Keep in control on the roads this winter

It doesn’t take the memory of an elephant to remember that the last winter was a harsh one. It didn’t last long, but the cold snap and snow that fell caused an awful lot of problems for motorists.

Considering how badly the country coped it would be foolish to ignore the recent increase in the number of winter driving courses that are being offered by a variety of operators.

One company hoping to make a difference in the context of educating motorists is Prodrive. An organisation more familiar to some for its exploits in world rallying and sportscar racing, its vast pool of engineering talent is responsible for a lot of things in the auto industry – some so hush-hush it can’t even talk about it.

So, why does a company famous for making Colin McRae famous want you to travel to facility near Kenilworth in Warwickshire? Its test and development site includes an artificial wet grip surface that’s perfect for simulating icy conditions. Oh, and there’s plenty of space for the inevitable uncontrollable spins.

Joking aside, for the modest sum of £99 you can experience icy conditions in complete safety and in your own car. And the Prodrive instructors – a lovely bunch of enthusiastic and experienced guys – are insistent that, where possible, you use your own car. The logic being that you only get one chance to react swiftly in the event of a skid, so you might as well understand how to deal with it in something familiar.

Upon arrival, and after some welcome refreshments, discussion quickly turns to tyres and the benefits of winter-spec options. Improved grip at low temperatures and the ability to better channel water, snow and slush through a more open tread pattern than your standard ‘all-weather’ tyre often results in fewer accidents – something that should get company car operators interested.

For some the merits of winter tyres will be new, and so will be the first practical exercise – experiencing front, rear and four-wheel drive cars. By rotating through a typical family hatchback, Mazda RX-8 and Impreza STI respectively, you soon learn that oversteer isn’t the preserve of a one type of car. They all react differently, especially under braking and when the ABS is activated.

Each run is demonstrated by your instructor before you’re encouraged to explore the car’s limits and your own. After a simple braking exercise, gently provoking a slide is followed by advice on how to recover the situation. In the familiar surroundings of your own car, discovering how it behaves can be an eye-opener, but with guidance a once baffling situation can be diffused with a little practice and after a few attempts your confidence grows.

Unusually the course doesn’t pretend to offer one-to-one tuition, but this isn’t criticism. Being two or three-up in a car has its advantages, as the opportunity to discuss the various exercises in informal surroundings has its advantages. This way you get to share the various experiences, have a laugh with like-minded drivers and, hopefully, learn something.

Prodrive doesn’t claim that its course will have you challenging the Scandinavians for winter driving honours. Instead, you get an introduction to the merits of winter tyres, plus a considerable amount of practical experience on a realistic low grip surface with plenty of run-off areas.

This relaxed environment ensures that the course is an enjoyable one, you feel at ease with the instructors and you go away with a better understanding of what to do in slippery situations. The coffee and pastries are good, too. For more details visit www.prodrive.com.

By Iain Dooley

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