Story and photos by Haney Louka
Mont Tremblant, Quebec – “You want to drive the car with the throttle.” Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Simple, that is, until you realize that driving instructor Aaron Povoledo is telling you that to change the car’s direction, use the throttle instead of the steering wheel. Stranger yet, he’s talking about a front-wheel drive car.
BMW, Mini’s parent company, held an event called the “Mini Winter Driving Challenge” in February to heighten participants’ awareness of how a car handles on ice.
Sixteen Canadians and their guests won a vacation package to famous Mt. Tremblant (www.tremblant.com) that included a full day of instruction and hands-on driver training followed by skiing and snowboarding during the second portion.
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But before the lucky contest winners got their hands on the Minis assembled for the event, BMW opened the classroom and training facility to sixteen automotive journalists from across the country. Turns out it was an eye-opening educational experience that proved many of the things our parents and driver’s ed. instructors taught us about winter driving are either outdated or just plain wrong.
The impetus for this event, as I see it, had two major components: First was to promote the active and passive safety inherent in the design of the Mini, a car people may regard as small and therefore unsafe. Second, and far more heavily emphasized, was how to improve participants’ driving skills armed with a basic understanding of what is happening between the primary vehicle controls (steering, throttle, brakes) and those four little rubber contact patches on the road.
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In the Classroom
Lead instructor Pierre Savoy, who has been in the business for 20 years (the last ten of which have been with BMW), started the intense day in the classroom discussing the basics of vehicle handling, and more specifically, how the front wheel drive Mini handles the slick stuff.
But first, Pierre discussed ostensibly elementary topics such as seating position and mirror adjustments. For maximum control, Pierre says that pedals should be a comfortable distance away such that it’s not a reach to push the clutch in all the way or to brace yourself with your left foot during sudden manoeuvres. The wheel should be positioned such that if your shoulder blades are flat against the seatback, you should be able to drape one wrist over the top of the wheel and still have a slight bend in your elbow. Keep in mind this is just a positioning exercise, and you’re not required (or encouraged) to drive like that. In Pierre’s experience, “people sat closer [to the wheel] and the car got smarter,” he said.
More surprising to me was that my mirrors have been incorrectly positioned all this time. The ideal positions for your vehicle’s mirrors are as follows: Once properly seated, adjust the centre mirror so that the rear window is centred in view. Pick an object (distance doesn’t matter) that you can see on the left edge of the view through the centre mirror. Adjust the left mirror so that same object is in view on the right edge of that mirror. That way, if a vehicle is passing on your left, it is viewed through the centre mirror and then the side mirror picks up as it passes. The resulting side mirror positioning is aimed much further out than you may be accustomed to. The benefits, though, are no duplication of function between centre and side mirrors, and shoulder checking is virtually eliminated. Once a passing vehicle has left the view through the side mirrors, it enters the range of peripheral vision, even if the driver is looking straight ahead.
The last major point that Pierre wanted to get across before we got to the driving dynamics was the position of hands on the steering wheel. If you view the wheel as a clock, your hands should be positioned at the 9 and 3 to allow for a full 180-degree range of steering in each direction without lifting a hand off the wheel. “If you need more than that to get out of trouble,” Pierre says, “start praying.”
But Mini’s PR folks didn’t get us there to show us how to sit in a car. We were there to learn how to drive one.
We set off from Mt. Tremblant in a caravan of Minis to the Circuits Mecaglisse (www.mecaglisse.com), about 80 km east in Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci. The cars used for this event were 115-hp Mini Coopers equipped with the continuously variable transmission, allowing students to concentrate on developing new skills rather than compounding the issue with a third pedal and a stick. The weather couldn’t have been better tailored to this event: minus eight degrees and snowing all day.
We spent the remainder of the morning and early afternoon performing a series of exercises that highlight individual handling characteristics and skill development.
First was a braking exercise that required us to judge when to hit the brakes at certain prescribed speeds. The only catch was we had to have complete faith in the anti-lock braking system of the cars and not let off on braking pressure. The obstacle we were to stop just short of was a pylon, which Pierre affectionately named “Matilda.” I managed to avoid Matilda, though after one stop from 60 km/h I finished a car length short. So far, so good.
Exercise two was a low-speed slalom that involved using the full range of steering with hands at the 9-and-3 position. After a few runs, Pierre instructed us to let off the gas abruptly as we turned in, which induced oversteer, or fishtailing as it’s commonly called. Fixing oversteer involves countersteering and a light application of throttle to transfer weight rearward and increase traction at the back.
Next was understeer: front-drivers are notorious for ploughing straight ahead if too much throttle is applied while turning a corner. This tendency of a car to turn less than the front wheels are turned is aptly referred to as ‘understeer,’ and can be recognized and cured, or completely prevented with proper knowledge of how a car’s weight is transferred as a result of driver input. Pierre said that the only solution to cure understeer is to slow down. In addition to the obvious, this results in a slight but critical transfer of weight to the front wheels, affording them more traction for steering inputs. If you’re really in trouble, straightening the wheel might work, and it’s your best chance at regaining control.
The understeer exercise took the form of a circular ice skidpad with banks forming the inside and outside limits of the car’s travel. The goal was to find a certain angle of steering input that worked for driving in the circle and hold the wheel there. Next, we were instructed to accelerate to induce understeer and slow down to regain traction at the front and tighten the turning circle. Doing that while restraining from moving the wheel takes practice, but it’s really effective at demonstrating how much more control is possible with a little understanding.
After lunch, the cornering exercise allowed us to combine skills learned earlier with braking and accelerating. The keys here were to brake hard and let the ABS do the work. The turn-in and apex points of the corners were marked to make placement of the car easier for higher speed cornering. But here’s the number one trick: look ahead. At corners, this means looking out the side window despite the urge to look straight ahead into the bank. I know, it sounds simple, but it’s easier written than done.
The last individual exercise was “brake and avoid,” created to mimic a situation where something is blocking the road ahead, requiring students to swerve either left or right. The catch was that at the last moment, a light illuminated on one side, representing a person stepping out onto the road, leaving only one option. One of the key things to remember was to keep looking ahead into the distance (a pylon was set up to make this easier), because we didn’t know which side the obstacle would develop. I thought I had mastered this one until the last run when the instructor waited longer to illuminate the light, and I ended up anticipating which light it would be, going in the wrong direction. Good thing it was just a light.
The Final Exam
Next came the final exam. An autocross was set up with the goal of combining all individual skills to aid in navigating the course at higher speeds with more control.
After the first couple of laps, I was thoroughly enjoying myself and becoming (so I thought) comfortable with the course. I became a little too ambitious and entered turn one (after a long straightaway) too fast. I leaned on the brakes but it was too late. And when the car didn’t do what I expected, I panicked, throwing all I had just learned out the window. Suffice it to say that I became intimate with the snowbank on the outside of turn one.
It just went to show that despite knowing what to do, a panic situation doesn’t always enable the mind to act rationally. The key is to minimize the chance of getting yourself into that situation. Understand the way your car handles, and if you have access to one, take a winter driving course. Who knows, you may be able to keep cool and get yourself out of an otherwise difficult situation when it really matters.
I came away from the event with a heightened awareness of how subtle driver inputs can have a dramatic effect on how a car handles at the limits of adhesion. Pierre Savoy summed it up: “You need to recognize a dangerous situation very quickly, but react slowly. Too often people take too much time to recognize danger and react too quickly.”
On top of that, I have a newfound respect for the Mini. I already knew that it was stylish and fun to drive, but now I appreciate how its balanced chassis and predictable behaviour translate into more control in emergency situations.