“Wait…wait…ok, power on!” commanded the instructor. “Power, power power!” My foot hesitated for a split second before coming down hard on the accelerator. The back end of the car had already spun out, and the vehicle lurched sideways up the track, spraying ice into the air. My deer-in-headlights reaction time, however, had already done me in. As we careened toward a snowbank, my responsible driver instincts took over and lurched the wheel in the opposite direction of our drift and send us into a neat tailspin. After burrowing the luxury car’s grill into the wet snow and feeling the embarrassment ride the wave of blood into my usually pale face, I could hear the Portuguese instructor say in a calm voice, “Your reaction time is slow. You need to anticipate what the car is going to do.”
My instructor, professional driver Tiago Rodrigues, started racing more than 30 years ago. I, on the other hand, have been driving an unremarkable spread of family cars since I was a clueless 16—my most exciting moments behind the wheel centered on inching through the perennial snowstorms of Upstate New York. Yet here we were together in the North of Finland, riding around on a frozen lake. Bentley flew me out to test some of the most luxurious high-performance cars in the world.
Thousands Of Pounds Of Metal On A Frozen Lake
Since 2006, luxury automotive manufacturer Bentley has hosted a driving event in Northern Finland known as the Power On Ice. It’s part demonstration and part marketing event for the select few with large wallets, but it’s also tremendous fun. Just south of the Arctic Circle, in an otherworldly and brilliantly white landscape, guests are invited to push the limits of Bentley’s fleet in some of the harshest natural conditions cars can be tested in. Under the tutelage of professional drivers, guests careen around an ice course that’s cut into the snow resting atop a lake in Kuusamo. And this year, they also got to commandeer a pre-production model of Bentley’s sparkling new SUV, the Bentayga.
The course itself is designed by Finland’s own Juha Kankkunen, a four-time world rally car champion who treats visiting drivers with a white knuckle “hot lap” around one of the tracks. At the completion of my own “hot lap” I fumbled over an awkward “thank you,” to which he replied “Eh, simple” with a relaxed smile and a banking gesture of his hand simulating a car’s movement. There wasn’t a single moment throughout the entire adrenaline-soaked lap that the car was ever facing straight ahead.
Perhaps one of the best ways to show off a high-performance car’s prowess on ice is to drift in it. For those not versed in the automotive lingo, drifting is when a driver oversteers and causes the back wheels of the car to lose traction, flinging the back end out. What better way to flex automotive muscle than to sling thousands of pounds of growling engine around an icy corner? It also happens to be just plain exciting for passengers and spectators alike. The sight of it instantly gets the blood pumping. It is an art, however, which requires particular skill and lots of practice.
I did a heavy amount of drifting behind the wheel of two cars: the Continental GT Speed, a powerful two-door coupe, and the Flying Spur, a boat of a sedan with a supreme luxury interior.
My first experience drifting was in a bright green GT Speed. I struggled a bit on a figure eight track swinging wildly back and forth with no real semblance of flow. I did a fair bit of plowing snow on that go around but thankfully Rodrigues, my instructor, didn’t have to call the “traktori”—the eight-ton tractors that come rumbling over to drag out the more spirited drivers that find themselves spinning tires in the snow. The goal in these exercises was not to crash in the snow, but it inevitably happens, and in a way, it means you were really giving it a go if you did. The guest with the most traktori pull outs usually gets an award, and this year’s lucky winner got a pair of green tractor-shaped cufflinks.
We moved on to the circle track next, where I began to settle into a groove. On the circle, you could pretty well drift non-stop around the entire track if you could hold it. It was good for getting the feel of the technique, and with the 626-hp twin turbocharged W12 engine snarling in front of me and the leather steering wheel in my hands, the rest of my surroundings washed away—with a giddy version of myself in control. A quick swipe of a snowbank quickly brought me back to Earth, however, when the icy surface I was traveling on decided to put my cockiness in check. Out on the ice, “I feel like I’m twenty something,” remarked guest Judi Hannan during a break at the lodge.
Drifting in the Flying Spur felt something like how I would imagine a limousine barreling across a frozen lake would feel. Watching this sedan sliding sideways in a wall of snow across the ice was a bit comical. I even felt a little silly driving it as such, but that was trumped by the fact that it made this yacht on wheels exceptionally fun to drive. (But don’t be fooled; its appearance belies Bentley’s robust W12 engine.) It drifted much more easily than the GT Speed but required a bit more patience. “Wait until the back goes, then power on,” advised Rodrigues as I floated around a corner at 50 mph. “As soon as you feel the back go around, gently increase the power so you can control the drift.”
It was easy to get a little overzealous inside the bright orange Spur, and even though I was driving English style on the right hand side, I started to cut left turns as though I were still steering from the left, provoking a yell from Rodrigues—“Watch the passenger!”—as I excavated some snow with the left side of the car.
After a pause in the driving, Rodrigues leaned over and suggested we grab some coffee or tea. “I always tell my guests that every once in awhile, you must take a break, because you start to lose concentration.” Which was certainly true. I hadn’t realized until I was slumped in a reindeer hide-covered chair gazing into a wood fire that I was mentally exhausted. Out on the ice, twisting and turning in a homogenous white landscape with your surroundings racing past you, the neurons in your brain wind up working overtime, firing off like it’s the O.K. Corral.
From The Track To The Road To The Ice
When Bentley rolled out the Continental GT3 for the 2014 racing season, it was the first new Bentley car to hit the racetrack in over a decade. With it came its cousin, the GT3-R, a remarkably unchanged road-going version designed to bring a harder edged, sporty option for Bentley customers. The technical carryover from the GT3 to the GT3-R is such that the specifications for each car are nearly identical. The most notable being the 4-liter twin turbocharged V8 engine (they gave the W12 the heave-ho to reduce weight) that growls awake when you gradually accelerate, like a bear grunting out of its winter slumber.
I was aware before I got behind the wheel of the GT3-R that Bentley let go of certain luxury amenities to shave weight in the never-ending pursuit of speed—there is no wood in the interior, for example, and light carbon fiber makes up the difference. But even with that weight loss, the car still weighs a hefty 4900 pounds. I was a tad skeptical.
As I hurtled around the frozen lake in the GT3-R with but a modicum of control, however, I could still nevertheless feel the supreme control of the low riding vehicle and the overarching sense that serious power begged to be let loose from the hungry engine—if only I was bold enough to open up the gates and let it run free. This 4900-pound beast ran around the ice like a much lighter animal. And if the GT3-R grunts and growls like a bear, then it sprints like a cheetah, exploding from zero to sixty mph in an eye-bulging 3.6 seconds. Kevin Baker, the event’s medic who also works Formula One races, remarked to me one white morning as we headed out to the lake, that the cars “bring out everyone’s 12-year-old self.” For me and the GT3-R, that was an understatement.
Off-Roading Like A Roman—In Supreme Luxury
One of Bentley’s main attractions at this particular rendition of Power On Ice was their still-in-the-womb Bentayga—the company’s first foray into the world of sport utility vehicles. They’ve thus far billed it heavily as the most technologically advanced, highest performing luxury SUV out there, and although that is a heaping spoonful of marketing speak, the pre-production model I was able to take for not a small number of spins out on the lake did not disappoint.
Not that Bentley ever goes for a bunt, but with the Bentayga, it’s evident they are really swinging for the fences. They’ve subjected it to a wide array of extreme environments all around the globe, from super dry to super wet conditions, and thermometer-busting hot and cold temperatures, so it seemed as though they brought it to Finland to test its mettle on the ice and not just for public relations reasons.
Before taking it onto the lake for go arounds on a dynamic track, Rodrigues took a fellow journalist and me down an off-road path to let the vehicle flex for us a bit. “You basically just let it go,” he said, as he jostled back and forth in his seat and inched the SUV along in the deep snow. Rodrigues explained further that the intelligent computer system in the car does all the work, constantly adjusting wheel heights and placements, and weight distribution of the car.
Cruising around on the ice track in the Bentayga was both incredible and numbing. I took my coveted swing in this vehicle in the early afternoon when the sun was already starting to wane. Wet snow and a cloud-covered sky started to hinder visibility, and the chopped up slop on the surface of the ice that had accumulated during the unseasonably warm day brewed into some unsavory conditions.
Driving a pre-production model with a $229,100 price tag in this environment doesn’t sound like a relaxing situation, but riding inside the Bentayga is like sitting in the eye of the storm—pure tranquility.
Channeling the aura of the standalone rock pillar on the Canary Islands of the same name, the Bentayga packs a 600-horsepower W12 engine that catapults the SUV to a top speed of 187 mph. A bit much? Perhaps. But it does all this with a level of silence and ease noticeably absent in many other high-performance vehicles.
Riding inside the Bentayga is like sitting in the eye of the storm—pure tranquility.
As I cruised around the track, I could feel the car gauging the ice surface and adjusting appropriately. There is a sense of autonomy with this vehicle—which would be bizarre if the comfort and luxury of the stitched leather, hand-polished veneer and massaged seats didn’t make it one of the most comfortable rides I’ve ever experienced.
In the sublime cabin interior, Rodrigues didn’t have to give much direction but just relaxed and chatted about the specs of the car. After he had gone over the blind spot control, traffic sign recognition and the array of cameras and sensor-based driver assistance technology that helps control the car, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps the engineers and designers were looking into the future of driving when autonomous cars will rule the roads.
One night after a long day of driving on the ice, while sitting in the warm, candlelit environs of the main lodge, guest Judi Hannan remarked to me that, as a writer herself, she pays close attention to how certain surroundings stimulate her senses. “For me it’s all about the senses, and here, all the senses are engaged. With the driving, it’s all about the feel of it. About knowing when the back end is swinging out—I think it really fine-tunes all your senses.”
I dwelled on that a bit and was reminded of a moment that occurred earlier that day. I was standing out on the lake in knee-deep snow with my camera. I had just taken a rotation in the GT3-R and was still coming down from the adrenaline. It struck me, in that moment, that I was the only person out on the ice. Snow started to silently fall, blanketing the great white expanse even further. Four or five growling high-performance cars motored around the lake in varying degrees of acceleration, yet despite this, a great quietude filled the air. Each car cut through the void like individual voices calling out to one another, but did not contribute to a larger automotive din that can often happen at these events. I stared off into the white horizon listening to this back and forth, my face shrouded in each breath I let out. As I slipped into slumber that night, I could still feel the movements of the cars swaying back and forth.