Edge Of The Arctic Circle: Here’s What It’s Like To Drive JLRs On Ice
On the edge of the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden, Jaguar land rover runs its ice academy, where driving enthusiasts can experience the thrill of driving on ice. It is an adventure like no other on the planet.
It’s a cold winter morning, and the sun is just beginning to spread its warmth over the plains in front of Lake Tso Moriri in Ladakh. As I marvel over the slowly unfolding landscape, the peace of the moment is shattered by the ringing of my cell phone. I am tempted not to take the call, but then I see that it is from my old buddy Avinash. Avi, as he is known to close friends, has been my partner-in-crime on extreme adventures from the time we were in school together. So, I take the call and begin the banter with our usual rude pleasantries, when he says to me, “That trip we are planning to Vietnam early next year in January? Scrap it. I think we should go to the Arctic Circle instead.”
The Arctic Circle in January? I feel that familiar icy tingle of excitement mixed with a sense of dread. I’ve always wanted to travel way up north to seriously colder climes, and this seemed just the kind of crazy adventure that Avi usually plans. “Uh, in January? Won’t it be freezing?” I ask. “Oh, just about minus 30,” he replies breezily. “But don’t worry — you’ll be in the car most of the time. On the track, except, of course, when we’re with the dogs.” Minus 30? Car? Track? Dogs? I have no clue what he’s talking about, but then I like to put my fate in the hands of crazy friends, so my reply is short and to the point — I’m in.
When I get back to Mumbai, I get some more details. It turns out that Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), the Tata-owned British company, runs an Ice Academy on the edge of the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden, Lapland, in a town called Arjeplog. Located on a frozen lake and set against a vast icy wilderness, surrounded by pine forests, the test track is used for extreme cold climate testing of Jaguar Land Rover cars. The company also runs an adventure programme for driving enthusiasts who can experience the thrill of driving on ice, under trained experts. As I would learn later, the place is both surreal and desolate, an icy sub-zero landscape. Averaging three hours of daylight, the weather is cold and unforgiving.
We opted for a four-day programme in which top-class driving instructors would teach us how to control these magnificent vehicles on a very challenging terrain. For those interested, the package also includes some added extras such as dog-sledding through the pine forest and a once-ina-lifetime experience to drive all the way to the Arctic Circle.
So the stage is set for Avi, me, and four other intrepid adventurers from Mumbai to take part in the Jaguar Land Rover Ice Experience. The first thing to tackle is the weather. We will be going from 30° in Mumbai to -30° in Arjeplog. How will our bodies handle this? We fly in a day before the action, so there will be hardly any time to acclimatise. Having just returned from chilly Ladakh myself, I am aware of how the body reacts to sudden cold and high altitude sickness. Fortunately, we do not have to worry about oxygen depletion and altitude issues as Arjeplog is located at an elevation of only 534m. But, to avoid falling sick or risk injury, we have to ensure the right clothing.
We scour the internet for information on protective clothing for such extreme weather. JLR asks us to carry a good winter jacket. Is that all? Are they kidding? After all, we are Mumbai lads — not used to anything below 15°. For starters, a good set of insulated thermals are a must. On top of the thermals, we will need three layers of clothing: a base layer tracksuit, followed by a fleece jacket and pants, and, finally, a heavily-insulated trek pants and a hooded winter parka. Two sets of gloves: one inner pair for driving and one more substantial second layer for outdoors. Merino wool socks, appropriate winter boots, a balaclava to protect the face and a woollen cap. A few weeks later, we are on a flight to Stockholm, which will connect us to the picturesque town of Luleå, from where it’s a three-hour drive north to the quaint town of Arjeplog.
As we check into our hotel, we are welcomed by the JLR team and informed that our initiation begins at 7 pm in the Tipi lounge. With just enough time to freshen up, we make our way there and acquaint ourselves with fellow drivers from all over the world. Thirty-two of us will start off tomorrow in teams of eight. We are Team C. The lead instructor, Phil, fill us in: over the next three days, we will be driving from 9 am to 4 pm, with a lunch and tea break. Each team will travel in a convoy of six cars. The lead car will be manned by Team C instructors, Wayne and Craig. We pair up, and it is two of us to a car. Bringing up the rear will be a support vehicle in case of mishaps.
It takes a while to get the hang of the car and the icy surface; many times, a couple of us do a 360-spin on the track. Of course, on a few occasions when we lose control, the car skids and gets firmly wedged in the snow bank.
Phil explains that there are many different courses or circuits, as they are referred to, on the lake, and we will move from circuit to circuit in the coming days. The driving surface will be the natural frozen bed of the lake, and the route is encompassed by four-foot high snow banks. The ice is around 70cm thick, below which is the freezing water of the lake. The four basic vehicles that will put us to the test will be the Range Rover Sport, the Range Rover Velar, the Jaguar F-Type and the Jaguar F-Pace. At no point in time are we to race against each other or drive recklessly. This is a test of skill, endurance and discipline of the highest level.
At the crack of dawn the next day, we leave the hotel in a long convoy and head for the lodge at the edge of the lake that hosts the driving track. The gods smile upon us, for it is a beautiful day. Cold as hell, but with the sun peeking through the clouds, the vast exterior of the lake shimmers like an icy mirage. Team B heads straight to Dynamic Platform 1 circuit in the a. The F-Pace is a four-cylinder 132kw Turbocharged Diesel Automatic All Wheel Drive, with a top speed of 208 km/h. It can do 0-100km in 8.7s. Superbly compact and beautifully lightweight, driving this car is simply a joyous experience. Since it is our first day, Craig and Wayne get into the driving seat and give us a few pointers. Immediately we realise that, given the circumstances, we have to ‘re-learn’ a few driving concepts. For instance, Craig constantly reminds us to use the throttle (accelerator) rather than the brake to get us out of trouble.
Finally, it is time for us to take the wheel and zoom down the straights, drift around the bends, virtually like little boys in a surreal video car game. I’ve paired up with my buddy Sid, who is an experienced driver. Even so, it takes a while to get the hang of the car and the icy surface; many times, a couple of us do a 360-spin on the track. A few curses mumbled under our breaths, and we are on our way again. Of course, on a few occasions when we lose control, the car skids and gets firmly wedged in the snow bank. That’s when Mike brings the support vehicle to tow us out. Spare a thought for poor Mike — it is -30 outside, and he has to work on hooking the car to his own with a long tow cable in the harsh outdoors.
After a couple of laps, Wayne asks us to switch off DSC and take a few rounds, and that’s when we realise how difficult it is to manoeuvre the car in these conditions, and how much safer and more controllable the Velar is with DSC activated.
After about 30 minutes of driving, slipping, sliding and skidding, we head towards the next circuit, which is the Ice Driving Dynamic Platform 3. Here, we switch to the Range Rover Velar. In the days and cars to come, I will realise that this is by far my favourite from all the vehicles we will drive. Slightly bigger than the F-Pace, the Velar is a mid-size luxury SUV. The polished exterior blazes a look of sheer brilliance, while the interiors are positively beautiful. Top-notch leather styling gives a sense of genuine luxury, but what really gets you is when you start pushing this car to its limits on the track. The Velar boasts JLR’s new proprietary concept of Dynamic Stability Control (DSC). At the push of a button that enables DSC, the Velar seems to fall in love with the track and hugs every corner like a long-lost brother. It is almost as if the car is ‘suctioned’ to the road beneath it. This allows for faster and more controlled driving.
After a couple of laps, Wayne asks us to switch off DSC and take a few rounds, and that’s when we realise how difficult it is to manoeuvre the car in these conditions, and how much safer and more controllable the Velar is with DSC activated. When deactivated, traction control is reduced, and, even on the straights, upon accelerating the car is slides away. Each vehicle has a walkie-talkie, and under Craig and Wayne’s expert guidance, the whole team is beginning to drive faster with fewer spills. Since we are not entirely familiar with the twists and turns on the track, we have to continually watch out for markers and cones at the side of the road. These thin black sticks indicate which way the road will weave and twist. At the end of the day, a few of these markers will also have disappeared, thanks to some errant driving.
The concentration is fierce, and as much as we are enjoying the thrill, nervous energy is everywhere. Time flies by, and with the sun now out in its full glory, we head back to the lodge for a quick but sumptuous lunch. As we step out of the car, the six of us huddle together and marvel at the sight in front of us. The sun is now a blazing orb, and the frozen lake is like a wasteland from another world. The speeding cars have kicked up light snow, which whirls in the mist and adds a mysterious haze to the landscape. What a sight to behold.
The markers that indicate which way the track will weave and unfold are barely visible. I find myself desperately squinting to catch the next marker in time to avoid spinning off the track.
After a satisfying lunch and some light banter, we are back in the seat. This time we will drive the Range Rover Sport on the Ice Driving Dynamic Platform 2. The Range Rover Sport is a muscular car. The space and comfort inside are unparalleled, and though the car handles like a dream, it is a very different driving experience from the Velar. Because of its weight and size, it seems to generate velocity and force of its own. One can immediately sense that off-road or on-road, this car is a clear winner. By now the sun has completed its diurnal journey, and from a sunny yellow flaming orb to an orange fireball, the light is now fading, and by 3pm, it is pitch dark. But the driving is relentless. On and on we go, eating mile after mile, whizzing around circuits like some drug-induced speed demons, till finally, Wayne calls an end to the day, and we head back to the hotel. By the time I reach my room I’m a curious mix of physical exhilaration and mental exhaustion. It’s been a fantastic day, and there are still two more to follow. A quick shower, rest and dinner later, most of us are in bed, as the next day promises to be even more exciting and thrilling.
If it’s one thing I’ve learnt from all my travels, whether trekking in the Amazon or climbing mountains in Laos, it is never to take the weather for granted. Overnight, the weather has turned nasty. The sun has disappeared, it has been snowing through the night, and visibility is now down to about 15 feet. I put on an extra layer of clothing, for I can sense it is going to be a rough day. Once we hit our first track, Handling Circuit 1 in the Velar, I see that my fear is well founded; it is going to be a day of fierce concentration.
Despite the atrocious weather conditions, Wayne is pushing us to drive as competitively as ever. As the wind howls around me, the windscreen wipers perform their choreographed swish dance in a somewhat futile effort to keep the snow from blocking my vision. The markers that indicate which way the track will weave and unfold are barely visible, flashing by like ghostly apparitions, and I find myself desperately squinting to catch the next marker in time to avoid spinning off the track. Once again the Velar proves its worth, and I breathe a sigh of relief as I finish the circuit without a significant spill.
We now head to the Circle which, as its title suggests, is a large Oval Circuit. Wayne first gives us a masterclass in how to handle the Jaguar F-Pace on ice. The track is just a giant oval, and the idea is to keep the car at a somewhat constant angle on the slick surface. He takes the initial turn low on the power and then instantly hard on the throttle which ‘upsets’ the car, then he counter steers and pumps the throttle. He uses the momentum of the car so beautifully that, despite the fact that we are sliding around the track like a bunch of crazies, I’m just amazed as to how much in control he is at all times.
Once I take the wheel, it is an entirely different story. Being a large oval track I do not have to worry about twists and turns, but it is still essential to keep the markers in sight so that I do not spin out of control. Barring a 360-degree spin once, I manage just about to keep the car in the centre of the track, and now it is time for my co-driver Sam to take over. Sam is an experienced driver and is more in control than I am.
The supercharged V8 is a sleek monster with a beast under its hood. Driving in ‘Sports’ mode, this car fairly hugs the track even at high speeds.
While he is driving, I roll my window down and poke my GoPro camera outside to get some more exciting footage. Instantly the bitter cold penetrates deep into my hand, despite the two-layered glove. I hold on gritting my teeth. Suddenly, Sam misjudges the throttle, and we start sliding wildly towards the edge. I see the marker on my right side rushing towards me, and I yank my hand in just in time before it can smash into my wrist. Sam makes a miraculous recovery and just about manages to hold onto the track, and we are back in control. Both of us are laughing hysterically, and Sam is apologetic, but this is all part of the fun, after all. Soon it is time for lunch, and we are back at the lodge exchanging stories with other drivers. Everybody has a tale or two about a near spin or one that ended up in a snow bank. Looking out of the window from the lodge, I see that whatever little light we had is fading fast and driving until the end of the day is going to be even more demanding. And so, back we go to Ice Driving Platform 2 in the Range Rover Sport. While the car is centrally heated and we are more than comfortable inside, it is a different story when we step outside for driver swaps and car changes. This is the time to pull out a couple of Warmees and stick them in my pocket, shoes and gloves. Warmees are heating pads I had picked up in Mumbai. They come in various sizes and are simple to use. You tear open a small packet that contains a sachet that looks like a little soup packet. Then you vigorously shake the sachet for a few minutes. This exposes the chemical granules inside to the oxygen in the air, and after about five minutes the sachet starts heating up, and you slip it anywhere in your clothing; they stay warm for almost eight hours.
Post lunch, we are now driving the F-Pace on Dynamic Platform 1, and my co-driver is Priyesh, who, I suspect from the way he is pushing the car, has a lot of experience with Play Station driving games. I am just amazed at his skill and dexterity as he hurtles the F-Pace around the track at breakneck speed and, of course, it proves too good to be true. On one of the bends, a slight miscalculation, and we are sliding wildly into the snow bank. Priyesh makes a desperate recovery attempt by pumping the throttle, and there’s snow flying everywhere, all over the windscreen for about 5 seconds till we come to an abrupt halt. We are, of course, firmly wedged in the snow bank and amazingly we can’t even see the track. I can barely open my door, and so we radio for help. Mike arrives in the tow car and promptly gives us the award for ‘car that has spun farthest from the track.’ We offer to buy him drinks at the end of the day in exchange for his silence on our slightly off road experience.
It is the final day of track driving, the weather has eased up a bit, and our instructors now feel that we have got the hang of everything. We are back on the track, first in the F-Type V6, then in the F-Type V8. The supercharged V8 is a sleek monster with a beast under its hood. Driving in ‘Sports’ mode, this car fairly hugs the track even at high speeds and, every time I rev the throttle, adrenaline, seemingly trapped and constrained in my body, wants to burst forth. This time, throwing caution to the winds, I push myself to see what this car can do. After a few exhilarating rounds, I finally overdo it and spin into the snow bank. Poor Mike has to come and do his bit, but for me, it has been a morning well spun.
After lunch, the afternoon plan gets more interesting. We are taken to the JLR test and research facility, which is a few miles from the circuit. This is a sort of James-Bond-like experience. Everything seems to be top secret. No photography permitted, mobile phones to be handed in at the front desk, and a short brisk tour of the premise follows. A lot of the newly designed vehicles are painted in black and white camouflage paint. In one corner is the tyre testing centre. It is impressive to see the research and technology that goes into the making of a tyre, quite naturally, many different treads for different surfaces and driving conditions.
A few hours later we are back on the track. As I hit Handling Circuit 2 in the F-Type, a strange almost Zen-like sensation descends upon me. The light around the frozen vista is dim and, as I rev down the straight, the sounds around me seem to blur into the background. I can vaguely hear the occasional words of encouragement from my co-driver Amrish, interspersed with the dull roar of the engine. I feel like I am floating on the track and hands, feet, body and car seem to mesh in perfect synchronicity. The mind feels clear and light and, though I am completely zoned out, I am also strangely focussed as the track whizzes by. This is like an epiphany. And for a fleeting instant, I understand what all great athletes or sportspersons go through when they are challenged at the highest level. Call it a mixture of meditation, therapy and hypnotism, I am lost in my world, and it is just the car and me for the next four minutes.
Then, as I approach the end of the circuit, the world around me starts to focus back into reality. Amrish is looking at me with a knowing smile. Later, I find that all the others in our group reported similar experiences: a sort of otherworldly experience on one particular drive. We head back to the lodge feeling strangely emotional and quiet. I feel a strange sense of inner peace mingled with a feeling of elevated achievement.
As we cut through the trails, massive clouds of crisp, virgin snow swirl in our wake. Our lead instructor warns us that if the weather turns foul, we may have to turn back, but as we begin our journey the gods smile upon us.
And then, from a deep meditative zone straight into a super-high, adrenaline-fuelled drive with Wayne. As the culmination of our JLR drive experience, we get a one-on-one driving experience with Wayne in the Jaguar SVR F-Type, and as in all sport, when you watch a top-notch professional in action, it is a pleasure on another level. Sensei Wayne gives me a masterclass in high-speed driving. Ten minutes of sheer perfection, every corner and skid angles judged correctly and, even when the car is sliding around, he is in perfect control of the situation. At the end of this drive, my heart is pumping wildly, and all I can do is sit back and admire his super skills.
The day is done, and we’ve come to an end of our fourday driving adventure. But wait, there’s more . We book ourselves on an additional morning drive to the Arctic Circle for the next day. At 7am, we are in the Range Rover Sport. It is a three-hour drive through forest trails and paths, and we drive through an endless forest of pine trees drooping with the weight of the snow on their branches. As we cut through the trails, massive clouds of crisp, virgin snow swirl in our wake. Our lead instructor warns us that if the weather turns foul, we may have to turn back, but as we begin our journey the gods smile upon us, for the sun is now starting its mission to end in radiant orange splendour. As the sky turns from orange to pink to yellow, we are treated to a dazzling display of ever-changing shades of ochre. A smooth and uneventful ride, and a few hours later we drive up a trail that ends with a large whiteboard that says ‘Arctic Circle.’
We’ve done it. We bundle out of the cars, and the selfies and group photographs are taken. What a moment. I revel in the knowledge that not many people could be lucky enough to see a beautiful morning sunrise at the Arctic Circle. I look at the dashboard temperature reading of the Range Rover, and it says -32. Somehow I don’t feel cold at all. Our expedition is over but, rather than feel sad, we are elated and bound by a sense of brotherhood, camaraderie and fulfilment. But then, what more could we have asked for, as we stand on the top of the world?
Photos by Zubin Balaporia