Stunt and race car driver Ben Collins along with touring car pro’ Nicolas Hamilton joined the international press in Sweden at the Mercedes-Benz Onroad Winter Training track for the official announcement of Project CARS 2 …
Every winter, Mercedes-Benz sends out a team of engineers and ice-drivers to the isolated town of Sorsele in the north of Sweden, to a frozen ice lake where they prepare to welcome customers who travel here from around the world for what is a truly unique driver’s training experience.
It doesn’t get more remote than this frontier town—it’ll take you a full day to get up there. Why bother? Well, there’s the sundowner in a cozy lodge that awaits your arrival, the outdoor cooking on open fire-pits, the Aurora Borealis a spectral green in the forever skies above the epic-scale vastness of white silence and—dozens of Mercedes vehicles sliding and drifting into the long nights trailing plumes of snow-smoke.
Welcome to the home of the Mercedes-Benz Onroad Winter Training. And like all things Mercedes, expect a combination of high-tech engineering, motoring passion, and thrills a-plenty.
Mercedes-Benz Onroad Winter Training
The ice racing facility is immense, and primed the same way every year—six configurations built on a frozen ice lake, every inch of it designed by Formula 1’s go-to man in track design, Herman Tilke.
The idea behind the ice track is simple enough: indulge in the peace of a secluded beauty spot, and spend your days, “drifting at astonishing angles, emergency braking on sheet ice, and in conditions that will test your skills and hone your driving technique.”
Translated, that means you get to hoon about in three Mercedes-Benz C-class vehicles (saloon, coupe, and estate) on six ice tracks, completely sideways, in daylight and night (the days are short up here in winter).
So why was this spot chosen for the announcement of Project CARS 2? The answer begins in the summer of 2015 when Mercedes-Benz asked whether Slightly Mad Studios would be at all interested in featuring ice racing in the Project CARS franchise. If so, perhaps they’d like to send some guys and gals over to Sweden to experience ice racing in person.
The answer, to all of the above, was an emphatic ‘yes’, and a close collaboration between Mercedes-Benz and SMS ensued. Nicolas Hamilton attended the first event back in February of 2016 when he spent a week driving a telemetry-equipped Mercedes-Benz. A drone, meanwhile, scanned the track from above while a team of photographers snapped up every inch of the ice-lake.
Fast-forward to late January of this year, and the world’s media were invited to come see the result—ice racing in Project CARS 2. Is there a better way to demonstrate the power of conditions in the sim, and the authenticity of the physics model, than direct comparison with the real thing?
Along for the ride came stunt driver Ben Collins, and back came Nic Hamilton, both of whom are physics consultants on Project CARS 2. It was time to assess the year’s work, and see how close Project CARS 2 had come to replicating the real thing.
Ben Collins and Nicolas Hamilton talk ice racing, and Project CARS 2
‘Slightly Mad Studios has a great ongoing collaboration with Mercedes,’ explains Nic Hamilton, ‘and they’re always looking at ways to strengthen their relationship. The Mercedes-Benz Onroad Winter Training trackwas a logical fit for both. I’d never done any ice racing before I went last year, and implementing ice into the Project CARS franchise has been a big job. The way you drive on ice is completely different to any other surface, and the physics are very different as well, so we knuckled down for the time we were there, driving cars all day to understand how they slide and react, and how the studs actually work. It’s an epic setting, this enormous frozen lake. They even test the integrity of the ice with an articulated lorry.
This was Ben Collins’ first-time at the Mercedes-Benz ice track, but he’s no stranger to drifting—on ice or anything else. ‘I usually drift on ice without the benefit of studs,’ Ben explains, ‘so yeah, it’s a lot of fun. On “Top Gear” (Ben was, of course, the long-serving “Stig” during the TV show’s golden years), we used to mess around on ice, and it’s a natural habitat for films (Ben has driven stunts on everything from “Skyfall” to “Doctor Strange”), so I took to the ice track like a duck to water, so to speak. In those powerful Mercedes cars, it’s a doddle to get into some wild sideways action—it’s much easier to get the slide started than on other surfaces.’
So did Ben need to see any of the Mercedes-Benz ice racing instructors?
‘Sure,’ he says, ‘I saw them as I drove past. I made sure to wave! They’re there all the time, so they’re super-quick, and we all have different styles when it comes to drifting on ice.’
Ben was there to ‘taxi’ the press about and assess the ice driving physics on Project CARS 2. ‘Before we went out onto the actual circuit, we had a go in the demo, our first run with the ice tyre model,’ he recalls. ‘Within three days, (physics lead) Casey had a new tyre model based on our observations in Sweden. But that’s the point of going to the actual circuits that are in the game—it’s not just about the scanning, or getting the track dead-right—it’s about actually driving the track, and then comparing to the game, to get the feel of the cars right.
‘It’s complex,’ Ben continues, ‘because we need to bring in so many other things, like how the landscape works, and how the grip levels change when you go wide into the lumpier snow. All of this is in the game, so you can hunt that fresh pack of snow a little off-line to get a more grip or whatever.
‘The one thing we’re working on all the time is how to hold the slide in the game—it’s way beyond what we had in Project CARS,’ Ben explains. ‘It’s developing really nicely, and there’s nowhere like an ice track to work on your drifting physics. For me, this is my main focus on Project CARS, getting these cars to slide in a predictable way. That’s the next level, and I was delighted to watch a couple of guys who work on the rigs Versaro brought to the event jump into the real cars and immediately get into full drifts. Afterwards, one of the Mercedes instructors asked them, “you guys have done this before, right?” and their reply was, “nope, first time, but we’ve been running the ice track on the rig with Project CARS for months.” That shows we’re moving onto the next level now—it’s no longer just about learning the tracks, or learning to focus—we’ve reached a point where you can learn how the cars handle in real life, tuning the handling, and how to really drive in the real-world.’
Nic Hamilton notes that the circuit, from last year to this, had not changed at all with the exception of some snowbanks and the actual width of the track. ‘You have a pitlane and the different configurations, and then you have the dynamic circle tracks where you learn to control the car—or, you know, go do donuts! That’s in the game, as is the dynamic area where you learn to slalom and slide-and-catch techniques. The various tracks aren’t high-speed at all, but they combine all the tracks to make one massive circuit, and that is really quick.’
The Technique of ice drifting
‘Sliding around at 80mph is really quite fun,’ says Ben. ‘I had (SMS’s CCO) Rod Chong riding with me, and that was funny, his expression was changing from one turn to the next. But with the other passengers I took, we got to about 55mph max. On the big track, you can get some real speed going, and 120kmh on ice feels a lot faster than you’d think.’
‘Top speed,’ Nic says, ‘is actually difficult to gauge because on ice, you’re always losing traction so the wheels are actually spinning a lot faster than you’re going. That means you may be seeing, say, 120kmh on the dash’, but actually you’re hitting 110kmh or so. Having said that, the fastest I saw on the dash’ was when I was in a full drift, and that was reading around 120kmh. I’d estimate that, on a straight line, you’re hitting 140kmh or so. It’s really impressive—and it makes you realise how well-built those Mercedes cars are, they take a serious beating out there and they just keep going. And the other thing you realise is how much grip they have—even taking the studded tyres into account, the mechanical grip from these cars on the ice track is just superb.’
Driving on ice is, Nic and Ben agree, pretty much like driving on a ‘normal’ track. You have your apexes and your natural lines, but for Ben, it’s also a bit like skiing in that you need to plan ahead and understand your route. ‘You need to anticipate how the car is going to transition from one slide to the next. If you don’t have a plan, you’re going to get into trouble. You’re drifting through every corner, but at some point the tail of your car is going to come swishing back to the other side, and if you haven’t thought that through, you’re going to hit the snowbank for sure. It’s basically using the same strategy that you would when drifting.’
Nic notes that, while you’re aiming to drive the ice tracks as you would a regular track, the nature of the surface means you need also to adapt. ‘The basics still apply—making sure you’re on the right line, stuff like that. Where it differs, though, is how you set the car up for the turns. Sometimes you need to get the car rotated before the turn, so you want to unsettle it on the approach. For instance, if you’re headed for a 120kmh right-hander, you want to fake left and right to get the car moving about a little before you brake and commit to the turn-in. The other thing is, you really want to avoid being on neutral throttle—you’re either on the brakes or the gas, anything in-between will just make you understeer into the snowbank.’
Mercedes-Benz provide both rear-wheel and 4-MATIC cars for the ice track. Nic notes that, ‘With the four-wheel drive Mercedes, you want to trail-brake into the turns to get the rear to step out—with the rear-wheel drive, it’s about getting onto the brakes earlier, then getting into the turn and blipping the throttle to get the rear to start sliding. The fastest way is to drift your way around, and you’ll be amazed at how much confidence you get from the studded tyres and the cars’ mechanical grip—that confidence is key, both to the real car, and to Project CARS 2. That’s a really central focus, and why we’ve come back here again, because we want this to be spot-on. It’s a different discipline to regular track racing, but any driver can adapt.’
Ben says there was relatively little carnage when the press were set loose on the ice. ‘No smashes, no, some people went a little wide, including me, but it’s so much fun and professionally run. The surface of the ice track is graded which means it has a lot more grip than you’d imagine—it’s not like racing on a block of ice—and the drivability, the sliding control is what this is all about, and people just loved it. You’re going to have a blast with this in Project CARS 2, it’s really just bags of sideways fun.’
Project CARS 2 will come with all six configurations of the ice track, including the combined circuit and the skid-pads. The tracks will also feature LiveTrack 3.0, so rain, snow, fog, mist and, more importantly, those snow-pockets off-line, will all change the grip and nature of the tracks. On top of that, every car in Project CARS 2 will come with the option of having studded ice-tyres—so that dream you had, about driving an 800bhp rear wheel drive car on an ice track? It’s about to become your nightmare for real.