What they don’t teach you in class

Winter driving simply cannot be avoided if you live in Canada. To avoid sliding off the road into a ditch – or worse, hitting another vehicle on the road, you need to learn a skill set that is not on the curriculum of consumer level driving schools.

We are extremely fortunate to have a unique opportunity to not only improve our driving on snow and ice, but be taught on a one-on-one basis by Claude Bourbonnais, a racing driver and coach with nearly 30 years of experience including the Indy 500, the late Champ Car series, the 24 hours of Le Mans, FIA Formula F3000, Formula Atlantic, FIA Sports Cars and other racing series. If it has wheels, Bourbonnais has raced it.

While he no longer competes on the track, Bourbonnais can still be found trackside as a private coach for racing drivers. But sometimes the biggest risks and challenges are found on public roads, especially when conditions are bad.

“I noticed that most drivers are more like passengers with a steering wheel,” Bourbonnais said. “They sit there doing as little as possible. They really don’t know how to drive by the schools. They learn how to follow the rules, obey laws and read signs. They can get from A to B as long as nothing happens. The problem is that eventually something will happen and they are not prepared.”

“In Canada and the U.S. they don’t teach you how to drive,” Bourbonnais said. “They teach you how to obey the law. Unfortunately winter does not follow the law. In Europe it is all about efficiency in driving – smooth throttle application, steering inputs and such.”

Bourbonnais said the average driver is unaware of what is going on around them, thinking of things other than the task at hand.

“People are in a bubble and most of the time they get away with it because nothing happens to go wrong. You need to know how to react if you begin to lose control. There’s no time to think about it, you must react.”

So with these thoughts in mind, Bourbonnais held his first school in 2008 on the ice road between Hudson and Oka. “It was a good test but the location was not good,” he said. “There was too much traffic and fishermen drilling holes in the ice.”

In 2009 he moved to the current location near Vaudreuil where the water level is lower, making for a longer ice season and lousy fishing. Students are kept warm with a wood stove while they get a brief orienteering talk. Bourbonnais believes in track time rather than a classroom approach so drivers are soon in their cars where they are first taught proper seat positioning.

“We teach drivers in their own cars because that is the vehicle they are most likely to be driving,” said Bourbonnais. It also keeps costs for the student down to a minimum.

Driver position is critical to controlling your car and most people are never taught this in regular driving schools. With Bourbonnais’s method, each student is taught at their own level and they can repeat the exercise several times until they feel comfortable with the manoeuvre.

The next step is the slalom course where drivers are gradually brought up to speed weaving their car between orange cones on the snow-covered ice. There are no hard objects to hit out on the lake unlike your local shopping centre parking lot or street.

“You couldn’t do this sort of training on the street,” said Bourbonnais. “The roads are too busy, too narrow and it is illegal!”

The slalom course is the typical line of cones aimed at getting the driver to extend their vision farther down the road.

“Vision is 90 per cent of driving,” Bourbonnais explained. “Looking as far as possible is most important. If you look at the cone, you will hit the cone. If you look at the ditch, you will likely go in the ditch. We want you to look at where you want to go.”

The next lesson is the skid pad. This deceptively simple exercise of driving around in a big circle allows students to explore the limits of traction and experience oversteer and understeer. With no obstacles in sight, they experience a skid without the expensive bang at the end.

By this point most drivers are having a lot of fun, sliding their car about and recuperating control using both the steering wheel and the throttle while in a skid.

Obstacle avoidance is quite exhilarating for most people and one of the most useful skills you can learn. It’s on the accident avoidance course where you, the driver, begin to learn to rewire your brain and learn good instincts. Bourbonnais explains how your each of your tires has a contact patch with the road only the size of your hand. This is a limit you must be aware of. The next concept to learn is that a wheel can only do one thing well at a time – steer, brake or accelerate. Try more than one at the same time and you begin to compromise your car’s handling and control.

So there you are, travelling at 50 or even 80 kilometres an hour on the frozen lake, your instructor calls left or right at the last possible moment before you hit a wall of orange cones. Surprisingly, if you follow his techniques, get off the throttle, steer around the obstacles and then brake, all is well and you do not slide out of control. Brilliant!

Bourbonnais’s winter driving clinic is available for individuals or groups, seven days a week for only $200 per student. Imagine having an Indy 500 racing driver sitting beside you, teaching you how to stay in control, for slightly more than a dollar an hour. Classes take four hours to complete and are likely to be the best investment for you, your car or a loved one. The savings from the first accident you will avoid will more than pay for itself.

For more information, contact Claude Bourbonnais at www.claude-bourbonnais.com, email [email protected] or call 514-824-0263.

Photograph by: Jim Leggett, Montreal Gazette