Driving a Ferrari 488 Challenge Evo on a frozen lake
Some of the world’s greatest race circuits recreated on a frozen lake – that’s the unique proposition of the Lapland Ice Driving experience. Throw in a Ferrari 488 Challenge Evo and it’s pretty much heaven on earth
Despite being founded by the most disorganised bunch of human beings I’ve ever met – and Harry – evo reached its 300th issue in rude health. It’s no wonder we all felt a little self-reflective. From a personal point of view, I wanted to mark the occasion with something significant. Something that spoke to evo’s cultural influence as a pure, detail-obsessed place for car enthusiasts to gather and celebrate all that’s good and lampoon all that’s bad. A place where driving dynamics and excitement are prized above all else and where the chassis and powertrain engineers and test drivers are the stars, not some corporate high-up talking about mobility and platforms and all that important-sounding but ultimately dull stuff that other magazines seem unduly fascinated by.
Features bubbled away in my mind for months. Absolute classics, I can assure you. Some dealt with the glories of the past but felt a little too self-indulgent and regressive. Others embraced the cars and technologies that will inform the next 300 issues but seemed too grandiose in reach and a little worthy. Then Ferrari called. ‘Want to drive a 488 Challenge Evo on a frozen lake?’ they asked. Before I could even say ‘Sounds nice, but what’s the point?’ I’d accidentally replied ‘Oh bloody hell, yes. YES!’ So what follows isn’t very significant. It’s not a ‘think piece’. It’s about doing something just because it’s bloody good fun. You might call it The Thrill of Driving in its purest form. Yes, let’s go with that. Sounds like it was planned.
On the tiny little aeroplane from Stockholm to Arvidsjaur and the subsequent transfer to the little town of Arjeplog, I’m rather concerned once again about ‘the point’ of this trip. However, the feeling evaporates almost instantly upon arrival at our hotel. The Silverhatten is the biggest hotel in Arjeplog, which itself is the centre of Europe’s winter testing programmes for manufacturers and suppliers alike. The population swells by around 2000 engineers every year as the snow and ice appears; just being here feels like gate-crashing a secret world.
As wheelie bags crunch through the packed ice and snow of the car park, we’re surrounded by disguised prototypes. A few BMWs have a light sprinkling of those strange swirly stickers, then there are more heavily camouflaged Mercedes, a handful of Maseratis. The variety is amazing. From the conventional at one extreme all the way up to a new Unimog variant via a gaggle of Ineos Grenadiers. The total focus on automotive engineering and development is palpable, just as it is when you get close to the Nürburgring. Only it’s a bit colder. We might be a long way from anywhere and just 60 miles from the Arctic Circle but this place clearly has a very important part to play in our little universe.
As if to underline the dawning realisation, within minutes of checking in to the Silverhatten I bump into a Maserati test driver. Soon after, Raffa de Simone, Ferrari’s development test driver and engineer, gives me a few insights about the Purosangue he’s been tweaking with Bosch over the last few days. Raffa isn’t part of our own little Ferrari adventure. He just happens to be here. Later we’ll play pool with JLR test drivers. It’s just that sort of place. For one reason or another, everybody in Arjeplog is here to drive.
Many of the test tracks are closed to the public, and the most sensitive prototypes, like the Purosangue, are locked away in private test centres nearby. However, the biggest and most evocative facility of them all is very much open to us. It’s called Lapland Ice Driving and it might be the most incredible, outrageous and vast playground ever devised for people who love driving. For the next day or two it’s home. And we have a Ferrari 488 Challenge Evo at our disposal, too.
The place itself is located on Lake Udjaur – the second largest body of water in this region – and the temporary ice tracks are cut into an area covering nearly 3000 acres. There are 14 courses, starting with simple circles and ovals, where you can practise initiating and holding slides, then more complex but low-speed layouts created to teach linking several corners. It’s awesome fun, but just a taste of what’s to come. Once comfortable, the big tracks await: Yas Marina, Paul Ricard, Sepang, Nürburgring GP and, the most exciting of all, Silverstone GP circuit. Reproduced in 1:1 scale on Lake Udjaur, these F1 tracks are an intense challenge and provide the chance to drive at well over 200kph (125mph) on ice. The idea behind Lapland Ice Driving is at once the most logical thing I’ve ever heard and the maddest concept imaginable.
It gets madder still when augmented by the arrival of the Passione Ferrari Club Challenge. This is a new concept run by Ferrari for customers who have moved beyond trackdays but don’t want to race and can’t quite stretch to the Corsa Clienti programmes using FXX cars or old F1 machines. Effectively it’s an exclusive track club using 488 Challenge and 488 Challenge Evo race cars with the added benefit of one-on-one coaching, data analysis and lots of lovely dinners, experiences and money-can-buy goodness. The Club Challenge visits places like Portimao, Budapest, Mugello. And now, possibly, Lapland Ice Driving. Members can have their own cars prepped for the ice or use 488 race cars provided by the factory. We’re at a test event to see how the cars perform and whether it’s a good idea to extend this ‘On Ice’ experience to all members. (Spoiler alert: it is.)
Seeing a 488 Challenge parked on a frozen lake under a cloudless sky is as magical as it is incongruous. Hearing one fire up and shred the cold air to ribbons is even better. A Challenge car doesn’t have quite the distended and brutal appearance of a GT3 racer, but here and now it feels sensationally exciting. Stripped of stickers, it looks factory-fresh and the huge rear wing and plexiglass windows with sliders could scarcely be more evocative. And unlike a GT3 racer it has almost road car-like steering lock, which will come in very, very handy. In fact, the Challenge car is very much a highly modified road car rather than a true works-style racer. Luckily, the 488 GTB isn’t a bad place to start.
It takes seconds to realise that the Challenge Evo is missing one thing that’s pretty useful up here on the outer edges of the Arctic Circle. A heater. Threading myself through the roll-cage, the combination of frigid metal and my own body feeling crunchy and stiff from the cold is not a happy start. Maybe once I’m up and running the heat-soak from the engine will make things a little better? Yes, I’m clutching a little here. I just want enough warmth to ensure my feet, arms and hands are functioning.
So, I’m in. Folded – or should that be snapped? – into place. The seat has severe bolsters and wings for side protection, so there’s that usual race-car intimidation where you feel both absolutely secure but also a little trapped. Dead ahead is a pleasingly round, suede-trimmed Sabelt steering wheel emblazoned with a Ferrari badge and many, many buttons (none of which is for a heating option – I checked) and shift lights that run in a gentle arc over the curve of the horizontal spokes. Long carbonfibre paddles behind are fixed on the column, just as in the road cars, which should make locating them mid-slide and mid-panic fairly easy and instinctive. The conventional steering wheel is actually from the older 488 Challenge, as the Evo’s more radical F1-style wheel wouldn’t be so good for the acrobatics required on ice.
Behind me is a 3.9-litre twin-turbocharged V8 producing 661bhp at 6500rpm and up to 560lb ft at 3000rpm. Unlike a GT3 car, the Challenge Evo can run in this derestricted road car-matching spec as Balance of Performance isn’t an issue in a one-make race series. At 1340kg dry it’s 30kg lighter than the 488 GTB. Good to know when you’re driving on a frozen lake, I suppose.
Running on this surface requires modification. But not as much as you might expect. The Challenge Evo ride height is increased a touch; the usual 275-section and 315-section front and rear tyres are replaced by much narrower ice and snow tyres with 650 studs apiece; the fragile front dive planes are removed, and there’s some underbody protection. The Ice Driving fleet usually has a replacement glassfibre front bumper to avoid damage to expensive panels during the inevitable offs, but there wasn’t time to organise this for the Challenge Evo on this occasion. In other words, they would prefer it if I didn’t have an off.
In addition, carbon-ceramic brakes are replaced with iron discs for obvious reasons and all driver aids are removed. There’s no ABS, no traction or stability control and the Challenge Evo’s usual dynamic reliance on Side Slip Control is also removed. It’s just me, that engine and seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, an e-diff and those lovely tungsten-tipped studs. So I flick the master switch on the centre console, give the brakes a hefty shove and push the red button marked Start. The engine fires instantly and the whole cabin buzzes. In the rear-view mirror I can see great white plumes curling out from the exhausts. What next? Just follow the signs to Silverstone, I guess.
A wide boulevard cut into the ice runs straight through Lapland Ice Driving and then minor service roads branch off to the left and right. Some have innocuous signs like ‘Oval’ or ‘Circle 1’ but the good ones say things like ‘Sepang’ or ‘Paul Ricard’. According to the instructors, Silverstone is the biggest and most exciting challenge of all. This isn’t Silverstone as it is today, but instead the much-loved and missed pre-2010 layout. It has so many high-speed corners and flows where many of the new F1 tracks are slightly disjointed. When you’re sliding sideways and trying to elegantly link corners, flow is the key. And 5th or 6th gear is always more exciting than 2nd or 3rd.
At least that’s the theory. Yet when I enter the track from the service road and emerge onto the old pit straight that leads into Copse corner, I’m not so sure. Yes, the track is recreated 1:1 in terms of length, corner layout and radius, but it’s not as wide as the real Silverstone. Not even close. Instead we have 5.498km of the most testing corners you can imagine and about two and a half car widths to thread the needle. And remember, our Challenge Evo will be considerably wider than a 488 travelling on tarmac. Suddenly, on a 3000-acre site, I feel claustrophobic.
The Evo’s studded tyres might be biting into hard ice but they can only do so much. As I click through 3rd and into 4th, not only are the wheels spinning but the car feels like it’s skating over the surface. It’s unnerving but unbelievably exciting. And that’s before I’ve even arrived at the very first corner. Of course the engine feels absurdly over-endowed, but I know its phenomenal throttle response will be a massive advantage for what lies ahead. Nobody does turbocharging quite as effectively as Ferrari, and here – a place where precision and throttle control is everything – the accuracy of response is vital. A laggy turbocharged engine and rear-wheel drive would make for a knife-edge combination.
On the brakes the Ferrari settles nicely and I can sense when the wheels are locked. Happily, the bias seems to be set very rearward and it’s the rears that blink first. Usually this would be a disaster and pitch you into a spin, but on ice it allows you to point the car at the apex way before the track is even turning to the left or right. It’s not snap-oversteer that’s the enemy here but slow, confidence-sapping understeer that drags you gradually into the loose snow at the track’s edge. Once you find that evil powder, the banks suck you in like a bungee cord on recoil.
So, set the car up incredibly early and focus on the series of tall, slim poles that mark the inside radius of the turn. The quickest and safest way is to be fully sideways, front splitter grazing the poles. To do this in, say, a BMW M240i or GT3 as a regular customer would be outrageous fun. In a raw, ferociously powerful and amazingly agile Ferrari race car it’s pretty much heaven on earth.
What’s remarkable is how the inherent traits of the 488 Challenge Evo are so tangible even on this wholly alien surface. The balance is completely transparent and you just know the engine is mounted way down low in the chassis. More surprising is the response. The car might feel loose on the straights but the front end snaps into turns so quickly and the ultra-quick steering is so in tune with the way the Evo wants to attack the corners. There’s this delicious sense that the 488 Challenge wants to eat you and cuddle you all at the same time. The frankly ludicrous performance and rapid response is intimidating, but the way the car easily settles into slides and the intuitiveness of interacting with the engine creates an inner calm. Very quickly the fear of spinning is replaced with a desire to nail the perfect lap.
It never comes, but there are little moments of sheer perfection, most of them in the really quick corners: grabbing 6th through the old Abbey corner with the Challenge Evo already close to the lock-stops is about as blissful a feeling as I’ve ever had in a car. Another highlight is Maggotts/Becketts and then the long, long Hangar straight. Going straight is the scariest part, and when you’re travelling at well over 125mph and the rear wheel speed is much, much higher, the car jinking and being pulled and pushed between wheel tracks already cut into the ice, it takes strong willpower to keep my foot in. Even so, I know I’m braking way too early. I’d normally be cursing myself but, when you’re sideways through Stowe, any timidness moments earlier is easily forgotten. This place is about pure fun. Lap times are for another day.
I do as many laps as I can bear. Probably a couple too many, as my hands won’t work at all when I finally climb out of the car and, strangely, they’re burning with pain. A few minutes in front of the heater finally gets them back to something close to normal. Me? I’m not sure I’ll ever be normal again. I’m babbling about Copse this and Bridge that, recalling my heroics to all who want to listen (nobody) and those that don’t (everyone). The idea of ten or even twenty 488 Challenge and Challenge Evos rocking up here next year and having days and days to play is surreal and ridiculous and probably something you should consider selling limbs in order to participate in. There was a time I wondered quite what the point of this trip was going to be. Now I realise that it was truly, undeniably and hopelessly pointless in every way. Unless you consider reconnecting with pure driving excitement as a worthy, worthwhile and life-affirming thing to aspire towards. In which case, it might just be the most important thing I’ve ever done. Not a bad way to celebrate 300 issues, either.
Ferrari 488 Challenge Evo specs
|V8, 3902cc, twin-turbo
|661bhp @ 6500rpm
|560lb ft @ 3000rpm
This story was first featured in evo issue 300.