“Critical situations can arise at any time, and a cool head at the wheel is especially important when driving during winter” states the opening line for the Audi Driving Experience Winter Edition. Given that I’ve dealt with more snow-infused driving than I care to remember, I wholeheartedly agree.
When the opportunity to experience one of Audi’s driving schools presented itself with allusion to improved driving skills while having fun at the same time, it was an easy decision to sign up. Audi Canada also provided a gourmet lunch as part of the package, knowing it would be hard for the participants to concentrate on the tasks at hand with personal fuel tanks on empty.
The vehicles provided for the driving course were 2012 S4 models. The 3.0 liter supercharged V6 churn out 333 horsepower through a seven speed automatic transmission and the Quattro drive train system. Gorgeous, powerful cars… yet extremely civilized until provoked.
I was able to experience the technology and performance of these automobiles on partially snow-covered Lake Chief Hector, just west of Calgary. The course was delivered under the watchful eyes of racing legends Scott Goodyear and Richard Spenard, along with five other professional racers / driving instructors. A short classroom session covered correct seating and steering wheel position, and was followed up with seat time and instruction on three distinct ice tracks.
Section One had the drivers work through a steering slalom and execute lane changes combined with evasive maneuvers. The car’s Electronic Stability Program (ESP) was shut off for this exercise. When the car got out of shape (sideways, under steering, or over steering) the ESP limited throttle, and gently and strategically applied the brakes to get the vehicle back in control. Without the ESP, abrupt steering input and throttle control induced spins. Slow, steady, and gentle were the operational terms.
Course Two was a large glare ice circle designed to improve drivers’ under steer and over steer correction techniques. While the Instructor made this exercise look easy as he finessed the car around and around in an impressive drift, this was by far the hardest part of the afternoon. I spun the car and almost hit a snow bank on several occasions, and I start to perspire just thinking about that big black sheet of slipperiness.
Segment Three was the handling course. Pylons were set up to mark the apex of the turns, and we were instructed with respect to throttle and brake application for maximum control and subsequent quick lap times. The cars set up for the handling course had winter tires equipped with studs, and this combination made for relatively predictable handling characteristics on the frozen lake.
The S4’s ESP was enabled for this section, mainly to keep the students out of trouble. The basic purpose of ESP is to slow the vehicle down and correct the trajectory of the vehicle, which the system accomplished nicely. I could really feel the ESP work its magic when I pitched the car sideways, as the throttle response was very flat, and I couldn’t hang the tail end out further.
Having stated the virtues of the ESP, there was still a strong temptation to let my true hooligan nature shine through by switching it off on the handling course. Fortunately for me, common sense prevailed, and I avoided the “Walk of Shame”… that long, long march back to the staging area after getting the car stuck in the snow. I soon realized that I needed more practice to hone my new-found skills.
As a climactic finishing touch, the Audi Driving Experience participants got a “hot lap” with one of the professional drivers around the handling course. With the ESP switched off and some serious drifting abound, the excitement went up exponentially, and it was the perfect ending to an already great day.
Was the Audi Driving Experience a worthwhile endeavor? Absolutely. Were valuable driving techniques shared and skill development encouraged? Without question. Does Audi build an enthusiast’s car – Yes! And the fun factor? Off the scale.
According to Audi sources, both the Fall and Winter offerings have been very well-attended. All great things must wrap up at some point, and it is so for the Winter Edition. Perhaps a Spring or Summer session is in the works. This course comes highly recommended, so keep your eye on Audi Driving Experience for up and coming dates.