Dancing on Ice with Walter Röhrl
And suddenly everything is white. The ribbon of asphalt, normally so gray, lies under a blanket of freshly fallen snow. No problem at all for the
Walter Röhrl’s answer is short and sweet. “Like always,” he says when asked about the best way to drive on snow-covered surfaces. The hint of a smile, however, suggests that his response applies only to people who share his level of skill. When Röhrl (69) says it makesno difference whether he’s driving on dry asphalt, dusty dirt roads, or icy streets, you believe him immediately. He intuitively knows the best way to handle a car.
But what skills do we really need in order to not lose our grip—or face—on slippery surfaces? For those of us who aren’t world-champion rally drivers, Röhrl has a few tips on how to handle cars safely in winter wonderlands of snow and ice. “Be even more attuned to the car than usual, and concentrate completely on what you’re doing,” he says. All of your senses have to be focused on what the car is telling you. But that alone is not enough. “Winter conditions reduce the amount of friction on the road, which means a dramatic drop in grip. So you have to slow down. Otherwise, you’ll have problems when you brake or hit the next curve.” Even though all-wheel-drive systems like that in the
But in general, Röhrl sees all-wheel drive as a major benefit and a plus for safety. “If the engine power is distributed across all four wheels, the car can hold its course better when accelerating,” he notes. In other words, dividing the power among four tires reduces the tendency of individual tires to lose their grip as the car speeds up, which could cause it to swerve. “But just because cars like the
Röhrl, a native of the German city of Regensburg who is also a passionate skier and cyclist, has a very general piece of advice for such situations: “Keep steering maneuvers to a minimum. And don’t tense up.” All steering actions beyond what is absolutely necessary come at a cost in terms of time and safety—except for strong movements at the wheel that make driver-assistance systems kick in sooner. “That all just creates anxiety,” he says. Röhrl, an admitted perfectionist and advocate of minimalist driving styles, raises his hands in front of his chest and turns an imaginary steering wheel to the left and right with two fingers and a thumb on each side. We might say he’s sitting at the wheel even when he’s just talking about it.
If you enter a curve too fast, it’s nearly impossible to control the car—especially on roads covered with snow or ice. “When I say slow down, it’s not because I’m an old man,” he says. The
But what should you do if, despite ample caution, you find yourself approaching a curve too fast? The first thing to do, of course, is to decelerate as much as possible by hitting the brakes hard, so that the anti-lock system sets in as quickly and efficiently as possible and reduces the speed. If need be, you also want the anti-lock system to work in the curve, even if that means having to turn in more sharply.
Given his experience as a professional rally driver, Röhrl naturally has an alternative approach, although it requires strong nerves on snow-covered roads, not to mention extensive training. “If there’s no other recourse, then lift your foot from the brake right before the curve and turn in—but not too much—and be very attuned to the car. Wait for the car to catch up, reducing the angle if need be to prevent oversteering, and that might enable you to keep the car on the road.” Regardless of skill level, one requirement applies to everyone: winter tires are a must. “Steering and driving maneuvers work only if the tires have enough grip on the road. So you absolutely have to have the right tread and rubber blend for cold temperatures.” Regardless of whether a car has front-, rear-, or all-wheel drive, it needs winter tires to transfer its power to the road and to brake in the most effective way possible—and this applies to everyone, including a two-time rally world champion like Röhrl.
“Nobody should think that all-wheel drive will make you safe in winter with summer tires,” he says. This fallacy can have grave consequences because, compared to how they perform on dry asphalt, summer tires transfer only an average of about one-tenth of that power to snow-covered roads. Crucially, this also means the driver has only about 10 percent of the braking power.
As far as the
By Wolfgang Schäffer
Photos by Stefan Bogner and Anatol Kotte
Did you know that …
… a cubic meter of fresh snow can weigh as much as 50 kilos?
… all snowflakes are hexagonal?
… snow falls at a speed of one meter per second?
… snowflakes consist of 95 percent air?
… the largest reported snowflake had a diameter of almost 38 centimeters (spotted in Montana in 1987)?
… winter tires cut the braking distance at 50 km/h on snow from 60 to 30 meters (compared to summer tires)?
… the coldest recorded winter daytime temperature was −89.2 °C in Vostok in eastern Antarctica (in 1983)?
… breath freezes at −80 °C and falls to the ground in little particles of ice?
… women’s toes have poorer circulation than men’s?
… skin can no longer produce fat at extremely cold temperatures?