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Formula 1 on Ice: No, Not the Cars—But the Circuits Are Another Story

Automobile logo Automobile 3 days ago Jethro Bovingdon
2018-Subaru-WRX-STI-Type-RA-06.jpg Formula 1 on Ice: No, Not the Cars—But the Circuits Are Another Story

ARJEPLOG, Sweden — Imagine driving down a wide boulevard. Every few hundred yards there are left and right turns, each marked with a sign and a name. They couldn't be more evocative: N rburgring, Paul Ricard, Yas Marina, Silverstone, Le Mans. Sure enough, as you choose a turn, there are immaculate and exact 1:1 scale replicas of each of these famous racetracks, more than 30 miles of twists, turns, and straightaways.

Now imagine that boulevard runs across a frozen lake, and each track is carved into the icy surface. No barriers to hit, no gravel traps to get buried in. This playground seems almost endless. Sounds like heaven, right? It is. Welcome to the surreal world of Lapland Ice Driving in Sweden.

a close up of a car© Damian Blakekore

There is a celestial fleet of cars, too. Take baby steps with a Porsche Cayman or Focus RS then graduate to Maserati GranTurismos before testing your skills in the Lamborghini Hurac n LP580-2s, Porsche 911 GT3s, and Ferrari 458 Italias. The tracks change every year, and so does the fleet, but the basic concept—creating famous circuits on 2,965 acres of Lake Udjaur—remains, erm, frozen. And it is genius.

We have "Yas Marina" to ourselves for a couple of days. Driving a Subaru WRX STI on an ice-covered Abu Dhabi is our sort of irony, and Yas Marina's 3,740-foot straightaway means we should be able to hit close to 120 mph, not something you do every day on ice. Stopping? The new six-piston Brembos and 300 studs on each tire should take care of that. At least that's the theory; even so, it takes all the steel you can muster to select fifth gear and keep your right foot planted beyond 110 mph for the first few laps (OK, the entire first day), the car weaving and dancing around alarmingly.

a close up of a map© Damian Blakekore

The straightaway is exciting and terrifying, but the life-affirming joy and challenge is in the 21 corners. Brake gently into corners, and the tail swings around. Don't correct yet; you want to use the pendulum effect to build a nice angle. Once you're properly sideways, apply opposite lock. (A driving school likely won't teach this, but simply letting go of the steering wheel is a handy shortcut to finding the perfect countersteering input.) You're halfway to the ecstasy of a perfect icy drift. But now it gets harder. From here on in it's a matter of juggling throttle and steering to maintain the slide and then gradually bringing it to a graceful end. Calmness and loads of practice are key.

Swinging with balletic grace from one perfect power slide to the next on a petrified Abu Dhabi Grand Prix circuit, the Subaru feels a million dollars.

In fact, once you've enjoyed the thrills of finding just how sideways the AWD Type RA will go before it's unrecoverable (almost backward), you find yourself trying to go faster and straighter. You're soon executing elegant four-wheel drifts, the car sliding sideways but also driving forward, flat-four warbling at near maximum revs and the front wheels almost straight as you power out of the skid. It's the classic rally-style stance you've seen dozens of times on television but always assumed was only for the superhuman. The Subaru—so long as you have a frozen lake on hand—gives you those powers.

a close up of text on a black background© Damian Blakekore

So what makes the RA worthy of its celebrated "Record Attempt" designation? It's no replica of the Type RA NBR that race driver Richie Stanaway used to break the sedan lap record at the N rburgring in July 2017. The NBR's 2.0-liter flat-four produced 600 horsepower at 8,500 rpm and was hooked up to a sequential race gearbox, plus it had huge downforce-generating splitters and wings, a full rollcage, and racing slicks. This Type RA, built to celebrate the milestone, is rather tamer. In fact, the 2.5-liter flat-four (only in Japan do they get the revvy and super strong 2.0) has just a 5-hp bump over the standard STI. That takes the total to 310, and torque remains unchanged at 290 lb-ft.

One number does take a big leap upward: the price. The Type RA costs $49,855 as compared to an STI Limited at $41,755. Ouch. However, delve a little deeper, and that big sticker seems less painful. That extra 5 hp isn't found with simply a different line of code for the engine management system. Instead there are new intake and exhaust systems, stronger pistons, and sodium-filled valves. On-track reliability shouldn't be a problem.

Dynamically the Type RA has much more to shout about: bigger six-piston brakes, a carbon-fiber roof to help shed 68 pounds and lower the center of gravity, revised aerodynamics (including that two-position carbon-fiber rear wing), and new Bilstein dampers. Third gear has also been shortened to make the most of the engine's modest power hike and supposedly more flexible delivery. Throw in standard Recaro seats, plenty of nice detailing, and the rarity factor, and it starts to all add up. Yes, you probably need to be a Subaru fan to write a check for nearly $50,000, but there's just substance enough to justify that "Record Attempt" badging.

a close up of a car© Damian Blakekore

Swinging with balletic grace from one perfect power slide to the next on a petrified Abu Dhabi Grand Prix circuit, it feels a million dollars. The Type RA's Symmetrical All Wheel Drive system is nigh on perfect for these conditions. Whereas on normal surfaces the STI is sure-footed to the point of feeling almost a bit of a killjoy, here it comes alive. Adjustability and traction meld to create a chassis so well-balanced and so efficient that not a moment is wasted. You are sliding, but you're also driving forward with a relentless energy.

There's also a Track mode for the stability control system, but on the ice it's best to turn everything off, dial the adjustable center differential to its rearmost setting, and enjoy the accuracy it provides. The Type RA is so intuitive that you're soon thinking about shaving tenths here or there, of polishing the left-right transitions so that precious momentum isn't lost but rather harnessed. There's just something deeply "motorsport" about the whole experience.

a close up of a car© Damian Blakekore

Surely, though, a standard STI would be just as good? Maybe. A frozen lake isn't the greatest place to assess such marginal on-paper upgrades. However, the Type RA does feel different. The steering has more weight, and the front end responds more cleanly to it. The ride on this surface, which has become corrugated by studded tires ripping into it, is undoubtedly firm, but there's more fluency in the damping, a greater sense of the wheels tracing the undulations neatly and with easy control. And although the engine only has a few more horses to call upon, the delivery is stronger in the midrange and sharper everywhere. The Type RA feels like more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps Subaru's eyebrow-raising suggestion that the carbon-fiber roof improves rigidity to such an extent that traction and grip are improved is credible.

More important on this excursion, we discovered one of the world's greatest venues for pure driving excitement. A world of icy F1 circuits, smiles, great cars running on metal spikes, reindeer pizzas (sorry, Rudolph), and never-ending power slides. And in this little slice of motoring paradise, Subaru's peculiar, unique little sedan with a boxer engine, an old-fashioned stick shift, and its over-engineered all-wheel-drive system is still king.

More info:lapland-ice-driving.com

2018 Subaru WRX STI Type RA 07© Damian Blakekore 2018 Subaru WRX STI Type RA 07

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