As we step off the plane, the cold air hits us. It’s 9pm, minus 16 degrees, and we’ve still got a three hour journey ahead of us from Lulea airport to Arjeplog in northern Sweden.
To say it’s cold is an understatement, but it’s not long before we’re in the back of a Land Rover Discovery with the heating turned up and tucking into a sandwich.
We’re lucky; normally it’s a coach, but given the Jaguar Land Rover Ice Academy isn’t open to the public yet we’ve been picked up by two cars to take us to the hotel before our ice driving experience the next day. Why two cars we ask?
"Well that’s in case we go off the road and we need the other one to pull us out," Ian, our driver, explains. This is going to be an interesting drive.
Thankfully, there was no pulling out of the ditch to be done and we didn’t see any reindeer or moose in the road either (another regular hazard). But there were a bunch of big trucks that created enough snow swell to blot out our driver’s view of the road for minutes at a time.
Situated just 35 miles south of the arctic circle, Arjeplog is the home of Jaguar Land Rover’s (JLR) cold weather and ice testing facility. JLR isn’t the only car maker to take advantage of the gruelling conditions and the frozen lakes.
The small town, usually home to around 2,000 people, swells to over 8,000 with engineers and visitors between January and March as the motoring industry piles into the Swedish village to do all manner of testing - and for some to have a little fun.
Courses at the Ice Academy start from €2,990 per person for three days of driving, food, and accommodation. 2018 is already booked up, but JLR is already taking bookings for 2019. The course teaches drivers how to control their vehicle in conditions that are less than perfect, as well as having the chance to drive cars that they might not be able to normally.
The next morning it’s minus 18 outside although the sun is trying to break through the clouds. At this stage customers, of which 350 have already booked for the 2018 season, would be doing some theory and practical with cones to learn the basics, but we’ve skipped that part on account of the fact that we’ve only got a single day at the centre. We don’t have the luxury of time.
We’re also here for another reason; to test the new all-electric I-Pace not yet released and not out until later in year. Sadly for everyone else, the I-Pace isn’t part of the regular programme. Read our thoughts on the new car.
Aside from all the engineering testing facilities, there are four tracks on the frozen lake to experience, learn, and practice on.
The tracks are man-made by the team before the season starts. For it to be safe, the ice should be built up to around 50cm thick growing to about a metre by the peak of the season. By the Summer the layers have melted back to nothing.
To ease our concern about falling through, we’re told that each night a 25 tonne truck goes out on the lake to ensure the track is ready for the next day and not lost to the regular snow falls.
Of course, if you go off the track, that’s a different matter. You won’t go into the lake, but the snow acts as an insulator and therefore makes things considerably more slushy. We make a note not to try and go off track.
The JLR Ice Academy features three handling courses that range in difficulty, and a "big circle" whose main focus is to allow you to drift in one continuous movement sideways.
We start with Handling Course 3, the middling speed and difficulty option available but one that still challenges. With us is one of the experienced Ice Academy drivers in the car, but for customers it will either be a driver or just you with a walkie-talkie.
If you’ve done any driving experience with JLR, this is par for the course and is welcomed. It gives you full control of the vehicle without the feeling you are on a driving test, but safe in the knowledge that there is someone on a radio ready to throw you instructions or help if you need it.
During a few laps in a swanky Jaguar F-Pace without traction control turned on and we learn to take things in gentle movements to get the best results rather than full lock with the steering wheel one way, then full lock the other.
Handling Course 3 mastered, we move on to the slower Handling Course 1 but this time in a V6 all wheel drive F-Type two-seater sports car. It’s a monster. A caged beast keen for us to open the gates and let it rip. The roar when we do is deafening. To make things easier, the cars are all fitted with winter stud tyres. That not only preserves the ice track, but helps you stick to the road, even if you’ve turned off traction control.
The F-Type features three traction control options: All, Track mode, or Off. The difference between them is easy to feel as we hurtle at speeds up to 60mph through chicanes and tight bends. We feel pretty comfortable doing this.
The traction control 'Off' option, is great fun as you might expect. The F-Type we are driving might be the four-wheel drive option, but it’s still slipping and sliding all over the place. We’re on a frozen lake don’t forget.
Feeling confident, we move on to Handling Course 2, still in the F-Type. The Track mode traction control is providing handy, giving us a little bit of slide, but nothing we can’t handle. Handling Course 2 is the fastest of the three. A wider track means more speed, but also more room for error. Lose the drift and you’re off the track and in the snow.
"You're doing really well, really well," we hear our instructor say. Up until this point we believe we have. We've been letting the wheel slide through our hands, been doing gentle movement rather than big turns, and learning when to hit the brakes and when to put our foot on the gas.
We even believe we’ve mastered the right angle to turn the wheels to get the most amount of grip on the car around corners, something that is completely counterintuitive to normal driving.
Still beaming from the praise, we misjudge a corner, forget everything we’ve learnt, go full lock one way, full lock the other, lose control and seconds later find ourselves 20ft off the track in the snow, snow up the side of the car and stuck, needing a tow out. Damn it.
This is all par for the course. By the time we stop apologising and our instructor stops laughing, a brand new Land Rover Discovery is already on the scene attaching a tow rope. Our instructor says it’s a good thing we went off, because it shows we are pushing our limits – if you don’t fall off you aren’t going fast enough – and his experience, friendliness, and sincerity shines through.
Rescued. We head on to the best bit of the morning, the Big Circle.
As the name describes, it is just that. A huge circle on the ice where the big idea is to go around full lock, full speed, sideways.
If you’ve ever been sideways in a car there are two reactions, sheer fear or sheer delight. If you’ve purposefully made the car do it, then it’s the later that shows on your face.
Keen to show us how it is done, our instructor jumped back into the hot seat and raced us onto the course. Three laps later without losing the drift (no easy feat) and we come to a stop. Wow. Now it’s our turn. For our trip we’re back in the I-Pace with no studs on the tyres. Gulp.
Seconds later it’s foot down on the accelerator, full lock on the steering wheel and trying to find that perfect balance between going too straight or ending up facing the wrong way. Within seconds we crack it and find ourselves gliding gracefully across the lake, floating even.
The sun finally breaks cover, there’s a huge spray of snow behind us and, because the I-Pace is electric, there’s a serenity to the air around us. This is a proper Top Gear or Grand Tour moment. Wow.
Level unlocked so to speak, it’s back to the base lodge, the sun might be out, but the temperature is still dropping. It’s now minus 20.
The warmth of the onsite lodge is welcomed, as is the lunch we’re served. Unfortunately for us, our JLR Ice Academy experience ends here. For customers it would be another afternoon session, followed by dinner in the hotel followed by another day of driving. This would also include a challenging off-the-lake snow trail in a Range Rover Sport. JRL offer a 3- and 4-day advanced courses too.
This is Top Gear on ice, giving customers or driving fans (you don’t have to own a Jag or Land Rover to take part) a chance to drive in some of the harshest conditions on the planet. It certainly ticks the boxes, and you’ll definitely come away a better driver, too.