Feature: Ice drifting in a Porsche 911 Dakar

    Discovering the raw thrill of driving Porsche 911s in the frozen Arctic.

    Published On May 01, 2024 08:00:00 AM

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    Feature: Ice drifting in a Porsche 911 Dakar

    Perfectly curated ice tracks hacked into the Finnish snowscape seriously test your driving skills.

    It was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, an important checkmark off my bucket list, but as it turned out, it became a twice-in-a-month occurrence. Hardly had I returned from an unforgettable couple of days driving on ice in the Audi RS4, I found myself back on the same Finnair flight to Kittilä within a month. I never imagined I would be visiting this remote Finnish town in the Arctic wilderness more frequently in a month than going to Pune. It’s also a good reminder of the perks the best job in the world offers, and why I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

    Feeling snug in the Dakar’s hip-hugging carbon seat.

    As far as driving experiences go, there’s nothing more enjoyable than driving on ice for several reasons. The low grip levels mean you can find the car’s limits at jogging speeds, unlike driving on tarmac where the on-the-limit speeds are much, much higher and the margin for error even narrow. It’s easy to make disastrous mistakes pushing the limits in a really fast car on tarmac but a low-friction, icy surface is far more forgiving and the only thing you’ll hurt when you slide off into the soft snowy bank is your ego. To be able to slide a powerful car effortlessly and safely, and not worry about having an accident is possibly the most satisfying and entertaining experience you can have behind the wheel.

    To be able to slide a powerful car effortlessly and safely is possibly the most satisfying experience behind the wheel.

    Beyond the driving, there’s a raw beauty to the frozen landscape that makes it utterly captivating and the sub-zero temperature has its own charm too. This frosty world is completely alien to us tropical folks. But what made it truly special this time round is that I was invited by Porsche and the prospect of driving a 911 safely on the limit on an icy track was just too good to pass up. It’s at times like this I have to admit I pull rank as editor to selfishly grab the slot, but I must add that in a weak (and short-lived) moment of magnanimity, I initially suggested Gavin go in my place. That was until Sirish Chandran (of Evo India), the other Indian journo invited by Porsche, told me that we would be driving the 911 Dakar. Yes, the Dakar! That was it. Sorry Gavin, I’m going.

    Porshe Ice Experience: 911 Dakar calling

    Porsche 911 Dakar

    I’ve always wanted to drive the Dakar because, in the Indian context, it’s the perfect 911. Why? Simply because it’s got the ground clearance of an SUV and that means you can take it to roads and places you wouldn’t dare in a standard 911. The jacked-up Dakar stands 50mm taller than a standard 911 and if you opt for the lift system you can get another 30mm. Speedbreakers and potholes, the biggest spoilers for sportscars in India, are no problem for the Dakar. 

    Sitting on knobbly, high-profile tyres with special studs for the ice, and wrapped in a delightfully retro two-tone paint job and racing stripes that give a nod to the Dakar-winning Rothmans 953, the road version of the Dakar looks absolutely gorgeous. Even the red towing eyes look very cool.

    Porsche 911 Dakar's red towing hook

    Getting in and out of the deeply sculpted carbon-fibre bucket seats isn’t easy, but after three days of sliding and drifting, I appreciated how they clamped me in place. Like the 911 GT3 RS, there are no back seats and you get an optional roll cage. But unlike a 911 GT3 RS, which has been designed to hug only tarmac, the Dakar which sits at the other extreme of the 911 spectrum, is surface agnostic. It’s happy to play in the mud, gravel, sand or snow. 

    My first driving session around a simple and small oval track is to familiarise myself with how the Dakar feels at the limit on ice. And that means uncorking the 480hp of the Dakar’s 3.0-litre twin-turbo flat-six on a surface more slippery than a banana peel with the traction control or PSM (Porsche Stability Management) completely switched off. Selecting Rallye mode, which diverts 80 percent of the torque to the rear, works best for getting the tail out and going sideways. 

    Driving the Dakar on ice is a magical experience.

    But, as with any 911, there’s a sting in the tail thanks to its rear-engine configuration, which presents a unique set of challenges rooted in its physics. Unlike the front-engine RS4 I drove a month before, the 911 demands a high level of precision from the driver. It gives you a nuanced understanding of weight transfer and teaches you the importance of delicate throttle and steering inputs to keep the car in control.

    Massive ground clearance is what makes the Dakar special.

    It’s easy to spin at first, but as the day progressed, and I got to feel and understand the car’s dynamics, the Dakar rewards you like no other car. Honing my skills on the slalom and figures-of-eight tracks, I was revelling in holding long and controlled drifts, flicking from left to right in true Fast and Furious style. But is that the fastest way around a corner? 

    Porshe Ice Experience: When in Scandinavia

    In a region that’s covered in ice and snow for a large part of the year, and has dirt tracks as normal roads, you would imagine that its citizens have mastered the art of driving on low-grip surfaces, and they have. It’s no wonder that for generations, Scandinavians have been the best rally drivers in the world and we are about to get a lesson on how to drive like them.

    Instructor Max says I need to use the brakes a lot more.

    The ‘Scandinavian Flick’, a technique pioneered by the Finns, is like a dance move for cars to get around a tight corner or hairpin in the fastest way possible. Max, our instructor, shows us how it’s done. The key is that before the normal turn-in point for the corner, you have to give a quick steering input or ‘flick’ away from the corner before turning sharply back in with a simultaneous dab on the brakes. This unsettles the rear and brings the tail out, pivots the nose to the apex of the corner and sets you up to power out of the corner with a dramatic slide. Get it right and you feel like an absolute hero.

    Once you tame the Turbo, you can hold long, lurid drifts.

    Switching to the 911 Turbo S did not make me feel like a hero, but an absolute novice instead. Compared to the lighter and better-balanced Dakar with its long- travel suspension tailored for off-road conditions, driving the heavier and significantly more powerful Turbo S was overwhelming. With more weight slung out over the back, a wider rear track, stiffer suspension (not good for slippery surfaces) and an extra 170hp to deal with, the Turbo S was not as forgiving as the Dakar. It called for more concentration and skill, which I ran out of quite often. I ended up stuffing the Turbo S frequently into the snowbanks, and on one occasion, had to embarrassingly be towed out by a Cayenne. But with more practice, commitment and focus, I could get the monstrous 911 Turbo S to dance on a knife edge.

    It’s only your ego you hurt when you slide off into the soft snow banks.

    At the end of the third day, I finally feel like a pro; well, sort of. Back in the Dakar, I am effortlessly holding long, lurid slides, flicking through corners like a pendulum in slow motion. I’ve learnt to dodge killjoy understeer and revel in the pure fun of oversteer.

    Waiting to be towed out in the brutally powerful 911 Turbo S, which can be a handful.

    And fun with a capital F is what these three days have been, which ended with a mystical forest ice track adorned with towering pine trees, lots of elevation changes and off camber corners for a subliminal driving experience. I felt like Santa on a very fast sled. Whether it’s their cars or experiences, nobody crafts driving thrills quite like Porsche.

    Also see:

    2024 Porsche Taycan facelift review: The driver’s EV

    Feature: The 911 that can do it all

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