SIDEWAYS IN SWEDEN

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I’m feasting on reindeer stew in a room full of stuffed prey that is lit only by oil lamp. The hunting lodge in which I’m taking lunch is located in northern Sweden and it’s -17 degrees outside, although a raging log fire and several layers of thermals protect me from the cold; that and the inevitable adrenalin rush which comes from the winter games I’m here to experience.

This is rally territory. Leading World Rally Championship drivers have rented this wooden cabin from its moose-slaying owner to get back to nature ahead of their season and have some of the world’s best snow-covered Special Stages on their doorstep. Quite literally, because factory Citroens, Subarus and Peugeots blast past the porch all the time during January.

I’m here to get to grips with something a little more old school, a fleet of 1970s and 80s era Porsche 911s, with special studded tyres that dig into ice.

Below Zero Ice Driving is run by Britain’s foremost Porsche Rally specialist, Tuthill Porsche, and each winter offers ice driving experiences on the breaktaking Lake Kall overseen by experienced racers and mechanics. It attracts petrolheads and first-timers alike, at a cost of £1,750 per person per day, based on two sharing a car. Owner Richard Tuthill tells me he gets a lot of father-son clients. The day after my turn, a private jet filled with City bankers arrives and, typically competitive, they’ve brought two timing experts from Tag Heuer to ensure they know who’s the quickest.

Between my wheels and the lake’s freezing depths is 40cm of ice and a goodly coating of snow. With over 280bhp, these competition-spec rear-wheel-drive Porsches are a real handful, but after a morning’s instruction from 2003 Production World Rally Champion Martin Rowe I learned how to drift between the curling snow banks fully in control of the car’s power and traction.

Having never driven on ice before, though, I was keen to start slowly. The 911 is notoriously tail-happy due to having its engine right at the back of the car. My lesson starts on a slalom course with small 3mm button-studded tyres, which teaches you the sensation of low-grip at slow speed and how to get into the pendulum-rhythm of drifting. Weaving between the flags I learn that by pressing the accelerator as I turn the back end comes around, which you counter by turning the wheel into the slide. With no power steering it’s a frantic experience of flaying hands and the feathering of the gas, but that’s how you keep it pointing forwards. It takes practice, but fortunately the foot-high snow banks that line the course are soft and do no damage.

The key to not only enjoying the driving and getting the best out of yourself is to be relaxed, and you’re not going to be that way if you’re at risk of a telling off. The instructors recognize this; there’s no long list of rules or a lecture before you start, and they laugh off the inevitable spins and snowy shunts and will tow you out of no man’s land when needed. The cars are worth over £80,000 each, but thankfully I wasn’t told this till the day’s driving was done.

These classic Porsches are virtually indestructible, simple to maintain, and increasing in value. And while other machines are easier to control and quicker over a course, none are more fun, flamboyant or satisfying.

A 7km race track winds around the lake; a mix of short straights, wiggles, kinks, sweepers and horseshoes that will leave you exhausted. Inside the cockpit it’s like a washing machine as you’re thrown from side-to-side, albeit strapped in with a four-point harness, and the windscreen wipers whirring away as the snow falls. Behind the Porsche is a jet-stream of powder that snakes behind.

Here, I’ve upgraded to 7mm titanium-studded WRC-grade tyres, which are a revelation after the slalom course. Suddenly your confidence, and speed, grows. Sections of the course are taken at up to 100mph. For the most part you remain in second gear. You turn in to each corner with your foot off the throttle to let the front wheels bite, or else you’ll plough straight on. Then, once the car is steering where you want it, apply the throttle and drift. Soon you’ll get the feel for it, and the sensation is less that you’re being thrown around in a tin can, more that it’s a violent, noisy sub-zero ballet that you’re conducting, where hooliganism and elegance meet.

The sun in Sweden sets at 3:30pm, but before then I am let loose alone in the car, chasing down my fellow students, and although it’s not a race you can’t help imagining what it must be like to take on a proper rally stage. At the end of the afternoon, as the light fades, Richard Tuthill takes me out on one of the six Special Stages that skim the perimeter of the lake, hitting the absolute limit as we fly over bumps and handbrake turn round hairpins.

It’s a fleeting glace into the true skill and danger of rallying, after the safe environment of the lake circuit, but also a demonstration of where one’s first experience of ice driving can take you. I am officially hooked. Ice driving is the most fun you can have in a car.

For more information visit www.belowzeroicedriving.com

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Photography courtesy of Malcolm Griffiths / Below Zero Ice Driving

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