The second part of stage 5 was based at Levi Rally Centre, where we would be learning the basics on driving on ice and having a go in their rally cars. Finishing off the week with a race between the PNM team!
Levi Rally Centre
Now it was time for the serious stuff. We arrived at Levi Rally Centre and were greeted by our 3 instructors for the week; Jani, Keio and Seppo. Jani Ylipahkala was a pro rally driver and holds the record for driving a car on 2 wheels whilst going 200kmph….so we’d be learning from the best!
We were briefed about the upcoming week and the breakdown of the next 3 days. I sat their still in quiet disbelief about what we were going to have the chance to do. We had one last coffee before hitting the track. We would be starting off in 'normal' cars so we had a VW Golf and a Ford Focus to begin with. Once I sat in the back and K revealed he’d never driven a manual before I was quite thankful we weren't starting off with the powerful stuff. Having only ever driven manual cars before I didn’t quite understand how difficult it may be for someone who hasn’t. But as the Focus stuttered forward erratically as K grasped the idea of clutch control I was quite thankful that I’d used gears before. After a few hilarious laps teaching K about the gears and how to get the car moving smoothly, he mastered it and we began our basic winter driving training.
Apart from having to drive on the wrong side of road and in a left hand drive car, where I was often trying to find the gears by the door handle, the training was good. The huge difference that your speed makes when your trying to do an emergency stop on ice is crazy, by going from 50 to 60kmph the breaking distance nearly doubles! We also learnt to swerve on ice by having to avoid a cone reindeer but usually knocking his head off when sliding past. After lunch we went to the oval track where we were shown how to take the corners and the best racing line to take on the track. With K as my parter I wasn’t short of laughs and at times I held on in the back for dear life, laughing my head off as K got to grips with the gears and drifting round corners. Driving round the oval track in the normal cars was quite difficult, they didn't grip to well and I often found I was oversteering on the corners resulting in a 360 spin as I tried to accelerate out. It was a good introduction though and at the end of the session they drove the BMW M3s rally cars that we would be driving tomorrow. That big grin returned to my face.
Today we were in the rally cars, BMW M3 with 280 hp and tyres with hundreds of 10mm studs for sticking to the ice. As I dropped down into the bucket seat and was strapped in, I was a bit nervous about the power I was in control of. Seppo was my instructor for the day and we started off just driving it around the oval track. Getting used to the car and learning the best way to drive them on the ice. Compared to the cars the previous day these were completely different. Obviously more powerful but also the line that you take through the corners is different. You can take a wider line in, break early then try and accelerate out. It was tough at first to get to grips with but once you got it right it felt amazing. Mikko (our cameraman) I’m sure had a death wish as he sat near the apex filming our failed attempts.
There were 2 tracks which we were practising on, one I found a lot harder than the other because of its tighter corners. My technique was always to break as little as possible, but I was taught it's actually faster to break hard and fast before the corner, drift it round then quickly accerletate out. It does feel quite wrong to break so early but because the stopping distance is totally different on ice it's much more effective. The last few laps of the day I really felt I was starting to get it and I felt quick. As I looked back at the videos it looked embarrassingly slow but thats usually the case.
This was all building up for race day, and as a stupidly competitive person I was already nervous about the next day. On some laps I would nail it and do everything right, but I also had a tendency to be too eager to accelerate out of the corners and spin off. If that happened on our timed laps It would be a bit of a disaster. I knew Mattias was the guy to beat, he was driving on the right side of the car, and unlike K and Yuichi he also drives manual cars and he was looking quite fast during the practise laps. In my head he was the main competition.
Day 3 - Race Day
I woke up early like I usually do on a sunday before I play football, my belly a mix of hunger and nerves. And with another night of restless sleep and swapping beds I needed a few extras coffees with my breakfast to liven me up. I could tell that no one else was anywhere near as worked up or competitive as I was. You’d think that would chill me out but I was still unable to sit still during our final morning briefing. The format of the day was a few practise laps, then we would have 1 lap of the two tracks then a surprise 3rd lap in the afternoon. The temperature had dropped considerably and it was-21 so and the tracks were a lot icier. We got one go round each lap as a practise which I screwed up by spinning out on both so I wasn't felling too good.
There was only two cars and 5 drivers so we’d been taking it in turns to go out, swapping tracks and instructors each time. The previous days I’d enjoyed these breaks with the team discussing progress and any spins we’d had but on race day I could do nothing but pace. Popil found my nerves funny, I don’t think she could quite comprehend my comepitiveness. As she’d never even driven a car before these 3 days the fact she was even driving round the track was a massive success for her and very impressive. As I paced the hallways telling myself to ‘Drive hard but safe, don't spin’ Seppo beckoned me for my first timed lap.
Helmet on, all 5 points on my seat belt done up and I was ready. I completed my favourite lap first, with Seppo reminding me to drive like I had been the previous day, but making sure not to spin. We would be doing a flying start so we had nearly a full lap to get up to speed and ready to start. My hands were sweaty and I was so close to the steering wheel I probably looked like my nan but I was determined to clock a decent time. Mattias was out on the other track and I knew I had to get in right in order to beat him.
Track 1- 1.09
It wasn't the best i’d ever driven that track but it was a solid time, and as I got my fist pump from Seppo my nerves let up for a while as I walked back to the cabin to await the second lap. Mattias and I compared times even though we’d driven different tracks and had no idea if they're even a similar distance. Next was my nemesis lap. The one that makes me spin out on the same corner every time. I know M had done a good time so I needed to really maintain the speed.
Track 2 - 1:12
Again it wasn’t the fastest I’d driven round that track but It was a solid time so I was happy, we worked out the current standings before lunch and it was very tight between Mattias, Yuichi and I. Unfortunately K had a bit of a disaster on his first lap, spinning a couple of times and ending his chances which was a shame because I thought he could have been a dark horse. As we ate lunch we were all trying to work out what the final stage would be, as we’d seen with K you can easily throw it all away with a spin so we were all anxious about what it would be.
The final lap would be track 2 but anticlockwise. So the racing line would be a bit different and some of the corners would be harder. This was already the lap I didn't like so the thought of doing it the other way didn't fill me with confidence. We were all allowed a practise lap, and I took it really slow trying to pick the best line out for my race lap. Mattias went first and we all watched eagerly from inside the cabin. We thought we’d seen him spin out quite early but we weren’t sure where the start line was so couldn't determine if it counted or not. As he walked back I could read on his face that the spin had been on his official lap. This was my chance, as Keio and Seppo strapped me in they both told me to just take it easy and set a solid time. M has spun so the pressure was off.
The starting line was in the same place as last time but you cant really get to full speed so I started off pretty slow. I took it all pretty easy, similar to my practise lap just trying my hardest not to spin but I was much more relaxed knowing the pressure was off. I could of gone faster but I didn’t want to risk it. I stepped out of the car and felt relived to have done all 3 laps fairly well. I knew I’d driven them all better at one point but thats always the way. We just had to wait for Yuichi now who was doing some pre lap stretches. As I saw him zoom off I thought about how I’d completely forgotten that he was only tailing behind me by a second which he could easily make up if he just put his foot down. And as he sped past the cabin, drifting round the corner I knew he’d got it. Everyone could tell his lap was faster than mine, but was it fast enough?
As the results were read out poor K had come 5th because of his spins on his 1st and 3rd lap leaving him in last place, his 2nd lap showing though that if he hadn't of spun he may of been in contention. Popil was over the moon with 4th place, having expected not to even be able to compete because of her lack of driving license! Then M came in 3rd as we thought, and I was second. Yuichi the silent samurai master had done it, by none other than 0.5 seconds but he nailed that final run and was a deserved winner.
What makes it even better that Yuichi won was the fact that 20 minutes later he went up to K pointing at mine and his certificates exclaiming that ‘I won’ - during the ceremony he misunderstood and thought he’d come in 3rd place. It was brilliant and ultimately the best outcome. M and I were too competitive and it was a nice lesson for the both of us.
Seppo and Keio then took us out and showed us how the pros do it. It was such good fun, I was laughing the whole way round, the speed that they hit the corner with is crazy. Then a sharp break and back on the accelerator, just like they taught us but much better executed. They did comment on how tough the surface was and how slippery the track was, they said how well we’d all done to even complete our laps so that felt good. Just when we thought it couldn't get any better we were told we could be Jani’s co-driver for a lap round the forrest track before we finished for the day.
Jani was incredible driver, it was such an experience to sit along side him and he bombed through the forest in his rally car, getting so close to the tree I thought we were going to clip them. And at points the car was completely off the ground as we bounced over small jumps and swung round tight corners. It was the best end to my favourite activity so far.
The levi rally centre team had been great and we’d progressed so much over the 3 days we were there. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to experience ice rally driving and it is something I will never forget. That half of a second will forever haunt me but either way it was an unforgettable experience that I would love to do again.