Driving is a skill that takes many years of learning and practice to master. You don’t become a good driver overnight. Experience – both practical and theoretical – is required.
Good vision, the proper seating and steering positions are fundamental. Knowledge of vehicle handling and basic physics are a definite asset. A dose of common sense never hurts. Bad habits do. Good teachers are nice, but great teachers are even better.
You get all of the above at any BMW Driver Training program, including some of the best BMW driving instructors in the country. Ironically, head coach Philippe Létourneau has been coaching some of the country’s worst drivers on Discovery’s “Canada’s Worst Driver” TV show for seven of its nine seasons. He is also the chief instructor at the Jim Russel Racing School and lead instructor / presenter for the Ferrari Driving Experience at Circuit Mont-Tremblant.
In Canada since 2001, BMW Driver Training is the automaker’s fully integrated approach to road safety. As part of an overall marketing strategy, its programs are currently offered in 35 countries; and offer drivers the unique opportunity to learn from highly-qualified and experienced BMW-certified instructors who can teach approved driving skills, superior safety and a better understanding of a vehicle’s capabilities.
Having completed the BMW Winter Driver Training course at Circuit ICAR outside of Montreal at the Mirabel Airport, I can tell you a few things for certain. Anyone can take the course, so long as they have a full driver’s license and $795 plus applicable taxes. Owning a BMW is not a prerequisite. Holding a valid full-class license and being at least 18 years of age is.
Furthermore, I am a better driver because of it, and it was a lot of fun! Both are, in large part, thanks to Létourneau’s team of instructors, which includes former and current racers Sylvain Champoux and Jean-François Dumolin among others. And, for those who don’t (yet) own the keys to a Bimmer, this experience can be bittersweet since you get to drive the latest and greatest models. Correction. You get to drift them!
The day starts off in the classroom session where students learn the basics. Things like seating position, steering technique and even seat belt tension are discussed along with vehicle dynamics (weight transfer, contact patch and kamm circles).
The seat should be lowered all the way and your chest/torso 12 inches from the airbag. Hands always go at nine and three o’clock (no exceptions). To check your position, make sure there’s a slight bend in the elbow with your wrist draped over the top of the steering wheel. With the clutch fully depressed, the left knee is slightly bent so as to absorb impact. Same goes for the right leg; this ensures you can get on the brakes fully, and modulate the throttle with your toes, ankle and knee rather than just the former.
The discussion moves to vision (looking up and ahead helps anticipate and reduce target fixation) and proper use of side mirrors. Létourneau does endorse the shoulder/blind spot check, so long as your shoulders stay against the seat back.
He also reminds us the car follows the eyes. In other words, it goes where your eyes are looking. Let’s say the vehicle in front of you suddenly slams on the brakes – if you are looking at it when it does, chances are you will hit it. However, if you are looking at the escape route where you can go to get around the car and avoid it, chances are you will be able to.
Lots of cars have ABS systems, but they are not created equal. ABS braking helps retain steering control. The BMW systems pulse at 20 times per second. Other systems only pulse as few as at eight times per second. There are cars on the road today that aren’t equipped with ABS. That fact alone is scary as I would learn later in the day.
Létourneau introduces his students to a “three-A” approach to being a good driver. These stand for: attitude, aptitude and awareness.
I’ve completed numerous advanced driver training courses in the past dozen or so years and I’ve learned at least one thing each time. I’ve learned that drivers develop habits (good and bad) as well as how vehicles react in certain situations (understeer and oversteer). More importantly, I’ve learned how to correct bad habits and save an out of control vehicle. But, I am not the majority.
When it comes to awareness, most people give just 25% of their attention to driving. It should be 100%. Look far ahead. Scan your peripheral vision and mirrors. Check your blind spots. Make yourself visible, and your intentions known. Many motorcyclists excel with the last two points says Létourneau. Expect the unexpected. Being aware of what’s going on around you gives your brain more information to be able to make snap decisions that can save your life.
Adding to that list, adaptation is important to have the ability to contend with the ever-changing set of circumstances of driving. Road conditions. The elements. Wildlife. Bad drivers. These are all just the tip of the iceberg. Driving truly does require one’s full attention, so give the attention it demands.
Once properly schooled in theory, students leave the warmth of the classroom to brave winter outside and put things into practice.
Classes are capped at 16 people to ensure plenty of balanced seat time.
After pairing up, students are let loose in the “specially-prepped” rear and X-Drive all-wheel drive models with manual and automatic transmissions.
Following some orientation laps around a short obstacle course to get a feel for the vehicle’s handling on the Continental Winter Contact tires, my group heads out on to the icy skid pads to learn about grip and skid control via understeer and oversteer exercises.
Once comfortable with recovering from the former and after learning what the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) does, the next step is to turn it off and try and maintain a drift. Because we are driving on ice that is increasingly slippery the more we drive on it, it soon becomes obvious that less is more. By that I mean, it takes a lot less throttle to initiate and maintain a drift on ice and snow than it does on warm, dry asphalt. After spinning out a few times, it becomes a lot easier to modulate the throttle to get the back end to step out without spinning around completely.
Moving on to the emergency braking and avoidance course, the importance of ABS becomes very apparent. Now, you may have also seen this exercise on TV where the driver heads toward a stop box with two paths around an object (in this case a bunch of cones representing a few pedestrians). On each side of the course/box, there is an instructor with a flag. Upon driving into the box, one of the instructors raises a flag to indicate that lane is blocked. The student must look for the opening on the opposite side, brake, steer and then avoid hitting the cones.
The exercise is fairly easy with the ABS on, but without ABS (these specially-prepped cars have a switch that completely disengages ABS), it is shocking to see how little brake pressure is needed to lock up the wheels. Of course, this makes steering impossible, and after plowing through the cones on every attempt, I’m relieved when the instructor turns the ABS back on.
The morning session ends on a good note, but following lunch in the clubhouse, everyone is eager to get back out for more.
My group heads to the skid pads; there are two of them side by side, which can be linked to form an hourglass or figure eight. While Létourneau and his cohorts can undoubtedly go with the latter configuration, instead he wants us to drift around the former, perform a flick in the middle to change direction and continue the drift around the whole course. Having gotten off to a slow start earlier, I surprised myself by actually drifting the whole hourglass course a couple times without spinning out. A thumbs-up from Philippe is all that was necessary to make the day a success.
And then it was time to learn the reverse 180 turn, which I had little difficulty with. I taught myself this manoeuvre last summer with the Mini Cooper JWC GP, but it is definitely a lot easier on snow.
After a bunch of tries, it was time for the final exercise of the day – a timed autocross competition that has students demonstrate all they have learned throughout the day for prizes and bragging rights. It isn’t the fastest through the course who wins, however. Rather, the winners are the driving pairs with the two closest times to one another, which actually makes this a lot more difficult. While I did beat the times of my fellow auto scribes on this day, the difference between my co-driver and I put us well out of contention.
But losing doesn’t matter one iota because I learned a few things, had a blast in the snow with BMW’s all-new 4-Series and came away with a certificate with my name on it that proves I am not one of Canada’s worst drivers. In fact, getting the nod of approval from Létourneau and his team will go down as one of my more memorable accomplishments in my 21 years as a licensed driver.
Graduates of the BMW Winter Driver Training program come away with more than just knowledge of the fundamentals of confident, safe driving in winter conditions, they gain real experience with key elements that are vital to improving winter driving. And they get to do it in style, driving some pretty sweet rides. I recommend this course to anyone. Especially those who live in snowbelt areas. Now, who’s got the keys to my Bimmer?