel for members of parliament and heads of state.
"We've taught people from 16 to 80 years of age and had everyone from Formula One drivers to complete novices on our tracks," said Juha. "We are not going to make rally drivers out of most people, but we will make them better drivers."
And he did. After just 20 minutes of patient instruction I was making my first sliding turns on the ice and learning how to correct under steer without careering off the track. Well, almost. Just as well there was nothing to hit out on the lake. As the car roared around the track it was strange to think that soon it would once again be a lake with gently lapping waves and nothing more than the occasional fisherman to break the silence.
Travel essentials: Finland
* There are no direct flights from the UK to Kuusamo. Connections via Helsinki are offered by Blue1 (0906 294 2016; blue1.com/uk) and Finnair (0870 241 4411; finnair.co.uk) .
* Juha Kankkunen Driving Academy (00 358 50 3055 755; juhakankkunen.com) offers a day's driving tuition in Kuusamo from €1,200 per person.
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