Andros Trophy in an Alpine A110 (kind of)

It's minus 12 outside according to the weather app, although the angle and velocity at which the snow is falling suggests the BBC is underselling it. Perhaps it's an illusion created by horizontal snowfall, but the Alpine A110 sat beside our Val Thorens cabin appears to be shivering, its headlight beams vibrating through the high altitude atmosphere and front spoiler sprouting dozens of icicles. Yet this is no time for the ski jacket and gloves - ice driving on a proper circuit is a workout, especially your first time...

Some of you may recognise the location as Europe's highest racing track, the Alain Prost Circuit, which is located 2,200m up in the French Alps, nestled in the slopes of Val Thorens' ski resort. This 800-metre circuit is famous for playing host to the opening round of the Andros Trophy, the French ice racing championship that features purpose-built 350hp machines, of which Prost is a three-time champ. But tonight, rather than a field of professional racers, ham-fisted journalists are being let loose on its technical layout in order to experience the magic of ice driving, from behind the wheel of a vehicle already renowned as a stellar driver's car. Should be fun.

Given the conditions, it's reassuring to see the test cars are all wearing Monte Carlo Rally-spec studded tyres on their 18-inch wheels. It's proper WRC rubber, stickered up with Michelin logos, and you can hear the metal studs crunching into the ice below from the confines of the A110's low-set cabin. Combine this sound with the swipe of windscreen wipers and tunnel of white light cast through the darkness by our car's full beams and the scenario feels, well, like the start of a night rally. Rather than a special stage route, however, there's a short five-bend circuit to learn. And rather than a pared-back rally cabin we're enveloped by a leather and Alcantara-trimmed interior, heated by climate control. And instead of a talented rally driver behind the wheel there's, erm, yours truly.

At least the grip from the ice tyres is reassuringly dependable as soon as we set off. If you've ever driven on snow with normal winter tyres you'll know the benefit, but studs are another world away in terms of purchase. Of course, if you're a hooligan, the turbocharged 1.8-litre motor mounted just behind us is more than capable of sending the rear wheels into a frenzy in any of the seven gears. It's hilarious fun to do this but, as Andros Trophy drivers illustrate so wonderfully when they bang door handles, it's far quicker to squeeze the throttle accurately to give the studs a fighting chance of digging cleanly into the surface. Do this, and the 252hp A110 slingshots down the straights, with a wiggle or two of the tail to remind you that disaster is only ever a prod of the throttle away.

"Gas, gas, gas," the circuit instructor in the passenger seat shouts encouragingly once we're up to pace, before the nose begins to push wide into the first hairpin. "You needed more." This is extremely difficult. The car feels so predictable and so sweetly balanced, yet the challenge of threading a sports car through the confines of a concrete-wall-lined ice circuit is now causing quite a headache. "Turn, turn, and gas!" the instructor says. This time the tail of the car keeps on sliding and the nose sweeps sideways past the inside wall, allowing for a gentle increase in pressure on the throttle and slow unwinding of the turn angle. The A110 dances away from the corner.

Braking is the easy part, even when grazing the limiter in third gear on the approach to the tight turn one. At first you can lean on the ABS and click down the gears, safe in the knowledge the transmission would never be so clumsy as to drop a cog if the revs are too high. But as you guide the nose in, you have to quickly trail off the left pedal, otherwise you'll run wide with an under-rotating inside front. Don't peel off too much, though, as the weight will transfer off the front end and compromise the bite on offer. Nail it, and you'll still need to be delicate with the steering; a degree more lock than you need and the nose will push.

It's not until you master this painstaking process of winding off steering lock and caressing the throttle that you realise the final phase is where the fun begins. Now, with the car rotating nicely, you can get greedy with the go-forward pedal, and, voila: hilarious oversteer. Open the steering or saw at the wheel and you can either neatly drift out or be a hooligan and tail wag towards the next corner. And the crazy thing? You never surpass 75mph.

The next morning sees us take on the track in the hours of daylight. Alpine LMP2 driver Nicolas Lapierre is on hand to show us how the pros do it, and a stint with him behind the wheel illustrates just how beautifully the A110 can be made to Scandinavian flick, pivoting on its centre like all the best sports cars do. Lapierre is very committed and brave on the brakes; so much so that every corner entry feels far too fast, yet the nose responds instantly to his command, while every exit feels like the tail is guaranteed to glance the concrete perimeter, yet it never does.

Sure, the rears kick up the snow that sits just inches from the walls, but only because he - a three-time LMP2 winner at Le Mans, no less - is so incredibly precise. And while attempts to emulate his skill level only serve to reveal how vast the talent chasm is, some practise at the Alain Prost Circuit has made it seem less taxing and far more enjoyable.

That's the beauty of ice driving - and the wonderful approachability of the A110. It's not the unavoidable comparisons between our experience here and the rallying history of the original A110 that make it special (although the link is appealing), but rather the ability of this car to provide a driver of limited ice driving experience with the tools to do it properly. Piloting a car through the slim confines of Val Thorens' circuit is an eye-opening process, one that makes an Andros Trophy driver's technique of 'backing it in' seem something of an inimitable procedure, but it's also extremely entertaining, and very rewarding. And something any PHer, no matter your experience level, can take so much away from. Particularly when the machine is as obliging and capable as an A110.

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (20) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Global Nomad 31 Jan 2019

    I'll get my coat...

  • housen 31 Jan 2019

    man that last pic looks epic

    so well proportioned

  • cybersimon 31 Jan 2019

    as above

    Pic of the week?

  • shantybeater 31 Jan 2019

    Am i the only person who thinks this car is hideous from pretty much every angle? In every other respect I love the idea of the car, but i can't bring myself to grow to the design at all..

  • mgbond 31 Jan 2019

    Why is there no video?

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