Juha Kankkunen is a four-time WRC champion and the sort of Finn who was born driving sideways on ice. While many Scandinavians are well known for their car control, Kankkunen is a master of the art of sliding a car and being someone who even a fellow Finn would call eccentric.
We caught up with Juha one dark morning when he was clearing snow off a race course on a frozen lake near the Arctic Circle and asked him: Hey, how do you even drive like that on ice? What followed was a series of pleasing digressions from one of the most naturally talented drivers ever to fire up a car.
"The only basic thing is you just have to be very careful. Do you hear me? If you are unsure of anything be careful. Also, the best thing is to practice on ice. Lots and lots of practice. That's how I came to be a madman. But there are not many places where you can try the skills, to feel how the ABS works. If you have the possibility to try, then try—all night long if you have to. Across a whole lake if you must.
Now if you find yourself in a position where you have no grip, you can be best in the world, but if you have no grip and the wrong tires, then you will be doomed. Completely doomed. So you must make sure that you have winter tires. The right kind. Do you hear me? Are you even listening?
Listen to me: Drive very gently. Brake early. Leave the distance from the car or the animal [Ed. Note: Animal?]. If there’s any possibility, everybody should drive for a day or two on the ice. That is the only way to learn what happens when you lose the car from underneath you. Go ahead and hit the soft snow a little bit. That’s it. That's how you learn. You don’t get to be Juha without hitting the soft snow first.
Never panic. When you panic, you do everything wrong. Normally, when you panic you put the brakes to the bottom. Well, my friend, then you can’t steer the car. Release the brake, turn, and at least avoid the other thing—the hard thing, lamp post.
The best defense you can have in the United States, with slush or snow or whatever, or even wet conditions is the right tire. I could say that over and over again until my head literally explodes. Get the right tire: There is a deeper groove in the tread of the winter tire, so you can save a lot of problems. the difference in grip is like day and night. Please listen to me.
Just be cool, drive slower. Don’t stop, for God's sake! Don't be a fool. But drive slower. If you panic you can make an accident.
You have to look far down the road at all times and see into the future.
In Finland we use studs on our tires. When the ice is wet on the top, it’s so slippery that there is really no grip on the car. Even then the best driver in the world would have trouble.
Who are the best drivers? Well, Scandinavians are all good. Germans are quite ok. I've been an instructor for some Canadians and they were ok. The worst I've worked with from Korea, Indonesia, Malasia, Thailand. They have no idea how to handle winter conditions..
I had a good career. Snow is a natural element to me. When people ride with me in snow, they say, 'You must be crazy.' But I'm a rally driver, and we are a little bit better than Formula 1 guys. I have been an instructor for Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. They contacted me and they want to learn more car control. You have to feel the car on your bottom, basically. Driving on ice is the impossible element but it's the best practice they ever had.
I invite them back all the time. They are good, but they don't have the winter magic that Juha has.