Nokian Tyres introduced winter tires in 1934 in Finland, and eighty years later – when they aren't chasing ice speed records on frozen lakes – they are still busy testing tires flat out while looking for reindeer on the biggest and coldest playground you've ever seen. Welcome to White Hell.
[Full disclosure: Nokian wanted to show us what they can do at White Hell so much they flew me and a photographer to Lapland and served us reindeer meat for lunch and dinner. The cold was bearable, and Rudolph's relatives were very tasty.]
Up in Northern Lapland, roughly halfway between the small town of Ivalo and a ski resort called Saariselkä is a place referred to as Magnetic Hill. It would be logical to assume that its name is connected to the Aurora Borealis, since chasing the Northern Lights is something you can do here thanks to the regular occurrence of geomagnetic storms. But it's not.
Sami people started to refer to the hill as magnetic in the 1940s after their trucks couldn't climb the steep roads and got stuck, only to then be robbed by road bandits, which was apparently a thing. Instead of blaming the lack of grip and power, the locals decided evil magnetic forces sucking all the juice from their vehicles were to blame. They sorted out the problem eventually by realigning the road in the 1970s.
By the '70s, they had the option of winter tires for more than three decades as Nokian launched its first Hakkapeliitta winter tire for cars in 1936, two years after the truck version came out. They've been at it ever since, and it's not hard to figure out where the obsession comes from.
Pretty much all car enthusiasts know that the Finnish are particularly good drivers. They have to be. If Finnish people didn't know how to keep their cars on the road they'd be extinct by now.
One look at Keke Rosberg's trusty mustache should convince you that this nation's children are more comfortable going sideways on ice than most people are going straight on a dry road. In fact, if you happen to see a bus-shaped blur in the distance an think "Oh. I'll have to overtake that at some point with my stupid rental car," I can assure you that will never become a problem. You see, Lapland's speed limit is 60mph on frozen A-roads, while in most of Europe, it's 55 on dry tarmac.
You aren't going to catch that bus.
Of course that's down to more than having good instructors and glorious mustaches.
The Finnish gear up every year to possess that sort of confidence despite the extreme conditions. Basically, they put rally lights and studded tires on anything smaller than a 7.5 liter Ford F-250 pickup truck.
Nokian says the Finnish government permits studs because they use softer aluminum ones which won't ruin the road surface, and being the market leaders means most cars out there are equipped with those tires. But since other parts of Europe and a bunch of U.S. states forbid using metal studs, we were focusing on a nordic friction tire instead, the Hakkapeliitta R2 SUV.
It's pretty much a must for manufacturers to have some sort of Arctic test track. And it's not just the tire companies; the Volkswagen Group has a place not far from where we were. But no track comes close to Nokian's White Hell.
They don't advertise it much but it's by far the biggest and most complex facility in the industry. You just have to know where to look for it, because it's hidden deep in the woods, not far from the Russian border. There are no signs. You just turn right here and keep following the tracks in the snow without hitting any reindeer. They are all over the place.
Built in the '80s, their testing center is a collection of about 23 tracks, three of which are on different frozen lakes with ice thick enough to even take heavy trucks. It's so cold they can test between November and May. During that time, the temperature can change by as much as 100 degrees Fahrenheit in 24 hours.
We're talking about 60 miles of maintained tracks they have to reconstruct every year. Nokian spends a large portion of its R&D budget on having an extremely unique facility since they believe the true handling characteristics of a tire cannot be judged merely by gauges and simulations. They also have to train people for two years before giving them the handling test driver gig, jam Vboxes and other super accurate devices into their test cars and head out to do the same things over and over again until they end up with consistent results.
Natural ice is the trickiest. Jarno, their development engineer told me "ice is more whimsical than women." Even with the maintenance crew (a bunch of interns from local schools) clearing up after each run, if mother nature decides against ice handling tests, they have to do something else that day.
Do you think changing tires is a pain in the ass? Well, while it's not -5°F in the garages of White Hell, testing five tires a day means they have to change the set six times. All in, that's 240 bolts to take care of, and if all the others are having their coffee breaks when you get back, the drivers have to lift up the car and get to it with the wheel gun.
Petri Paananen, our handling driver for the week (and the youngest of the team), didn't mind. With all the patience and precision one can have behind the wheel, Petri is a happy father of two and a proud owner of a sweet boat who relocates to the track every year to do his job, which involves doing the full opposite lock thing in a GTI at 90+ mph on a landing strip made of smooth compressed snow. As his passenger, I had a feeling he would lose it at some point. He never did.
In fact, he made it all look so easy that when it was my turn at one of their snowy rally tracks, I got beached as in an Audi Q5 Hybrid. Yes, a hybrid!
Fun fact: they tried to pull us out first with a Land Rover Defender. Guess how that went!
Nokian invited Jalopnik over because their man in Canada read my adventures with Michelin from last year, and thought it's time I learned the difference between what they call a performance winter tire (the ones we use in Central Europe or in the warmer parts of America), and a nordic winter tire, the type that's designed to deal with whatever winter can throw at it.
For that, they shipped five sets of brand new tires to White Hell in the same size with Jalopnik's name on them. All from premium brands currently on sale in the US.
Their testing system is very thorough. They have poles marking the corners in the lakes so that the tracks can be replicated every winter. The cars usually come from the VW Group or Volvo. Not because of a partnership, but because a Golf GTI or a Tiguan offers enough power and neutral handling. These guys go way beyond the grip limit on a daily basis, and they need to know exactly what's going on at the wheels.
To compare the Hakkapeliitta R2 SUV to a French, a German and two Japanese tires, we had to drive each on two ice tracks, a snow handling course, a short but fast hillclimb track and a long stretch of wide straight where Petri could really start to throw the car around.
To make sure the tracks stayed the same and all tires got a equal chance to shine, each test started with the Nokians, and we got those back on after the third and the fifth tire's run as well to see if the numbers stayed the same.
Using the same car and the same driver with the VBOX giving accurate lap times and acceleration figures, after the the test drivers summed up their own impressions, there's no doubt left about a tire's capabilities.
Honestly, what a friction tire can do nowadays amazed me. Doing 70+ on ice should mean that if you brake, you keep sliding straight. Not with the R2s. Going above 30 in a circle on ice should also mean you lose grip, yet it's fascinating how quickly their tire recovered after you went over the edge with it and lift off the throttle to correct the angle.
Doing rally stages with a Quattro Audi remains fun despite the Q5's undefeatable traction control and damn electronic handbrake which both Petri and I deemed unsafe at any speed.
Understeer or oversteer, spinning tires or uncontrollable slides, five sets of rubber will have it all. After an hour out there, cars also turn into rolling popsicles.
In order to be able to complete braking tests on clean ice in a controlled environment, Nokian also built the longest hockey field you'll ever see. Everybody is a Kimi Räikkönen fan here, and they also know how to hit a puck, yet nobody was able to hit one hard enough to slide it even to the half-way line.
It's not a kilometer long, but almost.
Petri thinks it's impossible to make a bad tire here, because with their inputs sent back to the factory, engineers work on the product as long as they need to so it will pass the White Hell tests.
Since the Tiguans with the beatable nannies were not available and we managed to complete all our relevant tests in three days anyway, for the last day, we switched to the also hoon-friendly GTIs for the ultimate high-speed challenge: Flat out, full speed, sliding from one side to another.
This tells a lot about a tire's lateral grip and braking performance, as well as the recovery time and steering characteristics. They have three "landing strips" for that, and this is the part when the handling drivers really give their cars the "full potatoes" as Mr. Harris would say. Probably.
The manual handbrake comes handy when crashing into the massive snow bank at the end starts to feel rather inevitable. Rally lights are also a must on these cars since they keep working well into the dark.
When all this melts but there's still a new tire to test, Nokian's team flies as far as New Zealand to find some snow and ice.
There's a lot of clever engineering that went into the Hakkapeliitta R2 explained here that makes it capable of doing stuff without the studs that shouldn't be possible, at least according to my basic knowledge of physics. The team behind it is also very proud of coming up with the world's first Nordic winter tire with ultra low rolling resistance for the BMW i3. I don't need to tell you how much I would love to floor that on a track covered in snow.
While James Bond's push-button studded tires are still at least a decade away from now, Nokian's next challenge is to bring their summer tires up to the same level as their winter sets. If you're around the Idiada proving ground in Spain, you might catch them testing that banked oval and its 124 mph neutral steer speed.
Visibility is also much better there.
Nokian Tyres goes with the "Safety of the Future" slogan in North America, but in Europe, they use "Trust the Natives."
After spending five days in Finland, driving two rental cars in remote Lapland, pushing test cars over their limits on the track, meeting reindeer twice on the road and experiencing how constant crosswinds and darkness can keep you on your toes when everything is covered in snow and ice, I understood what they mean by that.
Simply believing in Keke Rosberg's mustache just wasn't good enough anymore.
Photo credit: Attila Nagy, Steve Bourassa, Nokian Tyres (top) and Máté Petrány/Jalopnik.