Having grown up in Finland, you would expect that I am thoroughly tested in cold weathers and snow. Well, I am. So I know my cold well enough to hate it, and at times I really feel I was born in the wrong country! Not sure if the people at Nokian Tyres knew this, as they decided to invite me to Ivalo, which is in the most northern part of Finland, close to the Russian border. On top of it all, they wanted me there in the middle of February, at the time when even Finns think it’s too cold for skiing up north - they arrive only closer to Easter when temperatures rise above freezing for the first time in almost four months.
Flying in from Stockholm, I was geared up with a heavy parka, insulated snow pants and Norwegian made winter boots. I was already getting funny looks at Arlanda airport, looking over prepared for anything on this planet with +10 degrees outside in Sweden. Weather forecast predicted warm weather also to the Finnish Lapland and Ivalo, but that could all change in the blink of an eye to a bewildering snow chaos, or cold that makes death seem like a warm thought. The plane to Ivalo was fully booked with foreign tourists, apart for the few car journalists sticking out of the crowd. I am then among the first group of car journalists, who have been invited to the #Hakkapeliitta9 press event, with Nokian Tyres introducing probably the best winter tire on the market. Restless is an understatement for my emotions. Terrified, rather, but also curious as to what beholds later. We could be sitting in a conference room drinking coffee comfortably, yet company is putting a lot of effort in getting us somewhere far to do something. But where and what?!
Welcome to Lapland The airport in Ivalo is not much bigger than your average grocery store. Huge Airbus A321 parked outside, we walk inside and see Teemu from Nokian Tyres greeting us with a warm smile. He explains that we would take a quick bus ride to a local restaurant for dinner, offered by them the Finnish way, and prepare for an action packed tomorrow. Quick 45 minutes later we arrive at restaurant Kaunispään Huippu, which is located 437 meters above the sea level on top of hill Kaunispää. On a clear day, you can see all the way to neighboring Russia from here. It’s pitch black dark outside throughout the way, there is practically nothing but forest and snowy hills on the way here. Even the trees don’t grow too big or dense this up north, the forests really are fairly modest in appearance. Arriving at the restaurant creates a surreal feeling, as it’s lit up with colored lights and still covered in heavy snow after yesterday’s snow storm. But it’s a very cozy place inside. Chef is roasting reindeer stakes over open fire and menu displays local Lappland specialties from starting shrimp sandwich to cloudberry and bread cheese dessert (wiki). Finnish cuisine is becoming more and more known globally for its high quality, and these particular delicacies would surely intrigue any culinary addict with fresh taste and pure flavors.
Morning rises crispy and clear, temperature now well below freezing. Nokian Tyres labeled bus collects the international group of clueless journalists to an undisclosed location. After another quick 45-minute bus ride, I spot a long line of high-end Audis and a Nokian Tyres branded building structure. After a thorough introduction we get a full picture of the day’s activities, and it will be a series of tasks performed behind the wheel to witness the all new Hakkapeliitta 9 winter tire in action. Track group will engage themselves on a series of different challenges laid out on a nearby frozen lake, whereas the convoy group will hit the road for yet another quick 45-minute journey to the infamous White Hell, the secretive testing facilities of Nokian Tyres. Being then assigned to the track group, I get to choose from a line of Audi RS5’s waiting outside. Cars were preheated, so having adjusted my seating position, I take a moment of calm to close my eyes and ignite the V8 of a beast underneath the bonnet. If yesterday was taunting and nerve racking flying in, not knowing what to expect, there could not be a better way to start the day than to just sit there, in perfect silence, in the 444 horsepower Audi, waking up its purpose-built performance engine for whatever challenges would lie ahead during the day. All eight cylinders now barking madly, I open my eyes with a rush of adrenaline into my veins, heading out on the track. Tension is reaching new high-ends with every turn of the wheel and push of the gas pedal.
Ice, ice, Audi There are several track layouts plowed on the nearby frozen lake, and I immediately get to switch car to an Audi RS4 sedan with an equally mad 414 horsepower V8 as its coupé sister RS5. One of the instructors shows me around a one kilometer fast-paced track for few laps, pointing out what to consider at each turn. The V8 powerplant has well enough torque to handle the entire track on third gear, I can just concentrate on the controls. First of all, the roar that this thing makes is so out of this world and intense, it sounds really aggressive! With turn ratio and suspension dynamics to match, we are in for nothing but fun. So, 400+ horsepower, a screaming V8, one frozen lake, lots of snow banks – how do they work together? Give this beast some gas and you’ll be pushed to your seat thinking of mama. Starting in slow, I approach a right-hand turn from the left side of the track, point the car towards the apex, and while turning the wheel give it gently some gas, feeling the rear tires starting to spin and getting the car even more sideways. Traction control is off on these cars, so the RS4 will let us play dirty quite deep into a slide before ESP actually kicking in.
With few practice rounds, it is remarkably easy to master the amount of gas it takes to spin the rear tires just the right amount for the car to turn where you are going next. As you reach the desired direction at the apex, steering wheel is set straight and then big on the gas! I can really feel the Nokian Tyres studs grinding the ice, tires and exhaust blowing it off in a huge white cloud behind me. Fast on third gear, the speed picks itself up and it's easy to become blind to how fast you’re actually going. I feel the next corner coming onto me faster than what I’m ready for. There’s about a three-foot-high snow bank ready to absorb the Audi deep into its guts. If I were to hit the brakes now, I would dive straight down into the snow, there is no run off margin. Strong kick on the brakes to kill the excess speed, the studs again grip the ice like lion’s claws, I turn the steering wheel towards the apex, keeping the foot now firmly on the gas pedal dosing goods amounts of power on the rear wheels, making sure the car turns sideways to the snow bank, and also carries speed going past it. Holding the steering wheel in opposite lock, front tires pointing out of the apex and rear tires digging into the ice, I hold a looooooong good drift throughout the turn and into the next one. I finally get a feeling of having mastered the art of driving on ice and just want to keep pushing for more, faster, better! Thirty minutes later I’m almost sweating, this is starting to feel like sports now. I could stay here, doing just this, all day, all night, every day. Throw in a sandwich and gas for the car and I’ll be fine. I’m not professional racing driver and this is a monster of a car, yet the studs on the tires give me so much confidence, trust and safety that I can hold it together, and even improve lap by lap.
Jumping back now to an Audi RS5, I look at a long straight ahead of me, with markers laid halfway to indicate the breaking spot. Strong on the gas pedal, keeping the foot down, we build up the speed to 60 km/h before jumping on the brakes and sense the Audi now digging itself down to a controlled stop. Why this exercise then, in this car? We often think that R&D is something amazingly complex and expensive. But the Nokian Tyres team found out how under heavy braking or acceleration, the tire molds itself and twists the studs underneath, compromising traditional studs from reaching the ice for their full length. So, they simply reshaped the stud base sharper, now allowing the stud to break into ice on its full length. Result? Significantly improved braking and acceleration on ice. More academic improvement was also reached in terms of loudness, as the new Hakkapeliitta 9 tire is at best 10dB more silent than its predecessor, thanks to an improved tire wall compound.
Trusting it on the tires Now imagine yourself sitting in the Audi. You’re looking up a long runway, wide enough for planes to land. But it’s on lake ice. Do you (a) enjoy the sunshine, roll the window down and easily stroll to the end of the runway making sure the tires won’t spin, or do you (b) tighten the seat belt, switch off the traction control, give it full gas and then pretty much see what happens? I’m pretty sure that all the people in the world could be easily divided into these two definitive categories. Obviously, you know me already... So why would Nokian Tyres let me go crazy like that? Was that part of a larger psychological experiment with men dressed in white coats making notes? Absolutely. But this was all possible with the tires. That’s because the Hakkapeliitta 9 winter tire has studs with dual purpose. The studs on the sides of the tire are purpose-built for addressing sideways traction, whereas the studs in the middle are designed to maximize braking and acceleration. Both designs are then also aligned to work together. So I did go a little mad with the Audi, but boring as it may sound, despite the huge power and slippery surface, the car was very balanced and controlled, even if I wanted it to live a little. Heck, I could even a hold the car easily in a long drift without any sense of danger. If I were to read about this functionality from the company press release, I would box it right there down with all the other usual marketing hype. But, the 400hp Audi driven to its limit in the Finnish Lapland is no joke, we speak the same language with the car. This is about the tire letting me to use the car’s full potential safely and under even most severe weather conditions, and about me being able to trust the tire to do just that.
Speaking of practical issues, one thing that people often miss, is when to actually replace worn tires with new ones. Generally people tend to drive with tires that are well overdue and already a hazard. Nokian Tyres has graphed number markings to the center of the tire, telling the exact measure of the remaining surface. There is also a graphed snowflake to show when the tires are still road proof. As soon as the snowflake gets worn out, you need to replace the set. Simple enough?
In the end - The White Hell In the afternoon, we take a convoy from our current location to a place called White Hell, which is an undisclosed facility in the Finnish Lapland for Nokian Tyres to test their winter tires, about 20,000 of them annually to be exact. Why the name? It is quite easy to understand why the company would choose this place. It is in Finland with good connections to their headquarters and R&D, but at the same time it offers steady arctic conditions for most part of the year. The area offers vast amounts of open space with moderate land shapes, so they have been able to set up over 20 different test tracks to an area that could cover 1,129 soccer fields! The location is so remote and isolated that it won’t attract too much audience either. By setting up their test facilities here, Nokian Tyres are able to test winter tires for about 180 days of the year. When the days start to warm up, test drivers make use of the cold nights by testing in the dark and sleep over the warmer part of the day. To standardize testing conditions even further, they have set up a fully covered, 700-meter test track, made of natural ice. There is no sun, snow or wind here to affect the results. Just 700 meters of cold silence.
The only reported issue with the location are the reindeer. Even though the entire facility is now fenced, every now and then a reindeer does get lost inside the track. And here reindeer are somewhat holy like cows in India, you simply cannot harass them around. Reindeer are similar to Indian cows also in the sense that if they spot a car approaching, they will not care less about it. They will stand in your way and stare back at you, almost as if they were trying to make you feel guilty for the reindeer stake you had last night. We switch from Audi Q5’s now to smaller Volkswagen Golfs for our way back in the convoy, just before darkness. I am driving as the third car in the convoy, around 80 km/h on a straight forest road with heavy snow banks and low pine woods on both sides. Front cars come to a sudden full stop, thank God for safety distances and the brand new Hakkapeliitta 9’s fitted on all cars! Normally, with people driving bumper-to-bumper on used tires, this could have been a big mess. I now spot a herd of reindeer slowly moving into woods on the right. Disaster avoided. We relax for the remaining part and as darkness falls, we approach the base before flying back home. A twisty, intriguing road with ups and downs that surely lights up any Finn behind the wheel. Full brakes again!! Look in the rear view mirror to see that car behind is also awake. This time a lone, young reindeer right in the middle of the road. Takes a while before it manages itself up the snowbank, slowly into the forest.
Another reminder then that here in Ivalo, the reindeer warning signs are not for show. It is not a clever marketing trick for Nokian Tyres to use the slogan “Trust the natives”. They know how cold, slippery and dangerous it is out here. They live it themselves. According to the company, in the Nordics 28% of the market would buy their winter tires. It is a remarkable result, to consider that the next best brand is relevant for only 14% of the market. With the introduction of new tire brands and online stores the market is becoming increasingly fragmented on surface. But when it comes down to making decisions, I would rely on those that live in the conditions themselves. Having seen what Nokian Tyres does to allow us, simple mortals, drive such overpowered cars under the harshest conditions without any casualties or mishaps, is a simple testimony that the tires live up to the hype.
Below photos and video footage courtesy of Nokian Tyres: