This Is the Best Winter Driving School You Can Do, Thanks To Porsche
Porsche Ice Force Pro teaches the fine art of drifting and performance driving on snow and ice
LEVI, Finland—The 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S has me doubting myself from behind its wheel. I stop the car, get out, and stare at it. Then I glare at the white skidpad I've parked on—the same one that's been mocking me for the past several minutes. Maybe I'm just tired; Porsche has flown several journalists from the States to Levi, Finland, to have a go at its Ice Force Pro school. The invitation was an immediate "yes" when it crossed my desk weeks prior, but as I stand in the five-degree air not long past 9 on this morning, I wonder if the five years I've lived in Los Angeles after a lifetime spent in metro Detroit have somehow eroded my winter-driving skills to the point of zero.
I already regret telling our instructors earlier in the morning, after they inquired as to who amongst our group has prior snow/ice driving experience, "We do this all the time in the Midwest, that's our Ice Force Pro." I especially regret it when one of them, former German rally champ Mark Wallenwein, watches my attempts to hold a constant, consistent drift around the skidpad and comments dryly, "Hmmm, OK, you are still too much on and off the gas, for starters." I'm doing this all wrong, in other words. I might be imagining it, but I'm pretty sure the look on his face says he's wondering what, exactly, I was really up to during all of those Michigan winters.
"Take a deep breath and reset yourself, you're clearly missing something," I think. There's plenty of time ahead to figure this out, given the program's three full days of driving that lay ahead.
Porsche Ice Force Pro is the third level of training on a four-rung ladder that includes the Ice Experience, Ice Force, Ice Force Pro, and finally the more motorsports-themed Ice Cup. Ice Force Pro is open to anyone who completes Ice Force. (The company threw our group a bone in the form of an exception to the rule, and then it threw us straight into the deep end.) The experience's pricing is listed in euros but begins at roughly $8,000 if participants share cars. You receive maximum seat time, as we did, by reserving a car to yourself, but it bumps the cost to about $14,000, airfare not included. Either way, the hefty freight does cover airport shuttles, meals, and accommodation at the lovely Hotel Levi Panorama for the event's duration.
As an experience for paying customers, Ice Force Pro benefits from Porsche's many years of developing its driving programs; the marque launched its first ice-driving experience in 1990, with Finland playing host to some of the events since 1996. The Levi venue has operated since 2014, and it's a shockingly expansive frozen wonderland: It covers approximately 76 acres and features 41 available "driving modules" incorporating slaloms, skidpads and, most fun, 17 different "racetracks" of various lengths and layout styles carved out of the many-feet-deep snowfall.
Levi is Finland's largest ski resort, which is no surprise since it is located in the Lapland region, some 110 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Winter runs from late September to mid-May, and the Ice Force staff begins constructing its tracks in November; driving programs begin in December or January and conclude in mid-March. During the brief summer months between June and August, the beautiful winter serenity you encounter during Ice Force training melts away to briefly reveal swampland that, standing here in January, you'd have no idea lies beneath the frost if no one told you.
On the skidpad—two, actually; one big and one small—on day one, there's nothing beautiful about my driving. Instructor Wallenwein jumps into the passenger seat to assist.
"More gas, more gas, outside, inside, outside, outside, outside, inside, less gas, more gas!" he calls out repeatedly, directing my throttle and steering inputs in real time. Suddenly the 911 is circulating in something approximating a reasonable, maintained drift. But time is up on this exercise, and I'm still unsure how this whole thing works. Speaking later with my companions, it's apparent I'm not the only one.
Our group of five drivers and two instructors trundles from the skidpad to a slalom course, where we circulate for about an hour, first slaloming through a few gates and then, at the end, incorporating the old Scandinavian Flick technique—brake while turning one way, then release the brake pedal and toss the car in the opposite direction to initiate oversteer—and attempting to hold a solid drift around a 180-degree turn. Reasonably successful efforts are met with cheers, failures with good-natured laughter from all of us observing while awaiting our turns. But this is slowly starting to make sense.
Light dawns on my own marble head about halfway through the following stop on the day's schedule, a road course-style handling circuit. When it does, I roll my eyes at myself, and for a brief moment feel like a genuine idiot, jet lag or not: Two decades of controlling rear-drive cars through snow on public roads has programmed my brain and my muscle memory, and it's almost entirely to blame for my early struggles.
This might sound blatantly dopey, but even though I know the Carrera 4 has all-wheel drive, the technique it demands is utterly counterintuitive to my instincts and experience. Instead of playing with the gas pedal—the sort of on/off dance I kept employing on the skidpads—the Carrera 4 needs you to turn it into a corner on the brakes and/or with a Scandinavian Flick, initiating a rear-end slide, and then stay on the power so the front-end torque can eventually pull the car straight. That doesn't mean drifting the car is as easy as mashing the gas and holding some opposite lock on the steering wheel. It's not, as there's still plenty of feel and skill required in terms of when, and how much, power and steering to apply. But once you clear the mental hurdle of keeping your foot in it, you take a big leap forward.
It's absolutely bonkers how much oversteer the AWD can save you from: At times, I'm facing completely backward before even getting to a corner's true apex, and my natural instinct at that point is to give up on the effort and to just try to stop the car. But that only ends with you parked sideways in the middle of the road, or snuggled up against a snowbank. If you can take the leap of faith that even the most ridiculous of yaw angles is recoverable, your perspective and confidence changes massively, for the better.
The next leap occurs when you become comfortable with and trust the idea that once the car is sideways in a corner, you can increase or decrease the drift angle and hold the slide with your steering input, too: Start to drift, then countersteer and maintain throttle, and the car begins to straighten its path. Turn the wheel back to the inside and yaw angle increases again; turn back to the outside to stop from going too far. You suddenly understand the "why" behind Wallenwein's earlier "inside, outside, inside, outside" commands. When we break for lunch and I tell him I wish I could now have another go on the skidpad, he just chuckles and says yes, it often takes a bit of time to wrap your head around this driving style and what the car can do.
After lunch, it's back into the Carrera 4s as we hit several more tracks, all the drivers in our group appearing much more relaxed and comfortable—to the point where you can feel the tension has eased as each of us realizes we can do this, and if you get it wrong—and we do plenty of times—the most likely worst consequence is stranding your car in the snow. A walkie-talkie call to Wallenwein and his instructing partner, Italian rally and race ace/accomplished competitive skier/bobsledder Andreas "Andy" Mayrl, sees them arrive on the scene in a Cayenne, towing you out in no time and sending you on your way. Of course, hit snow banks hard enough and you can certainly break or dent something, but none of us do so for the duration of Ice Force Pro. The extent of the "damage" is radiator openings blocked with snow and ice, for which Wallenwein and Mayrl use a high-tech solution: wooden spoons, perfect for stirring warm lohikeitto and for clearing the debris.
Though we don't drive the Cayenne as part of the program, it's always on our mind because of what the instructors dub "The Cayenne Challenge": There are three separate groups of drivers at Ice Force, occupying different cars and tracks at any given time. At program's end, the one that requires the least amount of tow-strap rescues overall is crowned the winner. Thus, throughout the course of the three days, members of our group give each other a certain look if too many reports of "Spin," followed by, "Ahhhhh, I'm stuck" calls go out over the in-car walkies. But it turns out we're well in the clear. The Cayenne Challenge prize is only a round of shots and tongue in-cheek bragging rights, but Group 2—our group—cheers at the farewell dinner when it's announced we've won by a landslide, with a mere 28 rescues required. For perspective, the group in last place reportedly needed 70- or 80-something tows. Or was it 90? Regardless, their instructors' Cayenne put in a lot of work.
The second and third days see us switching out of the Carrera 4s and into full-on Cayman GT4 Clubsport race cars and 911 GT3s. Even though all of the vehicles employed for the program—drawn from a fleet of 144 total cars on-site—have hundreds of metal studs in their aggressive winter tires (180 individual 4mm studs on Carrera 4s and GT3s, 600 5mm studs on the Caymans), day two begins with new trepidation. Let me get this straight: No sooner did we get the hang of the Carrera 4 … than we're in a rear-drive race car and then a GT3? Talk about an entirely different snowball fight.
Except, it isn't. The only changes made to the GT4 race car are the addition of a round steering wheel—you need to be able to use a fair amount of steering on snow and ice, so you don't want the small, square type of wheel used for road racing—as well as a softened suspension, but it's a blast in these low-grip conditions. In this car, my natural instincts serve me well in terms of how to use judicious throttle inputs, and it's a fast, flowing winter sled. The same goes for the GT3, though more than one of us comments later that we would have been happy to spend the majority of our seat time in the Cayman—but there's always Ice Force Cup if that's your preference.
Speaking of "flowing," by program's end, the most satisfying thing is to find you have advanced to the point of being able to string corners together in coherent drifts, transitioning seamlessly from one yaw moment to the next, feeling like a World Rally star. The various circuits offer up differing challenges: some are short (about a mile), some are long (up to 2.5 miles), some are flat, and some feature elevation changes. Some are wide (the better to spin on) and some are narrow. But each one is an absolute blast to negotiate.
That even goes for the courses we end each day on. At this time of year in Levi, it's pitch-black a bit after 4 pm, yet we keep driving for another hour on tracks we've not had the luxury of practicing on previously. It's a trippy experience as you try to learn where the "road" goes while also trying to drift, and the more we drive, the more snow gets kicked up and hangs in the air. This produces a situation akin to driving in fog as your lights bounce off the snow, a ghostly, vision-limiting effect simultaneously stress-inducing and peacefully mesmerizing. I stop in the pit lane more than once during these sessions, getting out of the car and just watching as others sail past in the bitter darkness. It's a tranquil, surreal sight, a rare ambience that's definitely one for the memory bank.
No matter the circuit or time of day at Ice Force Pro, you're never going particularly fast in terms of outright speed, but this isn't about lap times, just outright sideways fun. And other than getting great satisfaction from your personal improvement and skills development, the fun and the atmosphere is the best part of the experience. I've completed many driving and racing schools during the past 20 years, and the instructors and instruction at Ice Force are some of the best I've encountered. Wallenwein and Mayrl, for instance, are incredibly talented drivers, but equally good natured and patient. They're also a funny duo, unable to resist the temptation of drifting the Cayenne and their instructor-dedicated 911 at ludicrous angles as the rest of us circulate the courses. More than once, they need a tow of their own from other extraction vehicles, and each time we all crack up together as we drive past them, smiling as we assess how stranded they've managed to get this time. "Just go past, just go past," they say over the walkies as we eyeball them, which somehow makes it all just that much funnier.
The biggest surprise from Ice Force Pro, all of our group members agree afterward, is the sheer amount of driving time you receive. Without sharing cars, we spent six-plus hours per day at the wheel, an unheard-of amount of time compared to most any other driving schools or experience programs. That's precisely what makes this schooling a valuable driver training tool, as opposed to just something "cool" you did to say you did it. In the latter's case, you likely walked away with a few photographs and a meaningless certificate but probably didn't learn all that much in the grand scheme.
Put it this way: Upon my return to Southern California, I walked into my garage to check the battery tender attached to my own 2006 Porsche Cayman S. I looked at my car sitting there, and though I haven't once in the past five years missed harsh midwestern winters, I genuinely found myself wishing for a blizzard to somehow hit Los Angeles, and for a set of studded winter tires.
To learn how to book a session with Porsche Ice Force Pro, visit: https://experience.porsche.com/en/ice/events-and-services