Top Gear on ice: how to drive on snow in Austria

Looking for alpine excitement but don't like the idea of another week strapped in to tight ski bindings? There is another way


The Winter Olympics may have turned us all into snowboard and slalom skiing aficionados, but surely there’s a better way to get your adrenaline kicks in the mountains? Some way to avoid the sore legs, toe-crunching boots, pinching lycra and chilly wipeouts?


There is. And you don’t even have to wear a ski jacket to do it.

Lungau is a picturesque little valley in Austria where the hills are alive with the sound of internal combustion. My destination was the ‘Winterfahrpark’, a specialist driving centre where anyone can learn the secrets of driving fast on snow and ice: how to flick a car round a hairpin turn like a seasoned Scandinavian rally driver (and ideally not punch a hole through the nearest tree in the process).

The thrum of a 4×4 engine created its own symphony as we arrived at the prepared race course, a cone-lined sheet of ice next to a not quite frozen stream. Skiers were already out in force on the slopes above us, presumably hanging on to button lifts for dear life behind their bored instructors.

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We had our own instructors for the day, ready to transform us from wannabe Jeremy Clarksons into cool ice racers. The cars, courtesy of Vauxhall, were already lined up ready for us to hop into, including suave Insignia saloons and stubby little 4×4 Mokkas. As I worked out how to adjust the seat and turn the heating down, the crackle of a walkie talkie secreted in the door pocket told me to make my way to the start of the track. 

Top Gear had it right when it held its own motorised Winter Olympics in 2006. Instead of peering through fogged up ski goggles, I could flick the windscreen wipers. Instead of dressing in more layers than Scott in the Antarctic, I could take on the Alps in nothing more than jeans and a jumper. Sadly there’s no ski jump in Europe willing to let drivers launch battered Minis off a ramp, but tracks built into alpine wilderness are open for drivers of any ability to try out new skills, from the Val Thorens Drivers’ School in France to exclusive Swedish resorts, as well as the more down to earth facilities in Austria.

The first few laps of the course were driven in convoy, the instructor building up speed in the lead car, pointing out particular sections that might cause problems: chicanes, hairpins, ominous-looking trees. “Hands at nine o’clock and three o’clock,” the heavy accent instructed from the door pocket. Forget the ’10 and 2’ that was drilled into you during driving lessons – the extra purchase on the wheel helps when controlling the inevitable slide into the corner.

I could feel the snow crumping under the winter tyres. The seat hugged me as I brushed the accelerator, willing me into the corner, sending a spume of snow shooting from the rear tyres. The brake lights of the car in front blinked, but I held on, wanting to eke out a bit more speed before the turn-in.

I mashed the brakes… too late. The car wobbled, snaked, careered off the compacted ice into the soft snow just off course. There was the inevitable clunk of an orange cone as it was obliterated under the front left tyre.

“Too fast. Try to look where you want to go,” the walkie talkie crackled. Well obviously.

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Pride bruised, but no lasting damage. That’s the thrilling thing about these try-and-see events. You’re let loose on a track with the freedom to try things you would never dream of doing on the open road. By the end of the day I felt confident in kicking and flicking through all manner of corners – even if I had earned the nickname “cone killer” in the process.

We left the cars and wobbled back together just as dusk was falling. After the heated interior of the cars and the nervous concentration of an afternoon’s racing, we were all a little hazy in the evening chill. I was handed one of several crippled cones from my day’s off-road excursions as a memento, but felt a little less embarrassed after hearing that someone from another group had gone straight off the course into a forest.

“How is he?” someone asked the instructor. Absolutely fine, came the answer.

“How is the car?”

“It is f***ed,” he said bluntly. Whether skiing, snowboarding or driving, no one beats a winter sports instructor for candour.

Make it happen

The Lungau region is roughly an hour and a half’s drive from Salzburg. Numerous accommodation options are available in the town of St. Michael im Lungau, including the Eggerwirt Wellness Hotel (address: Eggerwirt Wellness Hotel, Kaltbachstraße 5, 5582 St. Michael im Lungau).

To find out more about booking a driving session, visit the Lungau tourism website – Radio Times visited the centre in Thomatel at the invitation of Vauxhall, but there are three different tracks to choose from in this area alone.

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