"You need to create oversteer," said John Haugland, "then just try to build up acceleration again. Get traction. And go." The Norwegian's soft, melodic voice had an almost hypnotic effect on my reactions as I attempted to slide the BMW around a circuit cut into the heart of a frozen lake. "It is very slippy," he continued, "Head for the snow; lots of grip."
"Lots of grip" turned out to be a relative expression. Even in third gear, the 318i's tail was constantly trying to overtake its nose. The tires cried miserably as they scrabbled hopelessly for grip and the rev needle swung manically as traction was lost and found. Even Bambi had more poise than this. It felt ludicrous and yet the smile beneath my helmet was growing wider by the second. It lapsed only when Haugland suggested that we return to the pit lane.
Stepping out, I swapped notes with Graham Mace, who's arguably the most important engineer in Ford of Europe. This jovial Englishman is an Attribute Integration Specialist, which, to dispense with the corporate mumbo jumbo, means he's the guy responsible for signing off the dynamic characteristics of all the vehicles. He names Jackie Stewart and Ford VP Richard Parry Jones as his mentors, and has one of the most finely tuned backsides in the motoring world.
Mace and I were chatting at the John Haugland rally school, some 300km northwest of Oslo. We had been joined in Norway by senior members of his team. They were there to hone their driving skills in the most extreme of conditions and to experience the Ford DNA in the raw. Mace explained the objective of the course in blunt terms: "We want to make the engineer's driving more intuitive. If we can extend the performance envelope of each tester, then they will be able to devote more of their mental capacity to analyzing the car, rather than concentrating on their driving. It's also hugely satisfying," he added with a grin, "but that's not really the point."
The BMW had been brought along as a rear-wheel drive benchmark, but the other test cars were prototype versions of Ford's European line-up. A 1.6-liter Fiesta, a 2.0-liter Focus and a high-performance Mondeo ST220 were all on standard winter tires, but as an added bonus there was also a 3.0-liter Jaguar X-type and a Puma coupe that had been fitted with spiked rally tires and could be driven on a separate circuit. The Puma even had a roll-cage, even though there was nothing solid to hit. "But you will get stuck in the snow banks," said Mace. "If you don't, you're not trying hard enough."
I joined the course at its midpoint--the engineers had already had a couple of days of practice. To help me play catch-up, I was sent out again with Haugland, this time in the Mondeo. The Norwegian spent twenty years as a works rally driver for Skoda, before setting up his school in 1990. He's taught some of the world's best, including Alister McRae--who he thinks is better than Colin--and former world champ Richard Burns. Given the talent of his normal pupil, it was difficult to guess his thoughts as he sat next to a hapless hack enjoying his first taste of left-foot braking. Whatever his mind-set, his soothing tones were encouraging and his criticism constructive.
In the BMW, the technique was to deliberately provoke oversteer with a prod of the throttle at the point of turn-in. A shallow angle of slide must then be retained until the exit, balancing the car on the throttle and steering input. By contrast, the natural inclination of any front-wheel-drive car is to power understeer, with the nose pushing wide at the merest hint of gas. This can be countered by applying left-foot braking pressure, which transfers weight to the front wheels and increases the available grip. It also helps to keep the engine spinning at or near the heart of the powerband. At first I found myself jabbing hopelessly at the middle pedal and activating the ABS, but familiarity bred sensitivity.
The main circuit is 3.7km long and is framed by 3-ft-high snowbanks. It mixes high and medium speed corners with a couple of hairpins. There is a wonderful S-bend sequence that can be taken at reasonably high speed. The entry to each corner, explained Haugland, must be accompanied by a dab on the middle pedal to present the car to the corner. Performed correctly, this will encourage the rear end to form a natural pendulum, swinging the car from apex to apex. On the rare occasion that I managed it, I felt truly heroic.
Swapping the Mondeo for the Puma demonstrated the true worth of this novel technique. The studded tires transformed the car's handling. Far from scrabbling around at jogging pace, the studs bit hard and deep into the ice, providing strong traction and braking potential. Leaning on the brakes with my left foot, while keeping my right hard on the throttle, the diminutive Ford hauled its way out of tight bends with extraordinary gusto. The Jag offered more muted responses, but it was fascinating to feel the torque transfer to the front as we accelerated through the turn. On ice, an X-type feels amusingly like a Nissan Skyline.
At the end of the day I jumped into the Fiesta's passenger seat beside Mace and asked, gingerly, what all this has to do with everyday driving? His answer was intelligent and ingenious: "When you buy a home stereo, it's normally rated at about 200 watts. You only actually play it at 5 watts, but you know that at this output it's going to sound terrific. Therefore, if we can get a car to work well up to the limit, we know it'll work well at normal driving speeds while delivering a pure driving experience." That's why Mace invited his powertrain expert, who will use the course to learn more about the effects of driveline pull on understeer and oversteer.
The final day began with the threat of timed laps in the Focus and BMW. I may only have attended half the course, but I still felt some pressure. If I was hopeless, how can I retain my credibility as a road tester? My self doubts were exacerbated when I was over-enthusiastic with the handbrake and half-spun the Focus at an icy hairpin. Thankfully, I was on the pace in the BMW and some pride was restored.
The introduction of a competitive element inevitably created a degree of tension. Reputations were at stake, and Mace said there's a "wall of shame" at the Lommel test facility in Germany, which is filled with pictures of dishonorable failure. The banter, among technicians of differing nationalities, was amusing, but the times were also a measure of how much we'd all improved. The best estimate is that over the four-day course, the average attendee had shaved around 40 sec. off their lap time. This would appear to confirm the validity of Mace's rationale and should offer real benefits back at Lommel.
What the course also showed was just how committed Ford is to ensuring that its vehicles lead the way dynamically. Ever since the disastrous Escort Mark IV of 1989, Ford of Europe and, latterly, Ford worldwide, have been committed to creating a brand value based around driver enjoyment. Mace described himself as "the guardian of the brand DNA" and talked at length about an "overall functional harmony that characterizes all Ford products." All the primary functions--brakes, throttle, clutch, gearbox and steering--must work in harmony, and the Ford "feel" is felt most keenly through the steering. It would be easy to dismiss this simply as corporate guff, but to listen to Mace is to hear a man who believes in what he said. His sincerity was impressive.
I was still pondering these thoughts as I hopped into the BMW and prepared for the drive back to the hotel. Suddenly, Mace's face appeared at the window. "It's probably best to turn on the traction control, Alistair," he said. "You might get carried away."
Attending a Course
Anyone can attend a course, which runs from December 1 to mid-March. "We concentrate on four basics," explained Haugland. "Driving technique, car set-up, pace notes and personal preparation." The tuition costs $1,150, but this does not include travel costs, accommodation or, crucially, the hire of a rally car.