Jaguar’s ice driving academy: Thrills, spills and (almost) taking out photographers under the Northern Lights

Learning how to drive on snow and ice could save your life. It's also bloody good fun, as Adam Hay-Nicholls discovered driving Jaguars in sub-zero conditions through the Swedish wilderness. Photography by Richard Pardon.

It’s normal to floor a car’s accelerator at the flicker of a green light, but what I see ahead seems otherworldly. Dancing and shimmering across the clear night sky, above a line of snow-laden pine trees, are the emerald ribbons and flares of the Aurora Borealis.

This is no ordinary racetrack I’m staring down. Illuminated by the Northern Lights, this is Jaguar Land Rover’s Ice Academy.

We’re in Arjeplog in northern Sweden, 35 miles outside the Arctic Circle, driving and drifting on a frozen lake. It’s –27˚C, but the adrenalin rush of these winter games keeps me warm. Studded tyres and 4ft-thick ice combine to provide the most exciting track I’ve ever driven on.

Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has snowploughed seven courses, equalling 40 miles of track, and handed me the keys to a fleet of vehicles, directing me to drive as sideways as possible. The tracks comprise drift circles, slaloms and dynamic handling circuits, all individually designed to discover the power and agility of the machinery.

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The trip includes three days of driving, with a travel day either side when you can relax and ride around on husky-pulled sleds. I’m on the advanced course, which involves more time in the 575bhp Jaguar F-Type SVR Coupé, a beast in any conditions. The price of this adventure is €4,250 (around £3,700). By the end, you’ll feel as if you’ve gone from rank amateur to ice-driving pro.

The key to enjoying the driving and getting the best out of yourself is to be relaxed, but you’re not going to be that way if you’re at risk of a telling-off. The instructors recognise this. Both are professional racing drivers: Geoff Bowes is a calm, fatherly figure, quietly encouraging, and Zac Chapman (a dead ringer for Daniel Radcliffe) laughs off the inevitable spins.

“In a moment of carefree abandon, I enter a corner far too fast, know I’m not going to make the turn and throw the F-Pace straight into the snow

With traction and stability control switched off, my first steps are tentative. We learn the basics in a Range Rover Sport around a simple oval; how to get the nose of the car into the corner and use the throttle and steering to rotate it. Take your foot off the throttle, turn and let the front wheels bite. If you apply the power too soon, you’ll plough straight on. Once the car is where you want it, reapply the throttle and drift on opposite steering lock.

There’s a slip angle built into the tyres in order to help them slide. It’s not simply about being speedy and efficient, there are imaginary points for style. However, the Range Rover is heavy and it feels unnatural.

I begin to feel more confident and a lot less conservative with the lighter Jaguar F-Pace, where the driving position is similarly high, but the car is more even on power and a whole load more chuckable. I’m sawing at the wheel. We move onto slalom circuits with switchback corners, which reward pendular drifts.

There is, inevitably, the occasional ‘off’. The circuits have a small outer ring of snowbank, which the cars can easily escape from, creating dramatic whiteout photo opportunities, but just beyond is solid, deep snow. In a moment of carefree abandon, I enter a corner far too fast, know I’m not going to make the turn and, in order to avoid our photographer (who’s standing right in the path of impending doom), I throw the F-Pace straight into the snow. I subsequently require digging and towing out.

We return to the red-clapboard Hotel Silverhatten, overlooking Lake Hornavan and the surrounding forests, where many petrolheads and engineers congregate to feast on elk and reindeer steaks. Arjeplog isn’t only home to JLR’s driving experience – between November and April, several companies offer similar programmes and many more use this place for technical development and testing.

Beyond the 4,900-acre JLR facility, there’s a much further expanse of frozen lakes and alpine flats assigned to the likes of Ferrari, Bentley, Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, Audi and brake and tyre manufacturers. The Lapland Ice Driving facility, which these other marques use for their customer experiences, features full-size replicas of four grand-prix tracks, including Silverstone and the Nürburgring, laid out between the snow banks. Arjeplog may only have 1,977 inhabitants, but it’s the largest driving complex in the world and, in the winter, the population doubles.

The following morning, I take the V6 F-Type to the drift circle and, having spent most of the night dreaming about technique, the result is a revelation. This car is rear-wheel-drive, so although it’s more difficult to drive on ice, it’s easier to predict what the car is doing and it suits my driving style.

To drift this car requires sensitivity and finesse, so I gently increase the power as I steer around the circle and then hold a constant speed once the back end drifts around, gently correcting the steering to maintain a constant skid angle.

My fortitude continues to build on the handling tracks. Lightweight and predictable, the F-Type’s dynamic characteristics are tremendously satisfying and, although I still have the odd spin, my car control is becoming increasingly telepathic and my reactions heightened.

The stakes get higher the faster you go, which one must be mindful of. The tyre footprint decreases as speed increases – the studs help, but the stopping distance is much longer than on tarmac. You have to recalculate your awareness of speed in these conditions.

“Here, for the first time, I clap eyes on the all-new Land Rover Defender – once I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement and handed over my phone before I enter the building”

After the second day’s driving, which includes time in the all-electric I-Pace (a very different performer on ice and, with permanent Electronic Stability Control, rather like a pony that refuses to trot), Geoff and Zac hand us over to the JLR engineers to take us behind the scenes of their cold-weather testing operation.

High fences with barbed wire surround the whole facility, but photographers are never far away. The car-parazzi sell their spy shots to car magazines. There are more circuits here and special all-surface roads, where JLR develops technologies such as anti-lock brakes, dynamic stability control, traction control and low-friction launch settings for all its new models.

The test vehicles are kept in a high-security hangar. Here, for the first time, I clap eyes on the all-new Land Rover Defender – or, at least, I see the basics. It’s wrapped in dazzle camouflage, which is designed to obscure the curves and throw off cameras. I have to sign a non-disclosure agreement and hand over my phone before I can enter the building.

On day three, I’m like a coiled spring and can’t wait to get out on track. For the final day, they’ve let us loose in the F-Type SVR, the puissant all-wheel-drive derivative of Jaguar’s range-topping coupé.

The £113,000 SVR packs 575 brake horsepower, neck-snapping acceleration and a 200mph top speed. I wasn’t about to try that on these tracks, but, on the drift circle, I’m comfortably sideways at 90. A huge rooster tail of powder makes the mirrors obsolete. The V8 creates a howl that can be heard for miles, like an eldritch wildcat.

Despite the higher speeds, the SVR is a lot more forgiving than the rear-wheel-drive derivative. If you make a mistake, most of the time, the front wheels will be able to claw you out of trouble. You can therefore be much more aggressive, as well as quicker. What follows is a furious dance. If driving the six-cylinder F-Type is like a waltz, the V8 is breakdancing.

We progress to the largest of the circuits: a mix of quite long straights – where it’s important to put the power down cleanly to hit max velocity – wiggles, kinks, dog legs, sweepers and horseshoes. In the cockpit, it’s as if you’re in a washing machine being thrown side to side. In my wake, there’s a jet stream of powder.

I’m learning to look further ahead, to see the exit of corners rather than concentrate on the apexes. I’m also gaining a greater understanding of weight transfer, steering with the brakes and the throttle and getting the front end to bite.

575 horses or 12 dogs? Both have their attractions…

Where a more combative turn-in is required, I’m taught to execute a ‘Scandinavian Flick’, in which you flick the steering one way in order to loosen the rear, then quickly rotate the other way so as to neatly and tightly negotiate a hairpin. In the course of three short days, my ice-driving skills have come on more than I could possibly have hoped. I now feel ready for the Andros Trophy and the asphalt of Brands Hatch seems dull in comparison.

There are hundreds of enthusiasts who come out to Lapland every winter, some for a few days and others for a whole season, to learn techniques that can be life-saving or – I sense, for the vast majority – simply to get extreme sub-zero thrills. Despite the concentration needed not to crash, you will find yourself grinning throughout.

Hours after stepping out of the car, I feel the floor shuffling beneath me this way and that, rather like the swaying feeling you get after disembarking a ship. Before heading back to the UK, I’m given a ride by 12 huskies pulling us along on a rickety sled. Nevertheless, my overriding memory of Arjeplog will be the 575 horses.

To book places at the Ice Academy, visit SAS flies to Arvidsjaur (which is an hour’s drive from Arjeplog) twice a day via Stockholm.