Audi brought us and a handful of other journalists to a Tyrolean ski lodge to learn some of the basics. Lead instructor Rolf began the session talking about the cars we'd be driving: 10 Euro-spec A8s with the top-tier 4.2L TDI engine. Note: this 345 hp, 590 lb-ft diesel burner is sadly not available in the States.
After the customary 'do not hit the cones' speech, followed by signing our lives away on a waiver form, the group headed to the proving grounds. The course was setup on acres of ice sheets in a valley between the Austrian Alps. Each night the course is groomed with water to keep things slick. Upon our arrival, one of the instructors was already playing showoff by drifting around the entire course. We all looked at each other, surprised and impressed, but thinking "We can do that."
Lesson 2: We can't do that...yet.
The silver A8s were parked neatly in a row for us to choose from. The cars came complete with studded winter tires and a torque vectoring system with locking differentials. Needless to say, these Quattro-equipped AWD saloons were well suited for the job.
We hopped in a car and waited for instructions. Our eagerness to drift was briefly stunted by the first lesson that involved simple accelerating and braking. (Something that seems terribly easy, until done on slick ice.) Our trainers had to explain that this is an entirely different scenario than what most of us would be used to, so it's best that we follow the instructions. "We've seen many make the same mistakes over and over," said Rolf.
Next up was an understeer exercise. We accelerated up to 20 mph, then made a hard left turn until the point at which our A8 would no longer turn as sharply as we'd like. The car would vibrate and clearly begin to push forward (plow). When the sum of lateral and frictional forces exceeds the limit of adhesion, the car can't turn.
To correct, we were instructed to 'open' the steering wheel, meaning to turn less--a counter-intuitive maneuver. However, when reducing the steering angle, the car would actually begin to turn more. By bringing the steering direction a few degrees below the slip angle the car returns to a controlled turn. Also, removing and throttle and blipping the brake quickliy will shift more weight to the front wheels for increased traction.
After a bit of progress in each lesson, more complex skills were added. After braking and understeer came lane change. A digital controller in the driver's view would light up, pointing either right or left. Within a split second we had to choose the correct lane and subtly steer into it while firmly pressing the brake into ABS mode. One thing remained true through each drill: on ice, it takes forever to stop--even with tire studs.
Lesson 3: Listen to Rolf
When it came time for the power slide--our favorite lesson--Rolf got in the car to instruct. The pressure of having a World Rally champion in the passenger seat is enough to make anyone a nervous driver. Check out the video below to see how we dealt.
During the exercise, we did our best to do what felt natural, but as you can see from the video, we didn't follow much of what Rolf told us. And therefore, we didn't get a perfect drift.
You'll notice that hand placement on the wheel is very important. When driving in a more spirited manner, one must be able to quickly steer and counter-steer. That lesson was drilled into us seemingly the entire time.
Lesson 4: Remember your lessons
At the end of the lessons it was time to put it all together. We competed against one another on an icy course carefully designed to include all of the individual segments: drifting, understeer, slalom, lane change and braking. We had a few test laps then the race was on. And we're happy to report back that we were able to secure 1 st place.
We entered the experience expecting a straight-forward demo of Audi's all-weather technology, but left with a reminder that even the best tech is still dependent on the know-how of the driver behind the wheel.