GQ, May 2020 (LINK) (PDF)

Learning to take on the frozen lakes of Sweden offers more than just thrills, spills and literal chills. We travel to Lapland for an experience like no other.

On the subject of how we’ll engage with the world in the near future, there are two schools of thought. Some say we will consume everything we can, like gluttons at a bacchanalian feast. Others, observing our collective fatigue of cheap thrills, insist we will emerge more considered, only engaging with what is most nutritious and satiating. It’s the spirit of the latter, a bucket-list-only attitude, that brings us to Arvidsjaur, Sweden, a snow-coated town in Lapland, 110km from the Arctic Circle.
In winter, the charming municipality with a population of just under 5000 is buzzing with automotive action. A hub for extreme cold- weather testing, camouflaged prototypes prowl the streets only to be given away by the livery- adorned jackets hanging in the local pub’s cloakroom. We’re in town because Arvidsjaur is also home to Audi’s Ice Pro Driving Experience, a five-day dynamic winter training program that takes place on an enormous frozen lake.

Ice-driving is easily one of the most challenging and surreal experiences one can have behind the wheel. It is so physical that it cannot be taught on paper and so visceral it forces you to be completely present; the ice, though serene, is not to be underestimated – it will undo the world’s best drivers. As Audi Australia’s chief driving instructor Steve Pizzati explains, everyone suffers from the same problem: impatience. “For pros, like high-achieving race-car drivers, it comes from their massive experience and success,” he says. “And for novices, it’s the simple assumption that, when done well, it looks so fluid and easy. Almost like ballet.”

Indeed, ice-driving is a dance. More so, it is a meditative physics lesson. That might not sound very thrilling, but bear with us. Day one involves basic power slide training and control. Pizzati shows us how to develop a sense of the car’s weight, balance and behaviour. Patience is essential. “Because it looks so familiar – it’s just driving – everyone falls into the same trap,” he says. “And when you’re in the snowbank, barely 50 metres from the start, you’ll get frustrated. [Especially] if you’re coming from a base of, ‘I’ve driven a bit like this before so this will be easy-ish.’”
Soft snowbanks line the course, which snakes around itself across the 3.5km-by-1km lake, like a diagram of a digestive system. If you hit the powder and get stuck, a call of shame has to be made. “Tractor, car three,” you’ll shame has to be made. “Tractor, car three,” you'll bashfully whisper into a radio, while you wait for a jolly man to winch you out. We are given plastic name tags featuring a grid. Every time the tractor is called, you must get out of the car and trundle over to Mr Tractor, who then punches a hole in your tag. It’s an effective system.

This is one of a handful of customer programs offered by the German car maker, including advanced track days, track days for women, lifestyle events (like surfing with seven-time World Champion Stephanie Gilmore) and the highly popular R8 Spyder European Tour over the Bavarian Alps. It is a give-and-take undertaking. From Audi’s perspective, the events enrich brand loyalty through positive engagement, and for customers, they get unique brags and dynamic, high-performance training from some of Australia’s best drivers and instructors.

“We have distilled our program down to experiences that actually matter,” says Nikki Warburton, Audi Australia’s chief marketing officer. “Our customers love travel and cars, so to make something worthwhile, we combine those two things and look at how to incorporate the product in a different environment, where customers feel safe to push their limits.”
Should we see a rising desire for ‘extreme experiences’, the car world is in pole position to capture the market. Almost every manufacturer offers something. It wouldn’t be bold to assume we will soon see premium brands from other sectors, like fashion, tech or hospitality taking notes. “For our customers, it’s about accessibility,” explains Warburton. “But there needs to be an element of ‘money can’t buy’. We still try to keep it achievable, as opposed to just having experiences that are only serving the one per cent,” she says. “But there is a small percentage of people who sit right up the top, that have a certain expectation of premium brands.”

The training ground is a minimalist affair. Lunch and coffee are served in a tepee, alongside a cosy wood fire, and then it’s straight into full-pelt training mode. Don’t be surprised if you return with an unfair ratio of tractor shots on your camera roll – it’s likely the only time you’ll stop. The models change year to year, but we drove the punchy ‘S4 Avant TDI’, the 255kW/700Nm, three-litre, V6 diesel European variant of the cult wagon. It gurgled and roared around the lake with verve, but as Audi Sport has so famously proved in its rally heritage, its all-wheel-drive system is the star player.

“Probably the single biggest advantage Quattro has [here] is that it’s harder to get into trouble,” says Pizzati. “Even now, after 20 years of doing this stuff, I’m still surprised by how well it has saved me when I’ve had one of those ‘Oh crap, I’m going to hit the snow’ moments.” Nights are spent at the tranquil Skogen Hotell, where a traditional Swedish dinner is served. However, evening two sees an adrenaline-stacked snowmobile ride through the dark forests on the outskirts of town – a bucket-list thrill in itself. Plus, if you’re lucky, you might catch the magnificent Northern Lights. Finally, a banquet of game-heavy local fare bookends the day to acquaint you fully with the sensory delights of Lapland.

Over the next few days, tractor visits begin to dwindle and something clicks. The mind- melting technique of steering with the pedals, the physics of tail-whipping into a drift around corners (aka the ‘Scandinavian flick’) and attacking the twists of the eight-kilometre- long frozen corridor become a thing of grace; resulting in a sublime, chaotic zen.

On the long journey home, Pizzati highlights the event’s point of difference. Experiences like this are about more than the car – ice-driving, in particular, is truly of and in the moment. “Some of it is familiar, some of it may as well be trying to fly a combine harvester in orbit around the earth. Working out which is which is where I come in,” he says with a laugh. “Add the surreal arctic landscape, the temperature, the possibility of the Aurora Borealis plus mild cholesterol poisoning from all the moose and reindeer meat, and this [experience] touches on almost every sense we humans have.”
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