Spin, Spin, Spin!

WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? We spent the morning in all-wheel-drive Carrera 4S 911s — my drink of choice, Carrera 4S on ice, shaken, not stirred — and then switched cars just after lunch, being set loose on a handling course, with the rear-wheel-drive Carrera S 911s, the instructors confident in our ability to make the transition, but hedging their bets by saying don’t get too confident, as the snow gets scraped off and it gets more slippery.

But let me develop the story from the start.

Thanks to the amazing people at Porsche Centre North Toronto, Brad and I were each gifted a one-day “Ice Trial” winter driving experience at the Mecaglisse motorsport complex in Quebec’s Laurentians region. Then, a winter storm advisory was promptly issued by Environment Canada, covering a wide swath of southern and eastern Ontario, as well as our destination. Driving 250 kilometres in blowing snow to get to the Estérel Resort — I could write pages about this fantastic resort — as an intimidating prospect. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Fortunately, the snowstorm was a non-event, especially in my Macan road warrior, and we made it to the resort with time to spare to prepare for the welcome dinner — enough time to submit to a COVID-19 test, gating whether we could even participate in the Porsche activities in the days to come.

Just two days previously, only in-room dining was possible due to the restrictions, so it was a most welcome Welcome Dinner, in person. PCNT’s Scott Winfield and Graham MacNab stopped by our table for a while and we swapped stories about previous ice driving experiences, and I filled them in on how much I love my new GT4. The dinner was excellent, as they proved to be throughout my stay at Estérel, as was the breakfast the next day, just what I needed before hopping on the bus the next morning for the drive to the track.

Soon we were standing just outside the chalet, our home base, to survey more than two dozen 911 Carreras lined up just so, all idling with a throaty rasp, on the snow- and ice-covered track surface below.

The bus driver, an assortment of Porsches following him and with many participants taking their own vehicle to the track this year, made his way carefully over the snow-covered back roads and slushy side roads to the track. It seems to me that everyone in the Laurentians has their own form of an “ice experience.” At Mecaglisse we were given the traditional enthusiastic greeting by our instructors, all of them in their cozy red parka “uniforms,” and other hosts as we disembarked. Soon we were standing just outside the chalet, our home base, to survey more than two dozen 911 Carreras lined up just so, all idling with a throaty rasp, on the snow- and ice-covered track surface below. I swear I could see the odd twinkle of sunlight reflected off the 1.5-millimetre studs embedded in their Nokian Hakkapeliitta winter tires. Oh, what fun I was going to have. Letting me loose in a 443-horsepower 911 (992) on ice and snow, what could possibly go wrong?

The one-day “Ice Trial” Porsche Ice Experience format, like the two- and three-day courses, had a somewhat compressed format this year, with about four hours of driving scheduled around a staggered lunch hour, allowing two groups of about a dozen people to physically distance in the chalet for a sit-down lunch. Whereas in previous years we’d share the cars, two to a car, this year we each drove our own car, switching from all-wheel drive to rear-wheel drive, or vice versa, after lunch. We had five skill stations to rotate through, taking us to sunset. Our group of five cars had three stations before lunch, but the Porsche Ice Experience hosts had nutritious snacks to blunt the hunger. I couldn’t entirely feed on the ambition of nailing each exercise just right.

Keith McIntosh and Andrei Mortila were our instructors for the day. After going over some basics such as the proper seating position, we made our way over to the first exercise single file, Keith driving a white Carrera 4S, us guests driving assorted-colour 4Ss. I had a beautiful black 4S with aurum-coloured wheels, I never thought that I would like that combo, but it works. Andrei was driving a Cayenne, which would serve as either a tow or shuttle vehicle if required.

Our first exercise was a slalom exercise. Keith and Andrei, as they did for the rest of the day, proved themselves to be patient and insightful instructors, both of whom drew on very deep racing experience. Standing in the cold, they talked us through the exercise one by one while we were comfy cozy in our cars listening to them on the two-way radios placed in the cars’ cupholders. One of our hosts, Miriam, stood by with a wooden spoon, a Porsche Ice Experience tradition, ready to help dig snow out of the cars’ grilles or other openings if necessary. Unlike high-speed track driving with OMG moments, wondering whether your car would survive, I was looking forward to exploring the art and skill of driving at a lower speed, where only the snowbanks were your enemy. Spin!

The slalom exercise’s main focus was on vision — “Don’t look at the cones or you’ll hit them!” — and on using light stabs of the throttle to help steer the car around the pylons. First exercise, 443 horsepower, five enthusiastic students, ice and snow, Porsche Stability Management entirely off, the PDK selector in manual mode, and second gear selected, all as instructed, what could possibly go wrong? I wove through the cones, occasionally hitting one, sometimes spinning out, and, as time went on, getting the hang of it, so that I could (mostly) repeatedly nail the exercise. No, I wasn’t quite a stunt driver, but learning skills that come in handy for all types of driving that could save me on the highway or the track. It was so much fun, Keith and Andrei laughing and smiling, critiquing or complimenting as we repeated our runs, and, unbelievably, with not one of us ending up in a snowbank. Spin, spin! The Cayenne sat forlorn, towing strap at the ready, unused.

The second exercise for our group was about vision again, as well as brake steering (there may be a term for it, but it’s about reaction training). Chanting the mantra “lift, turn, brake,” each of us went storming towards a line of pylons arrayed just to the right of our initial trajectory, the concept being to lift off the throttle to transfer weight to the front of the car, turn in to start the 911 rotating right, and then tap the brakes (but not for too long) to complete a right-angle turn. Our instructors remarked that this was a useful skill for rally driving and, perhaps in winter, for negotiating streets in Ottawa. Spin, spin, spin!

Remember, “Look where you want to go, not at the snowbank, not at us!” Spin, spin, spin, spin!

The skid pad was next. I was not completely new to this, having done the PCA club’s introductory driving school at CTMP and the Porsche Ice Experience driving course two years previously. Maybe I could give Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel, Fast and Furious) a run for his money on drifting? Before we gave it a go, Andrei first showed us how it’s done “just so,” running his Carrera 4S around the ice pad, demonstrating both understeer and the oversteer recovery methods, followed by a beautiful demonstration, the art of drifting, poising his car on the accelerator, deft hand on the wheel, going around and around the pad multiple times. This was, perhaps, the most fun station for me. Understeer and oversteer recovery were now starting to become somewhat instinctive for me, having done the Ice Experience course before. The drifting was still a challenge though. Finally, I managed a drift circle around the skid pad for two continuous circuits after a couple of hilarious attempts, including a spin out. Remember, “Look where you want to go, not at the snowbank, not at us!” Spin, spin, spin, spin!

Lunch was next. Health restrictions had thankfully loosened up. Instead of having a boxed lunch in our cars, as had previously been planned, we got to sit physically distanced in the chalet for a delicious meal of sandwiches, hearty soup, and dessert. Still full of excitement, we animatedly described patterns through the air, like jets in the Top Gun movie, as our hands represented Carreras dancing through the exercises. Spin, spin!

After lunch, we switched cars, bidding farewell to the all-wheel-drive Carrera 4S and stepping into the rear-wheel-drive Carrera S. We were in for a treat, the next station being the handling course, where we were expected to put together what we’d learned up to that point on what had the appearance of a luge chute start line. It was a twisty and snowy course, already polished down by the other groups’ shenanigans earlier. They saved the best for last. Spin!

Turned loose, we would all be on the course, solo, at the same time to put into practice what we had learned. Keith and Andrei couldn’t see the whole course from their vantage points, so we were coached to use the radio and key it, saying “spin, spin, spin” and our first name if we found ourselves either embedded in, or having to back out of, a snowbank. That would be the signal for everyone to stop, before hearing the “clear, clear, clear,” to resume our pseudo-rally run. And it was great fun setting the car up for 90-degree corners, drifting corners, negotiating icy turns to downhills and powering through a funnel set up with pylons, made me feel a sense of accomplishment. I had my own ultra-understeer slide into the snowbank, as did everyone in our group, but I was able to regain “the line” and improve on the next run. If you didn’t kiss a snowbank, you weren’t trying hard enough. Spin, spin!

By the end, though I was nowhere near Andrei’s level of expertise, I’d improved enough that I was “flicking” my Carrera S around the corner.

The last station, which took us to sunset, was for learning the famous Scandinavian flick, also known as the rally flick. This exercise built on the technique that we’d previously practiced for negotiating a 90-degree turn, only now adding power oversteer and counter steering at the end of the manoeuvre, with the goal of maintaining momentum throughout the corner. Andrei, with a rally background, provided the demonstration of the exercise, making it look easy. One after another, we all tried to emulate his apparent effortless mastery of the exercise, hoping that our brains would get progressively imprinted with what is a very complex series of moves: lift, turn, brake, accelerate, counter steer like mad. After putting down a few good ones, concentration intense, I would smile on the exit, until my brain cramped, leading to a couple of snowy spins and more grins. By the end, though I was nowhere near Andrei’s level of expertise, I’d improved enough that I was “flicking” my Carrera S around the corner and mostly just needing to refine my trajectory, before heading out and flying down the return track for another try.

Spin, spin, spin!

With the automatic headlights illuminating on all the Porsches almost simultaneously, I knew that it was near the end of our time on the station and the day’s activities. Shortly, Keith had us all lined up, PSM back on (no shenanigans allowed), to head to the paddock. Our driving day was over, but not the excitement from how much progress we had made. What could possibly have gone wrong? Lots could have, but the instructors and staff made it a fun, challenging and safe day, preserving all the Carreras and our dignities.

Epilogue: This was not the end. Forty-eight hours later found me signing up for another two days of Ice Experience. It’s not just about raw power, or speed, it’s in the skill and art of the drift, best served straight up on ice.

What could possibly go wrong? Spin, spin, spin. </>

Photography by Porsche Canada

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