Regal British marque holds Arctic driving course to up cool factor
Hot Bentleys on ice The reporter rode shotgun with World Rally champion Juha Kankkunen, crashed a Flying Spur and drove a GT V8S (above) on a frozen lake in Finland during Bentley's ice-driving training. -- PHOTO: WEARNES AUTOMOTIVE

Driving a Bentley is every motoring reporter's dream, and crashing one a nightmare. I did both two weeks ago.

I drove and lost control of a Flying Spur. Thankfully, the crash occurred on a private driving track carved out on a frozen lake in northern Finland and the soft snow bank I ploughed into absorbed the impact. The only injury I suffered was a bruised ego.

Still, the mishap left the left side of the car dangling in the air. A tractor - the equivalent of a tow truck on ice - came to my rescue.

I was on a Bentley winter driving programme, in which drivers were taught how to handle their Bentley cars on the slippery, icy surface of a frozen lake.

British luxury carmaker Bentley Motors has been running the Power On Ice programme since 2006, but it took a group of eight dealers and customers from Asia to the course for the first time last week.

It was the brainchild of Mr Daniel Khoo, the newly minted director of Bentley's Asia-Pacific operations. "We wanted to do something unique for our customers," said the 45-year-old Singaporean.

Life! went at the invitation of Wearnes, the local distributor of Bentley cars.

The frozen lake in Kuusamo, where the ice driving was held, is just 60km from the Arctic Circle and about the size of Ang Mo Kio and Toa Payoh combined. It is one of about nearly 188,000 lakes in Finland, a country which has about the same population as Singapore, but is more than 470 times bigger.

The ice-driving training was conducted by the Juha Kankkunen driving school, set up by the Finn who won the World Rally Championship four times between 1986 and 1993.

For the two days of driving, I was paired up with Mr Pang Cheong Yan, the 52-year-old managing director of Wearnes, and we were assigned a Portuguese driving instructor.

"A Portuguese and two Singaporeans driving on a frozen Finnish lake in winter - what are the odds of that?" said our 39-year-old driving instructor Goncalo Gomes with a laugh.

Bentley paraded its entire stable of cars for the driving course, from the sporty Continental GT to the stately Flying Spur.

We started Day 1 in a Flying Spur, with simple practice drills on three basic patterns on the circuit - a figure-of-eight, a circle and an oval.

None of my city driving skills and experience were useful when driving on the slippery surface in sub-zero temperatures - with traction control turned off.

"Power gives you grip," Mr Gomes said, adding: "Brakes do not work on ice. Power gets you out of trouble. You have to trust me when I say more power even when you are spinning."

He must know what he is doing. I Googled his name later and discovered he was a professional racing driver who has won the Portuguese racing championships five times.

To make a left turn, I had to swiftly flick the steering wheel to the left so the rear of the car glided to the right, then I had to power out of the corner before the car spun out of control.

The combination of driving a 5,299m-long, 2,475kg behemoth, powered by an insane 800Nm of torque, plus the surreal environment of the frozen lake proved too overwhelming.

I crashed the Flying Spur six times on Day 1, all of them after getting out of corners.

"You're okay with the difficult corners, but you have difficulties with the easy straight," muttered Mr Gomes. "It is usually the other way for most people. This is unusual."

I thought I saw Mr Pang frowning at my bad driving. I was mentally prepared to say bye-bye to Bentleys and au revoir to Renaults (just two of the brands Wearnes distributes in Singapore) should the company bar me from driving its cars in the future.

After nearly a day of driving and crashing, I played with husky dogs and had them pull me for a sleigh ride. I even took a snowmobile for a 30-minute spin. The break from driving nursed my spirits.

Things became better on Day 2 after I switched to driving a Continental GT V8S. The car was less powerful (680Nm torque) than the Flying Spur and also shorter (4,806mm) and lighter (2,295kg), which made it more agile.

With more practice, I felt the dynamics of the car better and my confidence improved. I pushed it harder around corners and started to enjoy the feeling of slipping out of control and regaining it. I came close to crashing several times, but ploughed into the snow banks only once.

And I regained my mojo fully after I took the steering wheels of the GT3-R, the star of the Bentley stable (see accompanying article).

But whatever confidence I gained was shattered after I rode shotgun with

Mr Kankkunen. The soft-spoken man might be 55 years old, but had the reflexes of a man half his age. He pushed the GT3-R to speeds on ice that would have suspended his driver licence in Singapore and took corners without batting an eyelid.

"You're okay?" He asked after completing his hot lap.

I wanted to say that the tossing and turning almost made me throw up, but I bit my lips so as not to embarrass myself.

After two tiring days of driving, the Bentley crew threw a celebration dinner with exotic food such as medium-rare native elk meat and cocktails laced with lingonberries (a wild berry native to the region).

And I even received a certificate for completing the ice-driving programme. There were no footnotes on my crashes, so the mishaps did not blemish the record.

I am neither going to put my newfound driving skills to use in Singapore anytime soon, nor am I going to own a Bentley on a reporter's salary. Still, the driving experience made me appreciate the direction Bentley is heading in.

While the luxury carmaker is famed for regal cars such as the Flying Spur and Mulsanne, which appeal to older drivers, its new models - including the Continental GT, GT3-R and the highly anticipated Bentayga SUV - will set it on a path towards younger and more adventurous fans. Including those who can appreciate hot laps on cold tracks.