“OK world, you can stop when you like, because I’m ready to get off.”
Growing up, all I ever wanted to do was drive a Lamborghini. While kids around me were aiming to be astronauts and engineers, my sole ambition was to catch the horizon in a screaming V12 from Sant’Agata. And, if you, like me, grew up in the 1980s, you will agree that the odds of my going to space and achieving my lofty ambition were about even. Then, a man named Manmohan Singh arrived, a policy called liberalisation was put in place and before we knew it, motoring journalists like me were being called to drive Lamborghinis at launch. Who would’ve thunk it?
Anyway, the first time I drove a raging bull was courtesy a generous owner of a Gallardo SE. The drive lasted maybe five minutes at most, but the memory set in place for a lifetime. I remember welling up as I thumbed the kill switch on the V10. You would too, if your pursuit of happiness came through. Now, I’ve driven Lamborghinis after that, but the excitement hasn’t died one bit, to the extent that on the days leading up to a Lambo drive, I start acting like I have a sugar rush. Thus, when Pablo, managing editor at MW, called to ask if I would like to drive some Lamborghinis on ice, I felt like declaring him the winner of the ‘most rhetorical question of 2015’. “I can barely drive one properly on tarmac,” I said instead, tossing my driving shoes in the trusty Samsonite. “Well, good,” he replied. “Because, this is the winter academy, and they will teach you how to do just that.”
Now, you might wonder why one needs to be taught how to drive on ice. After all, it’s not very likely that Lamborghini owners have a one-car garage, in case they need to get somewhere in a hurry in a snowstorm. However, getting to experience these extremely powerful machines on ever-changing levels of grip introduces you to the nuances of car control in a, well, controlled environment. Besides, it’s a shitload of fun, and, from a company that paints some of its cars lime green, this is exactly the kind of thing that’s expected.
The venue was the Nagano Prefecture, in Japan. It was -7 degrees celsius, and the Lake Megamiko looked like it had been untouched since the Ice Age and Peter Muller was addressing the briefing room of eleven other journalists. “I am chief instructor here and every other place in the world,” he said, in a tone that had us believe we were going out to defend Stalingrad. Muller’s job was to make sure us motoring hacks (known for their heavy right foot and ham-fisted motor skills) returned all the cars in the same condition as they were given to us. Also, like he said, this was an academy, and the idea was to get our car control up to the point at which we could start drifting them within an hour. “It’s not very easy, but our instructors will try their best,” he said, as he went around introducing us to them.
My instructor was Kei Cozzolino, a rather effusive Japanese-speaking Italian, who instructed in English. Cozzolino drives in Formula Nippon, and interacting with him, you could tell that his garage was probably the venue for the after-parties on the circuit. Lamborghini had carved out a track (in the shape of a reverse ‘F’) on the iced-up lake, but before we got a go at it and started making Huracan silhouettes in the snow walls, we were going to be taught how to go around corners on ice. A good idea, considering even getting in and out of the car was a little precarious on this surface.
At the risk of sounding redundant, the biggest difference between driving on ice and tarmac is the level of grip. It’s not that straightforward because with ice, there’s the element of snow. And, snow, because it’s dry, helps with grip. However, the snow isn’t endless, and depending on how thick the layer is, you can have loads of grip around one corner and then none at all in the next. So, what happens when you enter a corner and you can’t get the power down? You end up being a passenger, and no matter which way you turn that steering wheel, the car is going to maintain the trajectory that it set off on. This is Understeer 101, in other words.
The key to avoiding this is to use the throttle like a gun — tiptoeing with it, waiting for the rear tyres to bite and then taking a nice big stab at the loud pedal. This is exactly what the whole exercise around the skid pad and the U-turns around a cone were all about. Also, because the cars have so much power, the idea is to maintain a delicate balance between putting down just enough power so that you are still maintaining forward motion, but with the front wheels pointing away from the corner. This is Oversteer 101, and when done well, it’s the most spectacular sight involving an automobile.
Since the levels of grip were so unpredictable, we were driving without traction control in operation. Ordinarily, to do that in a Lamborghini, you need to have a firm belief in the concept of a higher power and some oversized family jewels. The idea here was to feel the car, something that the electronic nanny would never let you do to the fullest. This is why the ESC was switched off and stayed off, even though these cars were on normal winter tyres.
Truth be told, this academy wasn’t about going fast. It was about managing power and traction, using the two to do a ballerina act around corners and then smiling to yourself, knowing that you did it in a 700-bhp monster. In any case, you are on a surface that’s constantly shuffling and shifting, so even when you are doing just about 100 kph in a straight line, it’s just as bottom-clenching an experience as when you’re banging on the rev-limiter in top gear. Also, braking is so unpredictable on ice that the ABS system keeps doing its best impression of a government employee — any sign of work and it leaves in a huff. And, if that’s not enough of a challenge, you are never looking at where you are going. All of this comes together to make a really memorable day of driving.
Post lunch, armed with everything that I had learnt through the day, it was time for a few hot laps down the track. Unfortunately, by the time I had a go, a lot of cars had already done the lap a few times, exposing the ice and making it rather treacherous. Still, that wasn’t enough to stop me from setting the lap record for the day. Kidding. But, I did take one big leap of faith, went down four ratios on that ultra-quick gearbox just before the apex of the penultimate corner, waited for the rear wheels to latch on to some fresh snow, got the car into a drift and held it there through the next corner to some thunderous applause. OK, I lied about the applause too, but the rest is all true. Cheekily, I turned to Cozzolino, who was smiling just as much as me. “Alright buddy, got what you came for?” he asked. “Yup,” I said. “I’m ready to get off.”