Porsche ice experience: Dakar on ice

The 911 Dakar traces its lineage to the sands of the Sahara, but is equally at home drifting round frozen Scandinavian lakes
The 911 Dakar is the ultimate off-roader built to conquer the terrains!
The 911 Dakar is the ultimate off-roader built to conquer the terrains! Team Porsche

There are 27 variants of the 911.

I checked. And while I was on the Porsche website I fell into the death-spiral of the Porsche configurator, speccing up a 911, and 3 hours later I hadn’t finished. Which is completely off topic to this story, save for serving as a warning that dinner will be served cold and had alone if you so much as poke at the configurator. No, what I must go back to are the 27 variants. From standard and S – there’s nothing like a base 911, is there? – to manual and PDK, coupe or convertible or Targa, the Turbos, the GTs, the special editions, that’s heck of a lot. But if you had to pick The One, the coolest and most desirable of them all, the one you’d give an arm and a leg for, what’d you pick?

Sure, there’s the GT3 RS that’s all the rage. I’ve driven the 3 RS in all its anger and I can confirm that the hype is real. But, to me, the one you’d pick if money were no object is the one you can’t buy if your money is denominated in rupees. The Dakar is the rally-bred 911. The unicorn. The sports car that can go off-road. Driving one though, that ain’t happening. A friend of a friend of a friend is unlikely to have one in their garage. With the Dakar, you accept the reality that there will never be a first-hand driving impression. Until…

“We have an ice driving experience in Finland,” says the nice lady from Porsche to your correspondent who has just landed, back from an ice driving experience in Finland. Drifting on frozen lakes for three days in a row is the most fun you can have with your clothes on but, twice in a month, that’s too much. “You will be driving the Dakar,” adds the nice lady. Lady! You don’t have to ask twice!

Over 30 tracks to play on, spread over 100 acres of lakes and marshland in the village of Levi.
Over 30 tracks to play on, spread over 100 acres of lakes and marshland in the village of Levi.Team Porsche

This is Porsche, which means this is serious.

IT starts with an insurance excess. Bend a car and 10,000 euros get straight up deducted from your credit card. Gulp. Then there are the levels. This is the Ice Force and you can only attend if you’ve done the qualifying Ice Performance. Luckily for me the other VW Group brand programs qualify for the level one, so with multiple Audi ice drives under my belt, I’m in. This also means that there is a base-level of seriousness. Ice Performance has already done the filtering and what we have is a serious lot of enthusiasts, all good drivers, and all determined to get better. And to aid that we have personalised attention. Two instructors to each batch, five cars in a batch, and two to a car. And the car! Oh my word, the car!

My Dakar is in the full Rothmans livery which, I’m told, nearly 70 per cent of all Dakars have been ordered with. That’s the livery that adorned Rene Metge’s 1984 Paris-Dakar winning type-953 Porsche 911 but now, of course, tobacco advertising is banned and so Rothmans becomes Roughroads. And Porsche being Porsche they have even trademarked this word! Now, 911 Dakars are limited to just 2500 units worldwide, that’s why India didn’t get a single car, but the cars you see here are not one of the 2500. These are pre-production cars, all destined to be cut up once their tour of Porsche experiences are done with. Cue, teary-eyed emoji.

Underneath that amazingly evocative livery sits a 911 GTS. You get the same twin-turbo, 3-litre, flat-six with 473bhp and 570Nm flinging it to 100kmph in 3.4sec and on to a limited top speed of 240kmph. No way of testing either of those claims, we will be on ice for the next three days. The Dakar also gets the same PDK gearbox, brakes, four-wheel steering, four-wheel-drive (super-important here!), semi-active dampers, active anti-roll bars and fundamental suspension design. On top of that you get 50mm higher standard ride height which can be electronically raised by a further 30mm – this actually delivers the same approach and departure angles as a Cayenne. You also get longer and considerably softer springs that ride the bumps so much better – a frozen lake can also be bumpy and the surprisingly good ride is something you immediately notice. When we hit the first snow bank we also notice there’s underbody protection for precisely such an eventuality; even the sills are metal to tackle a few whacks and thumps, while the glass is also thicker and stronger. The net effect is the Dakar feels more robust. More solid and more willing to take a pounding. And it has the hero mode. Sport+ on PASM is replaced by Rallye which sends 80 per cent of the torque to the rear axle. And when you do get stuck in a snow bank there’s Off Road mode that delivers a more even torque split for maximum traction while also defaulting to maximum ride height.

Carbon bonnet and spoiler on the Dakar to keep weight down.
Carbon bonnet and spoiler on the Dakar to keep weight down.Team Porsche

Rallye mode it is, as we start the first sessions

with a refresher of Ice Performance. It’s on an ice skid pad to get a feel of the throttle sensitivity, the uniquely 911 engine-behind the-rear-axle dynamics, the steering feel, and teach the ECU in your head how to keep it in a continuous drift through the circle. And one thing becomes immediately apparent. You must give it your all.

Now I’m familiar with driving on ice and the grip levels are so low that just a stab of the throttle is enough to bring the tail out. With the 911, the base-level grip is much higher compared to the other cars I’ve driven here and to add to that we are using Michelin’s X-Ice North rubber with titanium studs screwed into them for crazy traction on a surface it’s hard to even walk on. Getting the tail out now means you need to be more deliberate with your throttle. And then the car’s reactions are also much quicker, so when the tail comes out you need to be ready to dial in opposite lock. It demands concentration. Fooling around leads to us pirouetting, much to the dismay of our instructors who aren’t here to fool around. They are all wearing Porsche jackets and that means they are serious about the job at hand – which is making you a faster driver.

“Use the left foot if you can,” says Sandor, our instructor whose grey hairs are courtesy 30-odd years of top-level sports car racing. And when he’s not racing he is testing high-performance cars for Dutch magazines. Max, our second instructor, has 15 years of racing, and he’s only in his mid-twenties, which gives you an idea of how early his motorsport career started. And when he’s not racing he’s… believe it or not… an accountant. These guys know what they’re doing and getting us started with left foot braking is a big step forward from the other ice driving programs I have attended.

I know how to do it, all the years of rallying have hard-wired that into my head, but still it takes time to get used to the sensitivity and travel of the 911’s brake pedal. Things are sharp and immediate here, no long travel and mushy pedals to ease you into it. The key here is to prevent ABS kicking in. When that happens the front just pushes straight on into understeer and that’s a mistake which is very, very easy to make on ice. A fraction too much pressure and the pedal begins to judder drawing you into the snow banks.

Electric Taycan used on the Tag Heuer arena.
Electric Taycan used on the Tag Heuer arena.Team Porsche

As we progress through the day, moving to longer and faster tracks, we need to use the brakes to not just slow down especially for the hairpins (nobody has forgotten the insurance excess) but more importantly to affect that all-important weight transfer. Particularly trail braking all the way into the corner draws the nose right into the apex and then you pick up the throttle and drift your way out. By left-footing you reduce that delay of the right foot shuffling between accelerator and brake, that fraction when the car doesn’t know what you want of it and hesitates. And this is Porsche. You can be on the left foot while still on the throttle in those crucial transition phases to smooth things out. By the end of the first day we are mastering the Scandinavian Flick and the instructors insist I do it the proper way, on the brakes with the left foot, at the limit of grip, rather than just wrestling the steering wheel and unsettling the car for drama but not much (exit) speed.

This is crucial because as the days progress we move to tighter, longer and faster tracks where room for error keeps narrowing down. There are over 30 tracks to play on, spread over 100 acres of lakes and marshland in the little village of Levi, half an hour from Kittila in Finland. This entire Arctic playground is now owned by Porsche, and there are nearly 100 cars on site with 30 instructors plus mechanics and other staff. Did I mention that Porsche are serious about these things?

The cars then. We alternate between the Dakar and 911 Turbo S, the latter we all love for the simple reason that the Dakar’s fixed back carbon seats are just not comfortable. They might be inspired by Rene Metge’s racing seat and harness, but the Dakar winner is made of sterner stuff than us Dakar enthusiasts, and the Turbo’s seats feel like a lazy boy’s in comparison.

Then there’s a fleet of Taycans that we drive at the Tag Heuer arena where we are timed for consistency. And finally, lurking in a corner are the GT3 RS – that’s the surprise.

GT3 RS for the batch that made the fewest detours into the snowbank.
GT3 RS for the batch that made the fewest detours into the snowbank.Team Porsche

The program is structured in way to give you time to think, analyse what you are doing, and also have a lot of fun. We drive for an hour, then shift to another track, drive for another hour, and then repair to the hospitality area for rest, relaxation and analysis. Three sessions a day for three full days, and Porsche being Porsche, everything starts bang on time and runs like clockwork. By the second day we are on racetracks carved on the lakes and on the third we are in the forest stages. There’s still the snowbank between the trees and the track to save your credit card, but we are now sliding over crests and between trees – a thrill and a half with full-on rally-feels with the ultimate rally-inspired Porsche! And while we are swapping cars we hear a naturally aspirated flat-six howling through the trees.

Turns out the group with the least recoveries from the snowbank gets a drift session with the GT3 RS. Our group failed miserably in that endeavour which normally would make me sulk, except there’s a screaming yellow 3RS in Porsche India’s press fleet that I can access if I ask (very) nicely. And in return I get one more session in the most achingly desirable of all 27 variants of the 911.

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