“Traktori! Traktori!” The cry crackles over the radio with the crisply rolled ‘r’s of the Finnish accent. It summons workers with their tractors to tow a stuck Bentley out of a snow bank.
But that's expected at the Bentley Power On Ice event for some of its best customers. We’re intentionally sliding Bentley’s two-ton luxury locomotives around an ice track plowed out of the snow on a frozen lake. Our goal is to learn to drift monstrous luxury sedans and the new Bentayga SUV like we are drifting ace Ken Block shooting the latest Gymkhana video.
But there’s no smoke here from spinning tires, because we're practicing on a frozen lake instead of hot asphalt, lowering the thresholds involved.
Power On Ice is an annual pilgrimage to the village of Kuusamo in northern Finland. “I can see Russia from my house,” is a true statement in some spots here, 30 miles from the border. Bentley customers don't just buy steel and rubber, gasoline and oil. Increasingly, even mundane car brands can provide impressive style and comfort, enough even to challenge established prestige brands for sales. That's why Bentley sells fantasies rather than cars.
Bentley supplements the ice-drifting fun with a range of activities meant to further the legend of founder W.O. Bentley and the Bentley Boys, the gentleman racers who took their powerful English steeds to the rural byways near Le Mans, France and established a reputation for speed and durability in the annual 24-hour sports car race.
Power On Ice One such lifestyle activity, where clients who pay about $13,000 (not including flights to Helsinki) gather annually. Some Bentley superfans make a regular annual trip of it.
Bentley has coaches on hand, all experienced racers, who guide clients through their attempts to slide the luxe rides, an activity that seems superficially to be as unnatural as lacing up Bruno Maglis for a track meet. But that is part of Bentley’s point: check out what these cars can really do!
A key discovery while learning to slide cars like the Flying Spur is that when drifting around a corner, you don’t steer into the slide, as you’d normally expect. Instead, you might use a flick of the steering to help start the slide when entering the turn, but once the drift starts, most of the steering is done by controlling the spinning rear wheels. You steer with the gas pedal rather than the steering wheel, so a drifting car’s front wheels are normally pointed nearly straight forward as the car slides past the curve.
It works like a satellite in orbit. Gravity always pulls the satellite straight downward, but its speed allows it to zoom past the horizon before it falls to earth. Drifting a Bentley is the same thing, with the object being to avoid catching traction and lurching forward into the inside of the curve and getting stuck in the snow there.
Alternatively, too much gas can spin the car off into space, sticking it into the snow bank on the outside of the curve. Pick your poison.
Former world rally champion Juha Kankkunen is on hand to provide taxi rides sliding sideways around the ice and generally causing all guests to feel even less competent at this activity than when they were being towed out of the snow by a traktori. But it is still fun to ride along with such a master driver.
Bentley makes the whole Power On Ice program a bit of a northern latitude adventure. While the company hasn’t been able to arrange for shows of the Northern Lights, it does provide customers the opportunity to drive snowmobiles, ride in a dog sled and drive go karts on ice.
Dog sledding proves surprisingly easy. That’s because dog sleds are some of the world’s first autonomous vehicles. For such tourist rides, the human is effectively at the mercy of the dogs’ whims, as they go where they want. Fortunately, the dogs seem to understand where we are going, because it isn’t like there are reins or anything for steering. The dogs seem happier to see us than the karts do.
The snowmobile feels like a four-wheeler with more nervous steering, as the skis tend to hunt around a bit as they find their way through the snow and over the ice. Driving go karts on the ice track proves to be as much fun as it sounds, at least partly because no tractor is needed to address mishaps. As is always the case with karts, there is a dud and I started off in it.
But the father and son team from Poland who I am racing graciously offer to swap one of their karts for mine after they’ve destroyed me in a couple races, giving me a turn to win. It is their second year at Power On Ice and they already plan to return in 2017.
It was an early chance to sample the Bentayga and to test it in winter conditions that lured New Yorker Steven Greenberg on this arctic adventure. “I was most impressed with [the Bentayga] in deep snow,” he said. “It was like an old Army Jeep; it just went!” he observed.
Not much else about Power On Ice was reminiscent of anything so Spartan as an Army Jeep. Bentley arranges for spectacular meals including local dishes such as reindeer. The friendship and camaraderie of the groups, which include fewer than two dozen guests at a time, spark final dinner discussions of returning next year.
It would be fun, and it underscores the importance of brands like Bentley promoting the lifestyle and experience of Bentley ownership more than just the sheetmetal. Power On Ice is an incredibly unique experience you aren’t likely to get from an upstart Asian luxury car maker, no matter how nice their cars.