A student can only be as good as their teacher – with the rare exception of a freakishly sharp student – so naturally, you want to learn from the best. The best is exactly who we had on hand for MINI’s inaugural Winter Driver Training program. We learned from the likes of Philippe Létourneau, Sylvain Champoux and Jean-Francois Dumoulin – three battle scared, successful racing drivers. On this unique occasion, we also learned from Rauno Aaltonen, the father of rally racing and the godfather of MINI performance driving. Having Rauno on hand made for a rare occasion to learn car control techniques from someone who invented them. Literally, invented them.
Two techniques immediately come to mind: left-foot braking and the Scandinavian flick. Rauno invented both of these techniques in the heat of battle on the world rally circuit, and he perfected them to the substantial result of claiming victory in the 1967 Monte Carlo Rally. He also ran in the European Rally Championship which predates the WRC or “World Rally Championship” – claiming overall victory to be crowned as the 1965 champ. Rauno knows rally, and since much of his time behind the wheel was spent racing on snow and ice – he also knows a thing or two about performance driving on snow and ice.
To that end, MINI Canada set up a brilliant training course on packed snow and ice in the frigid cold of Montreal, Quebec. Thankfully, the weather was quite temperate during our time at the training event, and we were not severely punished for forgetting our long johns. The venue was situated behind a new abandoned airport – that’s right, new, not old. A waste of money it may have been, but the advantage of training on smooth, flawless concrete and asphalt was much appreciated and added to the quality of the course. Most of the concrete was covered up by a thick base of ice and snow anyway, but the smooth base translated into a smooth surface to train on. The facilities were also modern and very well maintained, making you feel at home from the moment you arrived. Breakfast and lunch was also catered, and the food was delicious and nutritious – just what you need to distract yourself from traction circle graphs when it’s finally time to eat.
Of course, we didn’t go for the food – we went for the slippery surface driver training. It’s funny how much you take for granted behind the wheel. As astutely pointed out by Mr. Letourneau, quality driving starts before you put the car in drive. If you are not seated properly, you will never be able to extract performance from your car – nevermind drive it safely. One by one he nailed each common seating offense: the rap artist “bling at 12 o-clock” hand position on the wheel, the grasshopper “hands at 11 and 1 o-clock” and even the often over looked “going to have the airbag rip your clothes off (and worse)” seated way too close to the steering wheel position. The first part of the program was as much about learning how not to drive as how to drive. One very common winter driving offense is having the seatbelt ride up over bulky coats and clothing across the waist. I have often been guilty of this, and will be much more careful henceforth. Since you can’t feel the seatbelt through your clothes, it’s easy not to notice this, but the consequences can be quite severe should you be in a collision.
After we were seated and mirrored properly, we got down to the basics of performance driving – which, by the way, roughly equate to the basics of safe driving: specifically collision avoidance. We considered the way that tire grip can be used up: either 100% to braking, acceleration or cornering, or a mix thereof – but never more than 100% between all three or you will find yourself in a slide. We also talked about reaction times behind the wheel, where we should keep our eyes and attention, and how to react should things go sideways – quite literally. All of the curriculum was standard driving school content – but applied in a very fresh and interesting way. The instructors managed to make what would otherwise have been the least exciting part of the day fast-paced and comical in true MINI fashion.
Once out on the icy expanse, we practiced car control in many settings and drills. The stand-out most fun exercise was the reverse 180. I suppose if Tiger Banks had learned this maneuver, there would be one less smashed up Escalade in the world. We were lined up and given a green light to reverse up to speed, in most cases we found ourselves at 50 or 60 km/h before swinging the nose around whilst throwing the car in forward drive and correcting the steering angle to drive the car on the same trajectory to which we started. Good fun. And for the bank-robbers amongst us: a critical skill set learned. I had dabbled with reverse 180s in the past, but never managed to keep them so tight. Thank you MINI Winter Driver Training.
Also on the agenda were constant radius skid pad exercises, slaloms and an autocross to round off all the action. I cannot remember having a better time behind the wheel of a MINI. The course also emphasized how confident MINIs can be in the snow. With good winter tires affixed, they are little snow machines.
Several MINIs were on hand to drive in haste: the Countryman and Cooper in both manual and automatic forms. Of course, the manuals were the cars to drive throughout the day, but if you’re allergic to rowing gears, you can always opt for the auto and have a similar learning experience where it counts. After working for several years as a Toronto paramedic, I am convinced that this course could save lives. A plethora of winter collisions are easily avoidable, should drivers mind a few basic driving principals – all taught in MINI’s course.
The course is open to licensed drivers of all marquees. If your daily driver is front or all-wheel drive, I would recommend this course over BMW’s Winter Driver Training course since it will translate better with the dynamics of your own car. If you own a MINI it’s a no-brainer: sign up.
At the end of the day you will leave with not only life-long memories pretending to make Italian Job getaways from the police, but a handsome training certificate with your name on it, and a few other goodies thrown in for good measure.
For more information about MINI’s Winter Driver Training program or to sign up, click here.