Story and photos by Jil McIntosh
Steamboat Springs, Colorado – I like ice in my drink, not under my wheels.
But adverse road conditions are a fact of life in most of Canada, and they require a unique set of skills that few drivers have mastered, or even practice. I was pretty sure I was good at it – after all, I’ve never crashed into anything. So it was an eye-opener when I took a Toyota Camry around the ice track at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School, and almost ended up in the snowbank.
“A lot of people approach driving as just getting from Point A to Point B,” says Mark Cox, the school’s director. “We compare it to skiing: you may ski a lot, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready for the Olympics. Just because you do something a lot doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good at it.”
The school knows its stuff: it’s been operating for 24 years, on a large closed track that’s groomed and wetted daily to produce a slippery surface. A light cover of snow is deceiving: the track is really 15 to 20 cm of ice, and it becomes increasingly slicker as the cars pack it down.
Our first exercise builds confidence. Bridgestone has invited the press to see its new Blizzak WS60 winter tire, which it will sell next fall, and so we drive cars back-to-back, one shod with WS60 tires, the other with all-season. I’ve long known that the real name is “three-season”: the best tires have compounds and tread patterns suited specifically to summer or winter driving, while all-seasons are a compromise that don’t return 100 per cent performance in either. The winter tires bite in and do a superior job, especially on acceleration, where the all-seasons tend to slip. (Before coming to the track, we were also given a demonstration at a local hockey arena, where the WS60 was compared head-to-head with a winter-tire competitor, and proved its superiority in braking distances.)
A driver negotiates the winter driving course in a Toyota Camry. Click image to enlarge
But that’s all done at slower speeds, on a track with a liberal coating of snow, which provides a bit more grip. Ice is much different. There’s almost no friction, which is necessary for traction. If the temperature is close to the freezing point, instead of much colder, a thin layer of water forms between the tire and the ice, which further reduces adhesion. In short, it’s nasty stuff for driving.
The lesson starts with the importance of weight transfer. A car comes down to just four contact patches – where the tires touch the road – that aren’t much bigger than a sheet of typing paper. If they’re not making good contact, your car’s safety features are just there to mop up after the fact.
Weight transfer is physics for cars. Accelerate, and weight transfers to the rear – the feeling you get when you’re pushed back in your seat. Hit the brakes, and it all comes forward. That weight increases the effectiveness of a tire’s contact point, and is the key to effective driving.
The transfer is the same whether your car’s front-, rear-, or all-wheel drive. “We hear a lot of urban myths from students,” Cox says. “If you’re using good technique, the methods are the same whether it’s front- or rear-wheel. You do the same skid correction regardless of what type of drive it is. It’s only with bad technique that these vehicles perform very differently.”
Instructor Tania Bourbonnais explains that tires do three jobs: steering, accelerating and braking. “If we do each by itself, the tire can do 100 per cent of the job,” she explains. “If we try to do two at the same time, the tire can only do half the job.” So braking is done before steering into a turn, and acceleration is gradual as the wheels are straightened.
For an expert driver like Bourbonnais, it’s second nature, as is her reaction to a skid. That’s what separates her from someone like me.
There are two types of skids: oversteer is when the vehicle turns more than you want it to do. The rear end comes around, and the vehicle spins. Understeer is the opposite: you turn the wheel, but the car continues sliding straight ahead.
Correction requires techniques that aren’t necessarily intuitive. When the car doesn’t turn, the natural response is to turn the wheel even more, which does no good. The trick is to unwind the wheel, bringing it back slightly, which straightens the car out and brings it under control.
On the main track, at 60 km/hr, the back end of my car starts to come around. I know this one: steer into the direction of the skid. But on ice, it isn’t enough, and my instructor calls for more throttle.
More gas? It doesn’t make sense: I want the skid to stop, so why would I increase the speed? But it’s all back to physics: acceleration shifts weight to the rear wheels, increasing their grip. I depress the throttle slightly, as part of the skid management. At the last moment, I regain control, and I miss hitting the snowbank.
I’m better on the second lap, but it’s still not second nature to depress the throttle. This is my homework. Of course, I’m driving much faster than I normally would on ice, but that’s the point: knowing how to handle the worst makes it that much easier to react to the everyday stuff. The training is invaluable, at this or any other school, and should be part of every driver’s regime. I’m still floored by the number of parents I know who will readily buy their teenagers expensive video game equipment, but balk at the price of driver training that could save their lives.
“A car is just a tool,” Cox says. “If you give it proper input, it’ll give you proper output. Good technique and practice will make a car do things you didn’t imagine it could do.”
For more information on the school, visit WinterDrive.com.