Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Scandinavian Weekend.

Last weekend saw my long awaited trip to Sweden to try my hand at a winter rally school - and I can tell you that it was completely awesome.  The whole thing is run by a guy called Martin, a lifelong friend of my dad and his old co-driver from his rallying days.   It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time as I’ve always been into rallying, so this year I thought ‘why not’ and booked to fly out and try.
The flight out only took a couple of hours but the transfer from the airport back to the house took nearly five.   It would have been miles quicker had it not been for the locals all driving nearly identical Volvo estates with roof pods on at no more than 40 kilometres an hour.   They all head out skiing at the weekends and unfortunately followed the exact same route that we needed to take.
Rather than stay in the hotel on my own, Martin invited me and another of his friends to go and stay at the house with him and the guys he had out there working with him.   The house had belonged to an elderly couple and when the husband died the old lady just walked out and left the house and all her belongings behind, so everywhere you looked you could see reminders of the house’s past - even down to food in the cupboards and clothes in the bedrooms.    It was a great atmosphere in the house with everyone just sitting down that evening for a few beers and a chat before heading off to bed for an early night.
When I woke up the next morning it gave me my first glimpse of Sweden in the daylight and all I can say is lots of snow . . . . measured in feet rather than inches.   It’s funny how when we get an inch of snow the country grinds to a halt yet here they had two foot plus and just carry on like nothing has happened.   The sun was rising just as I got up and it’s fair to say the scenery was pretty spectacular.
 The lake was about a kilometre away from the house and we headed down there quite early so they could get everything sorted out.   The lake itself is about 2 miles long and is frozen with 80cm of ice from Christmas until the beginning of April.  Through the snow on the top they have carved two small practice stages and a larger 2 kilometre stage around the edge.    Out of seven cars they had with them they took four to the lake that day, two Mitsubishi Evos and two Subaru Imprezas.   They are all proper rally cars and were running studded tyres for grip on the lake.
There were only four people going out on the ice that day and two instructors so it meant we had more runs than you would normally get.   My instructor was a guy called Wattie from Berwick on Tweed, and we headed out for our first run on one of the practice stages in one of the Evos whilst another guy headed off to the other stage with the Subaru.
When you first get onto the ice you are blown away by how much grip you have – it’s completely different from driving on snow at home.    Added to the fact we were driving on a lake and that I had never driven a four wheel drive car - or anything like the Evo at all - I spent the first session being very erratic, throwing the car from one awkward sideways to another with far too much speed and far too much lock with my arms spending most of the time crossed completely.   Somehow I survived and didn’t get stuck in the snow bank.
As each session went by I started to get more confidence in the car and holding the slides and using the power to pull you round the bends.  Wattie was great and told you just when to brake, when to put the power down and when to set the car up into a slide.  He was genuinely pleased when you got it right and I was really trying my best as I didn’t want to disappoint him.   There was a lot to think about and it was genuinely really hard.   I loved it though, and the feeling of holding the slide is brilliant.
At midday we stopped for a bit of lunch before returning to the lake to do some ice karting.   Like the cars the karts have studs in the tyres, and you race them round a really tight triangle shape track with a nasty chicane on one of the straights.   It was more like stock cars than go karts with someone ending up spun or in the snow bank on every bend.   You could really get the karts sideways and carry  some speed – it was a really good laugh!
Once we’d finished trying to kill each other it was back in the cars to take to the big stage.   At over two kilometres with several hairpins and some 90 degree bends it really gave you a feel of proper rallying.   Wattie was telling me to brake with my left foot so I could set the car up into a slide and keep the power down at the same time, this was like starting everything again after 12 years of racing and braking with my right foot to suddenly start using the left was really difficult!   You could see the advantages instantly though with the car literally dancing and flowing from bend to bend.
We did five runs in the afternoon followed by a passenger ride.   To sit next to Wattie was a real experience; he did everything so much quicker than me, and had the car sliding through the entire stage barely pointing in a straight line once!
After what I can safely say was one of the best days of my life it was back to the house for a few more beers and some serious games of cards.    I drove one of the cars back from the lake.  It was nearly dark and with all the spot lights reflecting off the snow and trees lining the road on each side it was a great experience.
It was up early again the next morning to go out snowmobiling before the long drive back to the airport.    We covered approx. 60 kilometres on a snowmobile in about an hour.   Flat out they did 103 kph, and with the wind and snow blowing in your face it was absolutely freezing!   They were some serious machines though and a great way to admire the scenery.    Once back at the minibus and changed ready to go home I managed to walk through a snowdrift that almost came up to my waist, leaving me freezing cold for the next five hours!
I know this blog hasn’t been about Hot Rods, but as we’re on a winter break not much is happening anyway, and as you obviously have an interest in cars and racing I thought you might find this worthy of a read.  I really can’t recommend it enough.   I learnt so much in the short time I was there and enjoyed every minute of it.   Can’t wait to go back next year!
Thanks as ever for reading.  I’ll try and bring you right up to date with what’s been happening in my racing world next week.
Until then…

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