Today’s cars typically come with a complex setup of electronic control systems that makes it possible even for an inexperienced driver to safely command high-powered vehicles under typical driving conditions. There are, however, situations which bring those systems to their limit. Among them is driving in deep snow and on icy surfaces. For that reason, it’s advisable even today to learn to master those situations you normally don’t encounter during driving school.
This is especially true if you’re involved professionally in developing modern automotive chassis systems. In addition to the reasons above, it stands to reason that for actually developing and perfecting such chassis control systems, a good command of a car under such conditions is a prerequisite. That’s the reason why I took the training described here as a vocational training.
However, a practically identical course is available to the public: BMW M GmbH, the high-performance branch of BMW, was the first car manufacturer who did offer driver trainings, and the BMW Snow Intensive Training is part of their curriculum for those winter driving situations.
Description of the Training
The training is a two-and-a-half day affair. Two days in the cars, and the evening before that with theory lessons. The training includes the car fleet for the lessons, full board and accomodation. More specifically, at Central Spa Sölden, a five-star hotel with two-star cuisine, sporting various awards, among them “most luxurious ski hotel worldwide” (VIP International Traveller) and “Best Wellness Hotel, Austria” (Gaut Millau).
The schedule for day 1 includes driving on a snow/ice terrain in the valley. There’s exercises including controlling over- and understeer, evasive and brake/evade manoeuvers, J-turn etc., all of them under low-traction conditions. The cars are BMW 330i and M3.
Day 2 brings you up to the two glaciers, for more excercises on specific tracks. This includes a snowy handling track, climbing steep slopes, use of snow chains and two drift parcours. The fleet for this day is a combo of BMW 5 and 7 series, X1, X3, X5, X6, the limousines in variants with both rear- and four-wheel drive.
The evening before
After an uneventful drive from München (about 3 hours) and checking into the confortable rooms, we were greeted by the instructor team, Fritz and Mirfet. Those two would work with us for the next two days. Our group consisted of 18 people (of a maximum of 20 for that training), which were organized into two groups of four/five pairs. Cars are shared for the actual training, so although each of the following days included a full eight-hour schedule not including the lunch break, there was enough time to relax, as during the actual lessons, you would switch drivers. Of course, explanations and theory blocks were held in the plenum of both groups and by both trainers, while we split up for the actual driving.
The theory block included the basics of driving, both from a vehicle dynamics and a “user interface configuration” point of view. General properties of driving (like oversteer and understeer situations) were explained, showed using short instructional films and possible remedies discussed, pointing out differences between front/rear/four-wheel-drive cars.
Of course, seating position and steering technique were explained thoroughly, as well as the specifics of winter driving (weather/sight conditions etc). Already at this point, the teachers made it clear that this training had two equally important goals: the first goal was obviously to learn handling a car in winter conditions; the second goal was to thouroughly enjoy the event. The day ended with a shared dinner (a five-course menu, if you ask), before it was off to bed for roll call at 7 the next day.
Day 1: In the Valley
After breakfast, it was already time to roll to the training ground in the valley which was only a few minutes away from the hotel, the participants manning the fleet of 330i and M3. As on the day to come, the procedure was always the same: after some introductory instructions held by both trainers, the pairs split up and alternatingly tackled the individual tasks, which were coordinated by one of the trainers.
The day started off with a lesson which had both groups acting together: a series of drag races for which one group used the 330i and the others used the M3. Before you say you can already anticipate the result: the race happened on ice – and for that, it not only showed that the M3 isn’t necessarily accelerating better under such conditions, but also that clever use of the traction control (keeping it switched on vs. DTC mode or switched off) and of the gearboxes (double clutch in the M3, automatic in the 330i) was key here.
Next were classics known from every driver training: target emergency braking, evading an obstracle, and evading while braking – only this time again on snow and ice. One interesting fact already surfaced here very prominently: while on a dry road surface, if you do one exercise several times it’s always the same; under those conditions the result changed every time as the surface did – and very radically so.
For lunch, it was back to the hotel (this time only for three courses), and after that, we hit the training ground once again.
The first part were various exercises with understeer and oversteer situations. In both cases, the drivers moved in a circular track, and by changing engine torque or steering angle, oversteer or understeer was provoked and then countered. Although as before, traction was extremely low, both these situations were actually easier to handle than on dry or wet road, and for one simple reason: while on higher μ traction coefficient, the
necessary speed and/or engine torque required to reach oversteer or understeer is relatively high (and thus everything happens rather fast), the slow speeds and low engine torque required here made it possible to consciously and precisely do the right thing, and to work on perfecting it in the consecutive runs.
Part two was then a timed parcour, with a standing start leading into a slalom, before you turned 180°, accelerated down the straight parallel to the slalom, and finally made another evasive braking maneuver ending into a targeted stop.
Again, the constantly changing track conditions played gambit with the participants. It was again interesting to see that finding the right braking point was key, as was to take a very close (and oversteer-free) line in the slalom portion, while slight oversteer actually helped in the 180° turn.
The evening featured another block of theory, this time focussing on proper use of snow chains (on the agenda for the next day), before the day ended into the socializing part: after some spare time, which you could feel free to spend in the health spa area of the hotel, which included several different sauna areas, hot stones and the like, there was the “Tiroler Hüttnabend” (Tyrolean hut evening). Sitting together in the hotel’s wine cellar area, a local folklore duo provided music (later on, moving into nice interpretations of rock and pop classics, where audience requests were sometimes only honored if the requester agreed to sing lead), an impressive array of meat and accompanying dishes was served – before the event moved along into merry drinking, and even later on into the bar (which this author missed on, mainly because of being under medication for some injury of his back).
Day 2: The Glaciers
This morning started with some very beautiful, sunny weather, and after breakfast had us moving up the glaciers. Now those glaciers are heavily in use for alpine skiing, and that’s why people go up there in ski lifts – but for our event, we took the fancy transport option of a snow groomer, to arrive on the glacier in a nice -20° temperature.
In the first part, we started off by driving along a narrow mountain road, covered in snow and ice, the track including a wide area again with a slalom installed. This was done in several runs, with the drivers switching among the different vehicles: two 7 series cars (one with rear-wheel drive and snow chains fitted, the other 4WD), and X1, X5 and new X3 SUVs (all of them with 4WD). It was interesting to see in this part how those cars, different in many aspects of their chassis systems, behaved rather differently on this track. For me, the favourite was the new X3 (which clearly demonstrated recent improvements in chassis engineering), with a close second for the 4WD 7 series, fitted with rear-wheel steering – which is (only) on first sight rather surprising, because one wouldn’t suspect a large and clumsy-looking saloon car to handle so well under such adverse conditions. It was also salutary to experience an event not part of the offical programme myself, namely being hit by a small snow slab while driving dynamically, by this deprived of any sight for several seconds.
Part two instructed us of the art of climbing a steep slope covered in snow, again testing the different cars available. We were required to stop the car while in the middle of the slope, then go up the slope to the top. This requires sensible use of the throttle, a view for spots which had comparably better or weaker traction, and finally keeping in mind that perfect traction can only be achieved with a straight steering wheel position. Fortunately for me, I grew up in a family who not only had lived in alpine areas for some time, but also knew how to handle a car there, so this was really the part of the training where I could truthfully say that I had already learned those contents from my mother long ago.
Lunch was taken this day at the restaurant on the Rettenbachferner, a location usually catering to skiists, before we moved on to the afternoon of day 2.
Again, the agenda contained two parts, which we all did with 335d rear wheel drive cars. First, we were instructed on the proper use of snow chains. This obviously started by mounting them (which, even with today’s modern snow chains, is still somewhat cumbersome, especially at low outside temperatures). Mounting them also includes necessary adjustments to the (electronic) chassis systems: first, due to the fact that with the snow chains, the tyres on the live axle have a slightly larger diameter, the traction control system is fooled into detecting slip continuously. For that reason, it’s necessary to turn that system off or, if possible, turn it into a reduced mode. Second, those cars were also fitted with rear-wheel steering, and it’s necessary to turn this off to avoid damage to the wheel housings by the snow chains.
We continued to drive along a strip of snow mountain road, including several positive and negative slopes, before this exercise came to an end with taking the snow chains off again.
The second part started with a move to a glacier on the other side of the mountain range by use of a service tunnel. On the other side, we found two parcours, both for drifting.
The rest of the afternoon thus was spent drifting, just like you know it from those movies, only here again on snow. The two tracks were two slalom stretches, connected by U-turns, and a figure-of-eight track respectively. Again, as on the day before, adapting to the ever-changing track conditions was key here. But with much less ice this time, and based on the experience we’d gathered the day before, we were quickly able to master the situation and reach that point of perfect slalom drifting, which you recognize if your steering always points in the exact opposite direction to where your car moves. Beautiful weather, beautiful cars, a wonderful mountain landscape, and you moving majestically along in perfect drift angle – what could be nicer?
The afternoon ended all too soon with a trip down in the snow groomer to a final hearty snack, before we were sent off by our charming team of teachers. At this point, the very special character of this vocational training showed again as all participants and teachers agreed to exchange email addresses and of course photographs taken during the event.
My personal summary
There’s two things I’d like to critizise, and both of them have to do with the choice of the cars.
First, with the exception of the first part of day two, all cars were rear-wheel-drive. While RWD is not such a bad idea in general, I have personally found that 4WD handle vastly differently under oversteer conditions, and so it was regrettable for me to not have such a car available for the drift-oriented exercises, especially on day two. Then again, in this specific driving style, I tend to more than other drivers get along much better with four-wheel-drive.
The second point relates to the transmissions: all the cars in use had some kind of automatic gear box, meaning no clutch to operate. Now especially when dynamically driving a rear-wheel-drive car, the engine drag during downshift manoueuvers tends to destabilize the car, and this is obviously much more pronounced on a slippery track, and requires sensible use of the clutch and double-clutching. Unfortunately, we weren’t given the chance to experience and train this.
Apart from that, I’d simply like to check against the goals as specified by our teachers. Did we learn how to drive on wintery roads? Yes, very much, and in a lot of different relevant situations. Did we enjoy ourselves? I think I can speak for all of our charming bunch here when I again say: “yes, very much so”.
…and my recommendation
If you engage in winter sports, live in a mountain area, or for other reasons often have to drive on snowy roads: take this training! Or if you want to enjoy yourself for two and a half unforgettable days: take this training! In fact, I can’t think of a reason for anyone with a driving license not to take this course.
All the images in this article were taken by participants or teachers of the course. The copyright belongs to them; any use outside of viewing this article is reserved!