The Daily Telegraph - Ice-driving in Val d’Isère
April 15, 2013

In preparation for the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, Michelle Jana Chan takes ice-driving lessons in the French Alps.

It had been snowing for 24 hours when we found ourselves at the ice-driving circuit in Val d’Isère. The light was the same eerie diffuse blue of a B horror movie. Nestled in the craggy valley among fir trees the track was lit only by the beam of headlights as a fleet of four-wheel drives hurtled around the track, slipping and sliding and sometimes fully pirouetting.
A queue had gathered by the side of the circuit for the Monday night freebie when the track invites passers-by to experience a couple laps as a passenger. This has become a popular après-ski activity in Val d’Isère and attracts people from all over the region.
“It’s like riding a rollercoaster,” said Nathan Bouet, 24, from Montelimar. “The drivers here are superb; they push the cars to their limit.”
His friend, Eric Benedicto, 26, from Lyon, agreed. “It is impressive to see them drive in these conditions,” he said. “I cannot say ice-driving is very useful to me but it is great fun.”
We were not here to watch. The plan was to take the wheel ourselves for two 45-minute one-on-one classes. I was here with Mike Reeves, my co-driver in the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, a 33-day transcontinental rally which begins on May 28 this year.
It is one of the longest and toughest races undertaken in a classic car and we needed to improve our driving techniques under extreme conditions. As the instructors explained, it does not matter whether it is sand or gravel or scrub or mud, the principles are the same.
We clambered into a BMW X1, an automatic four-wheel drive with power-steering and ABS. It is a vastly different vehicle to our own 1940 Ford Coupe but the instructors assured us that procedures are comparable across vehicles.
“How do you feel?” asked driving instructor, Franck Lagache.
“A bit nervous,” I replied.
“That is important,” he said. “Do not feel good. Feeling good is not safe.”
I released the parking brake and began to weave between the traffic cones. It felt as if I was sitting a driving test; I tried to avoid crossing my arms and to maintain a ten-to-two clock-face formation with my hands on the wheel. Franck quickly pointed out that I should slip my hands down to a 9:15 position to increase car control and to feel free to cross my hands repeatedly and swiftly in a turn.
At times it felt more like skating than driving as I whipped the steering wheel left and right. We learnt about the balance of the car; how to use the accelerator and brake to shift the weighting of the vehicle. “Better to go into a corner slowly and out quickly than into a corner quickly and never to come out at all,” were Frank’s wise parting words.
The following morning we had our second lesson. Mike’s instructor Johann Kerkoff had done the Paris-Dakar rally in the 1990s and my instructor, Eric Bellefroid, was a former Formula 3000 driver. It was formidable pedigree.
I was driving a BMW 3 series saloon and Mike was in a X3. Conditions were better than the previous night and we managed to hold the road with increasing confidence. Our instructors switched off the car’s intelligent traction and stability control allowing us even greater management of the vehicles.
“Good,” Eric said, at the end of the session. I hoped he was referring to my progress and not his satisfaction at finishing his work day. “We like people who come here to learn. We have visitors from all over the world. Arabs, Chinese, Germans, Russian. The Russians just want to go crazy.”
Mike and I had a final flourish at the adjoining go-karting ice track where we ourselves went a bit crazy. Each session was only seven minutes but it was sufficient to practise our new driving skills and to experiment with speed. Given the analogue nature of the two-wheel drive go-karts, they may also have more closely resembled the driving experience of our 1940 rally car over the digitally-enhanced BMW machines.
As we left Val d’Isere I asked Eric and Johann for their top competitive-driving tips. They furnished us with some wholly impractical but entertaining advice.
“If you see a photographer ahead, slow down,” Eric said. “There is definitely something difficult coming up; that is why he is there.”
“You have a GPS,” Johann added, “so at least you know where you are when you get lost.”
“Do you want to win?” Eric asked.
We both nodded.
“When you see a good driver, follow him,” he said. “Then pass him in the last five minutes of the race.”
We have six weeks months until the beginning of the rally and our car, Shiner, is now being shipped to China. Before it left, we put miles on the clock and discovered some of its quirks and caprices. For when we roll down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris and spill into the Place Vendôme we hope to be first in the fleet.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Abercrombie & Kent Villas (