This week we're taking a bit of a break from the on-ice action that we've been covering so far this season, trading wheel-to-wheel antics for something more controlled. Way up north in the wilds of Quebec there's a facility called Mecaglisse that runs driving schools all year round. In the winter it hosts snowbound track days, events where people (generally in Subarus) show up and strut their stuff on a perfectly groomed ice surface bordered by tall snowbanks. It's like a stage plucked out of WRC Sweden, coiled around such that its end and beginning meet, and then presented for you to just keep on rallying over and over until you run out of gas -- which we very nearly did.
A track day at Mecaglisse was an opportunity for low-grip practice that we couldn't pass up, and we'll take you along with video of a hot lap on this frigid circuit. You'll also find some discussion about shifting technique below, so if you've ever wondered how to cover all three pedals in a standard car with only two feet, you'll want to click on through.
Mecaglisse is an interesting place. It's about 70 miles north of Montreal and 40 miles east of Mt. Tremblant, nestled amid the Laurentian Mountains. It's something like a Disneyland for those addicted to speed, featuring five separate courses able to be configured and reconfigured in dozens of ways. Through the year you can race on two wheels or four covering everything from asphalt to gravel, sand, snow and ice. On this frigid February day, we were only interested in the latter stuff. The facility maintains a 2.5-km circuit through the winter, plowing off the loose stuff but working hard to maintain a solid ice base, meaning grip is low but, with big snowbanks around, the penalties for going off are minimal – usually.
The track is in view from a clubhouse sitting on a hill, enabling a coordinator to alert drivers via radio to any trouble. Unfortunately this calling was done in French, but by the end of the day I'd learned my couleurs, meaning this event was both exciting and educational. About 15 drivers had shown up for the day's festivities, split into two groups based on experience. I was assigned into the expert group and, after receiving an abbreviated summary of the drivers' meeting (the French version was five minutes, the English one about 30 seconds), it was time to go.
With only seven or eight cars on track, evenly spaced by the all-seeing Frenchman with the radio up in the clubhouse, there was plenty of room to take your time, learn the track and work on perfect drifts. Almost all of us would get it wrong at least once, and I would be no exception, committing the ultimate party foul of getting stuck in the snowbank twice, towed out by a kind soul in a lovely blue STI. (Thanks again!)
I would again be on unstudded Blizzaks, while many of the others were running DOT-legal studs – metal inserts that don't protrude far beyond the rubber itself. Longer studs, like those found on the Menard tires used by many ice racers, were not allowed in the interest of preserving that ice base. With nothing to really chew up the surface, the ice got a bit more polished after every run, getting slower by the minute. The faster turns still offered enough for some fun drifts, but the numerous hairpins became so smooth that hockey skates would have been a great accessory for this day. To make things worse, many of the corners were off-camber, sucking you into the waiting snowbanks.
The track is incredibly tight and twisty, which for the WRX required plenty of shifts between first and second gears. Subaru's five-speed is somewhat notorious for having a cranky first, so proper rev-matching was key, something that's worth discussing a bit more closely.
Happy feet, fancy shifting
In the ice racing technique video included with the second round of this series, rev-matching, double-clutching and heel-and-toe (or toe-heel) downshifting were mentioned. Some of you asked for a little more explanation, and the frequent shifting at Mecaglisse presented a good opportunity to explore that topic a bit further courtesy of a footwell camera.
The primary intention here is shifting as smoothly as possible, with rev-matching being the biggest factor. If you're driving along a road and simply downshift, the car will buck slightly as the engine is forced to rapidly spin up to a faster RPM, compensating for the lower gear. You've effectively forced the momentum of the car and the grip of the tires to increase the RPM, something that could be more easily achieved with a quick stab on the accelerator.
If, while the clutch is in, you add a little gas and, if you rev the engine just right, the gearchange will go much more smoothly. Instead of the car bucking it will slot straight into gear, reducing wear-and-tear, making your passengers happier, and keeping you from unsettling the car when you're breaking hard into a turn. How do you apply the gas while you're also hitting the brake and the clutch at the same time? That's where heel-and-toe downshifting comes in.
Autoblog Discussion of Performance Shifting Techniques
In this case you modulate the brake with the ball or toe of your right foot, hit the gas with your heel or the right side of your right foot, and leave your left foot for the clutch. As you brake you rock your foot to the right to apply gas and match revs, resulting in smooth downshifts as you brake and enter a turn (Note: You could use the heel of your right foot on the brake and the ball on the gas, but we just learned it the other way). This is crucial if you're on the edge of grip on the track – even when you're on ice and have gone far past that edge. But, the beauty of these techniques is that you can practice them on your own, on the street.
Then there's double-clutching, which is far less crucial. This is when you lift off the clutch while the shifter is in neutral, perform the rev-match with the throttle, then push the clutch in again and finish the shift. In theory it will make shifts even smoother by allowing the transmission internals to spin up along with the engine. With a modern transmission that's in good shape this is generally unnecessary, but if you have a box that's slow or a bit reluctant (like the one on this WRX) double-clutching can help you avoid the dreaded crunch when you move the shifter faster than the gearbox's tired synchros inside can manage.
Check out the video above for a demonstration both on and off the track, and, if you like that, you'll love this ridiculous footage featuring the great Walter Rohrl showing what it looks like when a professional does it in anger.
Needless to say, a winter track day is a great way to get experience driving in extremely low-grip conditions, and to do so without worrying about some overachiever slamming into you from behind. The day wasn't completely incident free (the WRX now has a few small cracks in the bumper from brushing those snowbanks), but it was well worth the trip for the experience.
That said, this series is about racing, and at this point the 2010 season is beginning to wind down. There are only a few events left on the AMEC calendar – events that may or may not happen depending on which way the thermometer swings. We'll be back in a few weeks with an update on just how the rest of the year went down.
[Thanks to Ricardo at John Scotti Subaru for the above picture, and for organizing this event.]