Audi's ice driving experience a sideways challenge for Australians

There's that sinking, horrible moment when I know this slide simply can't be saved. As sure as night follows day, the back end is about to overtake the front and things are about to go horribly pear-shaped.

Out on the road this would mean just one thing: the start of a massive accident. But here, at the Audi Winter Driving Experience, I'm going at walking pace and the giant A8 lazily spins to a halt. The only damage is to my pride.

We're desperate to cut loose, to drift the S4 and the A8 like big kids.

We're at the Austrian ski resort of Seefeld, on a surface with almost no traction, to deliberately provoke the type of slide that can usually only be achieved at illegal speeds on the roads back home. The theory is simple: if we can master slow speeds on the ice, then we'll have a better chance of holding it all together on the road if we hit a patch of diesel or black ice and lose the back end.

Power and glory

But we're also expecting to have some fun. The combination of the 248kW supercharged V6 engine in the lithe Audi S4 and the sheer ludicrousness of sliding the luxurious 313kW ocean liner of an A8 across the ice are what brought everybody to this unique party.

I'm with a group of Audi Australia's customers, a disparate bunch of social workers, private investors, railway executives, a couple of journalists and more. There are husbands and wives, a son and daughter, and a father and son whose dad's assertion that they were the A-team could have scored endless abuse, had son Alex not smashed the field by a full five seconds on the final day's timed exercise.

It could be the start of the worst superhero movie ever made ...

Some of the group has enjoyed advanced instruction in an R8 LMS racing car, others are self-confessed novices, and none have driven on snow before. Chief instructor and nine-time European rallycross champion Rolf Volland knows he's in for some grief.

Slide rules

Perhaps inevitably we start in the classroom, with an ever-so-slightly too-long lecture on vehicle dynamics, load changes and the physics involved in driving on ice. By the time we head onto the ice, our collective brains are overloaded and we're looking for some light relief.

It doesn't come. Not at first, anyway.

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The first two days are, in truth, heavy going. The emphasis is absolutely on education over entertainment and we enter a series of tightly controlled workshops that consist of one corner, marked by cones, and one aspect of ice driving. First it's braking, then a lane change, then understeer and finally the one we all came for, oversteer. But it all feels too controlled, strangled even, and just not reckless enough for our tastes. We came here to let it all hang out, but it was clear from the off that this simply isn't the Audi way.

Repetitively nailing the same tasks again and again starts to feel like a chore; even the surprising skills of the cars on these surfaces and the obvious talents of the traction control system can't keep us entertained forever. We even try to inject our own sense of fun with an internal game.

Let it all hang out

Each car is fitted with a computer that measures maximum speed, reaction time and other interesting data. Faced with the emergency lane change procedure for the seventh time, we focus on getting the most speed possible piling through the wheels and entering the obstacle fully sideways. Volland is less than amused and his increasingly despairing radio calls to "use the brake" become an in-joke.

But I'm not alone - we're desperate to cut loose, to drift the S4 and the A8 like big kids. It's why we're all here, and it's why the customers spent more than $6000 a head to travel to Europe. The natives start to get restless.

There's too much waiting around, not enough driving and there's the unerring feeling that a few more instructors would have made the difference between sitting around for most the day and actually having fun. In fact, there are a few disgruntled voices as we climb aboard horse-drawn carriages to head to dinner on day two, with one participant trying to work out his minutes behind the wheel per dollar spent. It was not a pretty ratio.

Wax on, wax off

But then, as we headed to the end of the second day on this three-day course, comes clarity. It's like that moment in The Karate Kid when Daniel suddenly realises why he's spent hours waxing the car and painting the fence. We finally get the point of each and every exercise as we start to link together the separate tricks.

First we get to build some rhythm on a tight slalom, feeling the bohemoth of an S8 dance on the ice as we drift this way and that with delicate throttle blips and a nuance of steering. Then it hits us: we have learned to drive on ice in bite-sized chunks.

The 'dogbones' is a figure-of-eight course marked by cones and we find ourselves drifting round the whole thing with an extravagant amount of slip from the S4 Avant, and plumes of ice and snow blasting off the spiked tyres. Yesterday, this would have been a crossed-up mess.

Instinct through repetition

Customers that could barely stand on this alien surface just 24 hours before were now sweeping round bends on opposite lock. We even find ourselves doing the stuff that doesn't make sense, like instinctively opening the steering back out when the car starts to slide wide, effectively steering less to steer more.

We even manage the legendary 'Scandinavian Flick', a technique perfected by rally drivers and one of the most extravagant driving techniques you'll ever see, flicking the car one way and then drifting effortlessly in the other direction around a tight hairpin. Volland is impressed, so much so that he pulls the fuses from the A8 to fully disengage the electronic safety net that had quietly saved our blushes on the first day.

Salvation is complete when we all execute a perfect circle, a near-perfect drifting donut that would see us fall foul of local hoon laws back home, before lining up for the main event – a race.

Now we're meant to utilise all the skills we've acquired over the last two full days on this, the final test. But when the stopwatch comes out, some of us go so far over the line we're lucky not to get disqualified from the whole thing. Alex keeps it neat and tidy, and it's reflected in his time, while I spend 1m 51s sawing at the wheel in a constant drift. Volland informs me I managed to turn a 1km course into almost double that, although he grudgingly commends my car control.

Drift kings

And that's what we come away from the course with: massively improved car control. The total novices can now hold a drift on a surface they'd never before seen, and experienced hands can truly make their car dance around a course that would have been a traffic cone massacre just two days earlier.

When we are informed that this trip is the hors d'ouevre, the prequalification for a trip to a 13km ice circuit in the Finnish wastelands, some of our group are already pulling out their credit cards and arranging travel.

They've discovered the art of four-wheeled dancing on ice and in spite of their earlier frustrations, were champing to take another spin - literally.

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