By : RAHIL SHAIKH
SAINT PETERSBURG :
“Flick the steering, gas it, feel the rear kick out, and then leave the steering,” were precious words of advice from my instructor, Stanislav, from www.letsdrift.ru, who was giving me instructions on drifting on a snow-covered racetrack in Saint Petersburg, Russia. I followed his instructions to the T and soon enough the tyres were screeching and I could feel the rear sliding out. As the smell of rubber began enveloping the car, everything in my head, for a brief moment went into slow motion, and as my car began its sideways slide into paradise, the grin on my face kept pace and kept getting wider.
Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that the drifting trend from Japan, popularized through the anime series Initial D, that had me hooked as a teen, would be something that I’d be trying my hand at, someday. Yet, here I was, on a snow covered racetrack, in -2 degrees Celsius, on a crazy cold evening, pinching myself in disbelief. Having watched the Master drifters, perfect their art over the years, not to mention, in the film, Tokyo Drift, my day had finally arrived! I was finally going to be drifting! The feeling was truly indescribable!
Upon arrival, I had met up with Alexey Gorbatov, Founder, www.letsdrift.ru, who told me that he had been in the motorsports industry for the past 15 years. My instructor for the day, Stanislav Shafranov, I learnt, had also been doing this for the last five years. I sure was mighty glad to be acquainted with the duo and grateful for being in safe hands as they had taken up the responsibility of teaching a petrolhead like me the nuances of drifting.
Stanislav and I hit it off instantly and soon enough he mouthed the words that I was here for…“The car is ready, are you?” That question was enough to give me a head rush. “Let's do this,” I said, and off we went. I took a look at the car which was a Lada 2107. A walk around the Lada 2107 gave me an idea of the dimensions of the car and what I could expect from it. A few modifications had been done to the engine that had been swapped from a Lada 2108, in order to accommodate it in the engine bay. Besides this, an aftermarket radiator unit, a custom made cooling system, and a bigger performance air filter to help the 1.3-litre engine breathe in the cold air better, had been fitted onto the car.
We began with Stanislav ensuring that I learnt the basics of drifting. “Watch me do it and just emulate it,” he said. He drove a basic 8 in the snowy area that had been designated as the ‘training section’ and despite him making it seem simple, my first go at it was a bit off. He told me to take it easy and try again. Ten minutes later, I was doing a slightly better job, but I still hadn’t perfected it. However, the Lada 2107 was screaming, and as the smell of burning rubber permeating the air, it all was supremely exciting for me. Soon enough, there was a head nod and two thumbs up, which meant I had completed drawing the figure 8 successfully in the snow. Later, I learnt that several people take up to an hour or sometimes even longer, to draw the figure 8 in the snow.
After driving in the ‘training section,’ next, it was time to drive on the race track. As far as my eyes could see, the racetrack was covered in snow. In fact, it had just snowed before I arrived and that meant even lesser traction – just the thing one needs to drift! Stanislav and I did a sighting lap wherein he showed me the layout of the track, and then we entered the pits. We swapped seats and soon my instructors hands were gripping the steering as he began showing me how to slide the car on the snow-covered track safely. I was being fed information about the exact points where I needed to ping the throttle, go sideways into the corner and repeat it for the next corner but in the opposite direction.
After more instructions, I slipped back into the driver’s seat and was ready for the peppy 120 bhp Lada 2107 to entertain me. Full throttle and bam… *%#@, we got stuck in the snow. But the car had definitely benefitted from the engine swap and soon enough we started rolling again and it wouldn’t be long before I would realize that this little blue car was truly the definition of a pocket rocket.
I was determined to make the most of this modified car which had just begun slithering on the snow laden track. On the track, there was a short run till you came to the first left hander which ran wide and as I approached the turning point, Stanislav exclaimed, “gas, gas, gas.” I obeyed. With induced oversteer and going sideways we had smoothly conquered the first left hander. But almost in an instant, came the right hander, basically creating an ‘S'shape for Turns 1 and 2. My hands quickly turned the steering wheel around and my right foot slammed the throttle, enough to make the car ping at the redline and whip in the opposite direction. Facing right and holding the drift, came Turn 3 which was a left hander, and again, I turned the car left, successfully completing Turn 3. This was followed by Turn 4 which was a long right hander and a 3rd gear corner. All this while I had been instructed to maintain a “comfortable speed.” Turn 4, I was told, required throttle feathering and I did just that and the sounds emanating from the car both low and high pitches was pure music to my ears. I had the car gliding sideways and that’s how I completed Turn 4. Truly mesmerizing! Turn 5 was a long left handed one with a sharp U-turn at the end, that formed a ‘J’ shape. This quickly became my favourite part of the track as I never lost control here and just drifted at a steady speed of 70 kmph. Reaching the end of the J, meant flicking the car again into the right handed Turn 6, and boy, this was tricky because of the uneven distribution of snow on the track, with patches of asphalt and snow. It was while driving here, at this point precisely, that I felt slightly anxious but my instructor was quick to sense it. His simple advice was “feel the car and gas it.” I obliged and soon enough I was beginning to feel like a pro. Next, came a small left hander that opened up the straight leading up to Turn 1.
Throttle modulation was a very important aspect of this track session, long corners meant that you had to feather the throttle just enough to maintain the drift and co-ordinate your steering input in order to take you through the corner. Then, there were moments just before entering the corner where you had to tuck in the gas pedal and leave it, just to induce drift and then maintain it. As a first timer, it definitely wasn’t easy but the most difficult part came when Stanislav told me to employ the handbrake to induce drift.
“Clutch in, steering input, handbrake, clutch out, throttle,” said Stanislav. A few seconds later, my very first attempt ended up with my car facing the wrong direction on the track. Mastering this was no mean feat. “If this is so hard now, what is it like during the summer months,” I asked Stanislav. “Harder,” he said. Gulp! Determined to get this right, I went at it again on Turn 5, which was a high speed one and soon enough, in fact, on my second attempt, I was holding the car just the way I wanted to! Amidst all the instructions and inputs, I almost forgot that Turn 6 creeps up on you pretty fast and the next thing I knew was that my car had overspun again into the snow. “It is alright” Stanislav assured me as he got out of the car to get the tow truck. Meanwhile, waiting in the car, I began strategizing on how to get better at this and after being pulled out of the snow, I apologised to the car and resumed drifting again.
With the Lada 2107 being a very light car, managing weight transfer was a relatively easy job and it was indeed sheer joy to drift in it. Little did I realize how easy it can be to lose track of time whilst on the track. When my car was spinning out of control, the one hour long session that I had prior to getting behind the wheel had felt like a never ending one but when I was in Ken Block mode, time flew faster than I could say LADA. During drifting, I realized that the worst moment is when you believe the car is going to spin out as you turn into a curve, but as soon as you apply more weight to the back and speed, it sits, and you regain control. There was one lap, the most beautiful of them all, where there were absolutely no mistakes. At the start of the session, if someone had asked me if I could even dream of a lap like that (sans mistakes), I would have said “no way!” But here, I was, at the closing stages, driving that perfect lap to the best of my abilities, and it was simply mind blowing! The car did what I instructed it to do and for the most part on the track that day, the side window was my windshield! The harmonious revs of the little engine and that feeling of shifting from one side to another...pure bliss! I had completed the track day and at the end of the lap, the thumbs up from Stanislav indicated that I had done well.
During my drifting, my eyes and ears had taken in glimpses of the Russian snowy landscape, from the windshield of the car which was a feeling so vastly different from me invariably being seated next to Dad, back home in Bombay, while he drove the family car. Strangely, that wintry evening, as I stood on the track, it almost felt like as if I suddenly knew the direction I wanted my life to take and at that moment I was gripped by a sudden rush of emotion – definitely a day that will be etched in my mind forever.
By the end of the track session, my arms were sore, thanks to the absence of a power steering on the Lada 2107 but needless to say, it had been well worth it. Both Gorbatov and Shafranov, told me that I had done well during my drifting sessions and coming from both of them, especially Stanislav, who is also preparing to participate in Formula Drift in the USA in the coming years, felt really special.
Sitting in the backseat during the ‘meh’ taxi ride home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the racetrack and a part of me was already longing to go back again. But this time around, it would have to be at a time when the sun was shining again, and when the training sessions would be on the tarmac. That’s when I would put to good use all that I had learnt today and burn some rubber again. The mere thought of going back to the racetrack seemed to have a magical effect on me and as the taxi came to halt, I realized that not only had all my fatigue faded away but there was also a spring in my step! All thanks to the wonderful day that I had had with an incredible car. Definitely more drifting days ahead for me.