Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge
By Paul Williams
Montebello, Quebec – My first experience driving a vehicle on the frozen surface of the Ottawa River was something like riding the Tilt-a-Whirl at the fair when I was a kid – just sit back and let the car do its thing, because I sure couldn’t control it. Could anyone effectively drive on slick ice like this? I doubted it.
Then Jean Francois Veilleux, an instructor with the BMW Winter Driver Training program took the wheel of the BMW 330i, and the car accelerated smoothly, went in a straight line, turned obediently, stopped, and didn’t spin once. After that, instructor Kelly Williams deftly performed forward and reverse 180-degree turns, tricky maneuvers using the handbrake and precise steering inputs.
Wait a minute, let me try this again. D’oh!
This is the first year BMW Canada has offered winter driver training in Canada, although since 2001 it’s offered fair-weather driver-training courses in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.
These courses range in price from $480-$2,975, and according to Colin Emms, manager of the driver training program in Canada, offering a winter course is a natural progression. “It builds skills, advantage and confidence when driving in the winter,” says Mr. Emms. “And as well as being fun, the skills you learn can help to avoid a potentially dangerous situation.”
Last year, 132 days of BMW Canada driver training were booked by 2,100 people who learned techniques such as threshold and emergency braking, skid control and throttle steering.
Included in the two-day, $3,800 winter driving course is the use of BMW vehicles (330i, 745i, X5) and accommodation and meals at the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello, near Ottawa.
“It’s part of a worldwide program that’s operated since 1976,” said Mr. Emms. “We train upwards of 15,000 people per year in several countries and we’re continually adding training days to meet demand.”
Pierre Savoy, whose former students include Formula 1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve and CART driver Patrick Carpentier leads a team of instructors for the winter driving course. They guide students through a series of driving exercises designed to build accident avoidance and car control skills.
The location at Chateau Montebello offers a unique opportunity to use the river as a skid-pad and slalom course (the ice is 45 cm thick) and to drive on a 4.5 km private trail which is part of a network of backwoods logging roads.
As I found at a press introduction to the program, the experience of driving on a surface akin to a hockey rink can be humbling, although as M. Veilleux and Ms Williams demonstrated, skills can be learned that reassert your ability to control the vehicle.
“Obviously it comes with practice and experience,” said M. Veilleux. “I’ve been driving competitively and training for 14 years and I’m able to read the surface and make the correct inputs to the car. I know how fast I can go; when, and how much gas or brake to apply.”
Indeed, braking too hard, steering too much or applying too much acceleration can quickly upset a car, causing it to spin or slide. Conversely, not responding aggressively enough can also result in loss of control. It takes time and practice to even begin to get it right.
Each BMW 330i is equipped with the latest stability and traction controls, and these can significantly improve drivability. But the vehicles in this program are specially wired to turn off some or all electronic systems when required (ABS, dynamic stability control, and traction control). Many of the skills practiced on the course were attempted without electronic aids.
Chief instructor, Pierre Savoy
At the end of the first day, drivers competed in a timed autocross (slalom), in which all the day’s exercises were linked. Unlike the students who for the most part enjoyed the climate controlled interior of their cars, the instructors and support staff had been outside in -20-degree temperatures for the full day. They were ready for a hot chocolate.
The second day of the course had us driving forest roads that were closed to the public. Chateau Montebello owns 60,000 acres of land (the second largest private holding in the country) and these are cris-crossed with trails. At speeds up to 80 km/h students were able to put some of the previous day’s exercises into practice, although some of the more exuberant drivers, perhaps influenced by images of rally drivers on television, managed a close and embarrassing encounter with the vegetation.
The second day’s exercises were conducted with the vehicles’ electronic systems activated, but on occasion we did turn them off. Surprisingly, these rear-wheel drive cars performed much better than I expected.
According to M. Savoy, it’s the combination of modern winter tires (Michelin Pilot Alpin in this case) and the near 50/50 front-to-rear balance of the cars that makes them so much better on snowy roads than rear-wheel drive cars of the past.
With the electronic systems turned back on they started easily on an incline, and ascended steep hills without wheelspin, which has revised my opinion that front-wheel drive cars are necessarily superior in winter (but I’m not ready to fully abandon that position just yet).
Subsequent runs along the challenging roads and trails were conducted in the relative luxury of a BMW 745i, which mostly yawned its way through the course while demonstrating that big cars can handle, too. BMW X5s showed their stuff on a treacherous, purpose-built, 4×4 trail while instructors contrarily suggested that BMW wasn’t interested in being known as an off-road specialist.
Lessons learned and confirmed? Winter tires offer significant advantages in the snow and ice; look where you want to go, and you’ll steer where you’re looking; you can maintain control of your car, even when the surface is slippery; electronic control systems can be very effective; rear-wheel drive cars can be good in the winter.
But most of all, driving at an appropriate speed for the conditions, and leaving room between you and the driver ahead is the key to safe driving in the winter.
While this course is priced beyond the budget of many consumers, local driving schools and association typically offer an array of winter driving programs. In Ottawa, for example, the Motorsports Club of Ottawa offers a one-day winter driving course for $150.00
More information on BMW winter driving courses is available online at bmw.ca.