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HOTSHOT TESTING IN ICE AND SNOW
You can keep your tarmac track days. BMW’s Alpine xDrive event offers up a performance driving experience like no other.
If you want to drift a $200,000 BMW 7-Series on snow, you first need to deal with a crazy German shouting at you at the same time.
The crazy German is known as Lars Mysliwietz and he’s not being especially antagonistic, he’s just trying to give me a crash course — pun definitely unintended — in drifting.
Mysliwietz is a 25-year motorsport veteran, four-times German rally champ and — for the past 15 years – a performance driver trainer for BMW AG. He also likes to shout “Power! Power! Throttle! Throttle!” a lot. And then when, hands flailing around on the steering wheel, I achieve the exact opposite of what he’s expecting me to do, he’s in the habit of shouting “Aye-Aye-Aye!” as well.
The BMW connection is why he’s spending his afternoon shaking his head at my 740d xDrive on top of an alp in the Crown Range; I’m attending the 2016 BMW Alpine xDrive event.
This is the seventh year BMW has held the Alpine xDrive at the incredible Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds (SHPG); part of Cardrona’s Snow Farm.
After spending the night at Millbrook Resort in Arrowtown, paying participants from all walks of life (but mainly “enthusiast driver” ones) travel by helicopter to the Crown Range to drive around some of the SHPG’s handling tracks, experience what it’s like to (safely) lose control on ice, attempt the aforementioned drifting and, finally, go for the coldest hot lap with performance driver Mike Eady at the wheel of an M3 sedan (on snow tyres, natch).
A good day out? Yeah, you could probably say that.
The 490ha SHPG is an automotive testing facility unlike anything beyond Western Europe or Scandinavia.
Auckland | Penrose
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The only international class test centre of its kind in our part of the world, it boasts 16 separate facilities, cleverly arranged around the mountain so that competing automotive companies can be in residence at the same time, yet rarely meet one another.
From humble beginnings a few years ago with a single ABS test strip, the SHPG now boasts multiple handling tracks, ice-covered skid pans, gradient ramps constructed of heated concrete side-by-side with iced paths, an ice tunnel, refuelling and recharging stations and many a heavily shuttered windowless workshop, where all manner of future product sits hooked up to banks of diagnostic equipment. Probably.
This place now hosts up to 45 different companies each season and, across a five-year period, almost every major manufacturer of vehicles, tyres and other components will be in residence at some point during the Kiwi winter.
Back to the drifting though; it’s much harder than it looks on snow because each of the five vehicles at our disposal are all wheel-drive (yes, even the 7-Series).
This means that rather than counter-steer into the drift, you need to steer with the direction of travel and feather the throttle ... so, sort of opposite of what they appear to do in those Fast & Furious “documentaries”.
As much as I’d love to boast about successfully sliding the luxo-barge, I have better success in the drift circle in a lowly BMW X1.
Perhaps it has something to do with the X1’s compact crossover SUV nature — or its significantly lighter kerb weight — but finally I start to get it; steering into the drift, remaining focused on the next marker rather than the deceptively solid snowbank to my right, easing the power on and off to maintain the right angle.
Once you start to “get it”, it’s surprisingly intoxicating.
Of course, skill is relative. And any skills I fleetingly discover are put to shame compared to those of BMW New Zealand’s head driving instructor, Mike Eady.
He’s in charge of the this-is-how-it’s-done section of our day at the SHPG: driving Alpine xDrive participants around some of the facility’s handling tracks in a rear wheel drive M3 sedan.
The noise the M3 makes sounds especially epic bouncing off all that crisp snow, while Eady rarely has the car poised with its nose looking straight ahead.
The control is impressive; a fellow xDriver’s GoPro footage revealing just how close the car comes to scraping the snow banks.
The only possible finale could be a refreshing beer in front of the outdoor fire at the historic Cardrona Hotel, at the bottom of the Race to the Sky-utilised access road.
Well, we earned it.