“Remember to turn in early. Use the throttle to steer, not the steering”, says Roger Wallgren from Volvo’s vehicle dynamics team as he rides shotgun with me in the XC90T8. The setting outside the XC90 that we’re sitting in is actually extremely dramatic. The car’s thermometer shows its -14 degree C and what the XC90 is standing on, used to be a lake where the Swedes go fishing in the summer. But in the winters, the top 60cm of the water freezes and it becomes strong enough for vehicles to be driven on it.
As Roger explains, driving on ice is a different ballgame altogether. And for me, it’s the only surface I haven’t driven on before. “Whisper to the steering and the throttle, don’t shout”, he says. Well, what I’ve learnt until now about driving on slippery surfaces is all about to be put to test. Your general estimate of what the car will behave like is completely skewed, Roger reckons. Seconds later, I take off for a lap on a track made by Volvo on the frozen lake in the XC90T8. The traction control has been switched off and the car has been put on the AWD mode.
It’s like driving on a pool of oil; you really need to be gentle with the control. Just as Roger sees me struggle on the track, and the car occasion ally faces the wrong direction, Roger gives me another tip. “You’re the leader of the car, don’t let the car lead you”. And by now, I’m starting to understand exactly what he means. As Hog in more and more laps, I’m starting to get the hang of how things work and what he means by using the throttle to steer. It is practically impossible to change the direction of the car without having a slip or putting it through a drift.
And unlike on tarmac, the car doesn’t grip the second you let go of the throttle. What you do now, will start showing its results after 50 metres. So, if the apex of the corner is somewhere around 10 car lengths away, you start turning in, and when you are actually on the apex, you must have already corrected. As my instructor, Roger explains, “The trick is to prepare for the next turn on the previous one.” Yeah, like most other things, it’s easier said than done. But with about an hour into the game, I’m slowly fine-tuning my technique and starting to keep the car on the track, all the way through the circuit.
Just as I start thinking of myself as Colin McRae, Roger says, “Now, you must have more fun. Get ready fora hot lap”. I stop at the start of the track and try to calm myself down. Trust me; I haven’t been more nervous behind the wheel as I’m at this point in time. This time, I don’t want to make the mistakes that I have in the past one hour: overuse of the steering, giving it a complete opposite lock to correct and kicking the throttle and the brake to change directions are things to be avoided.
The use of steering is reducing as I spend more time on the frozen lake and my responses to the pedals are getting quicker and gentler. There’s along, sweeping turn at the far end of the track, and for the many laps that I’ve done on ice, not once have I got the drift right all through the turn. But Roger has been noticing the improvements in my driving style. He asks me to slowly increase the speed through the bends.
And just as I enter the long, sweeping bend, Roger in an anxious voice says, “Hold the throttle! Hold the throttle! Brake. Back on the throttle. Brake, brake, brake. Power. Navigate with your stomach, Agasti!” I do exactly as he says, and as a result, it’s the perfect slide. It’s the longest slide I’ve pulled off in the past 14 years that I’ve spent behind the wheel. I feel like a wrestler, who has defeated his fiercest rival at about in the Olympics. A sense of victory has started to sink in.
At the coffee break, I ask Roger how does Volvo make its cars so weather proof. He says, the oils that Volvo uses remain in liquid state till -40 degree C. The engine oil, the brake oil, the gear oil, will all be fine even in the Arctic winters. All that needs a dash of anti-freeze is the coolant and the windshield washer fluid. And if it’s a Volvo in Russia, Roger says, it’s a dash of vodka that’s used. While we have this chat, Roger is extremely confident of what he’s saying and is confident about the car’s engineering. And that confidence shows in the way the cars drive.
The frozen lake that the track has been built on, is so slippery that if you try to walk, you won’t be able to take two steps before slipping. It’s insane how the studded tyres and the on-board computers keep a two-tonne car from running away from the driver. Yes, there’s plenty of slip, but spend a day practicing, and things start to get predictable.
Soon after the coffee, we get back into the cars and try to put in clean laps one after the other. My experience as a tester is put to test. Spins and embarrassment have left me with no choice but to be gentle with the controls. I think I’ve learnt a lot today. And just as I think I can do the ice drive well, Roger gets into the driver’s seat and shows me how it’s done. There’s a reason why Scandinavians are such good drivers. This is the reason.