Luckily, you don’t have to wait for this to happen at an unexpected moment now. No Sir, you can pay to scare yourself and drive on snow and ice. After all, we do seek danger in our spare time and are willing to pay handsomely for it. Mankind is wonderfully illogical like that.
If you’re a car manufacturer it is logical though. It’s especially logical to do it in New Zealand.
Welcome to the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds
There are advantages to having winter when the rest of the world (well, northern hemisphere anyway) has their summer. For the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds, it means car manufacturers can achieve considerably shorter lead times by shifting testing to the bottom of the world when the snow melts in Europe/USA.
Which is sort of how it all started back in the 1980’s when Dunlop New Zealand was looking for somewhere to test tyres on behalf of Japan-based Sumitomo. A few frosts and thaws later, enter a group of enterprising Christchurch businessmen who purchased the land in 2005.
What followed was some $40 million worth of investment. It was money well spent as SHPG scooped a top award for being the best in the business in late 2015. Since then, the place has gone from strength to strength. On any given day during winter, you’ll find (or rather you won’t...as it’s all very much under wraps) a number of leading car manufacturers testing their latest 4 wheeled wonders. You like to think the opposing teams sneak out under the cover of night to slide across the ice to the opposition’s garage and take a peak. No doubt such action is frowned upon though. At the very least you hope they have a friendly snowball fight at some point. BMW vs Mercedes vs Audi. The snowballs would all be very well made, the throwing controlled and accurate.
Where is this Winter Wonderland for Wheels?
Simply head to latitude 45°S longitude 169°E. That’ll get you to New Zealand’s shores. Already here? Ok then, head to Wanaka. That’s the nearest town to SHPG. It’s a rather nice place too. From there you’ll want to head out on Cardrona Valley Road. Swing a left onto Tuohys Gully Road and drive for a mere 120 metres. Then chuck another left, this time onto the Snow Farm Access Road. This road… well, this road accesses the Snow Farm. Which is where SHPG are located. For simplicity's sake, if you’re firmly ensconced into the world of Google maps you can just use the relevant plus code, which is ‘43CC+9V Cardrona, Otago’.
Why is it so appealing? And what testing is being done there?
Some of the appeal is the counter seasonal offering. But just because NZ gets cold when most of the major car manufacturers are blasting the air conditioning in their headquarters to deal with the sweltering summer, isn’t enough on its own. There’s plenty of ice and snow to be had in many parts of the globe at the same time as the white stuff descends on Aotearoa.
Sure, a lack of competition might be part of it. There are over 50 proving grounds in the Northern Hemisphere and we’re not aware of too much competition down South for SHPG. But that’s almost doing a disservice to the SHPG. Their facility is first class and the appeal is in the standard of facilities and level of service. The reputed excellence of their circa 80 seasonal staff will have something to do with it too. It must do, as some 500 employees from 45 companies see fit to spend their time at SHPG between mid-June and early September.
So what exactly are these facilities that entice teams of engineers from far flung corners of the world? And what can they be testing or are they just all about sliding out and having a good time? Which, given the number of crazy and weird tests manufacturers put their new models through, would be a perfectly reasonable assumption to make. There are some more specific reasons though...
The Snow Tracks
13 in total. Glorious, compacted snow flats. Some of them are up to 800 metres in length. Which makes them perfect for checking things such as ABS systems. The drivetrain and chassis can come in for a good hammering. So it’s all about testing some pretty fundamental parts of the vehicle. All the way through to stuff you probably wouldn’t imagine would need testing, like checking for snow dust ingress.
Oh... the snow tracks are good for testing tyres too.
Snow & Ice Circles
Now this sounds like fun. 3 snow circles to push traction control to the limit, push tyres past their limits and for drivers to realise their limits (maybe). Who wouldn’t want to coast around in a circle of snow and get some fancy new vehicles sideways? Yeah - that’s pretty much everyone with their hands in the air then. But it gets better.
There’s 2 ice circles to really test both driver and vehicle. Low friction surfaces for maximum fun... or for the engineers, serious scientific testing and statistical analysis.
It’s worth noting at this point, these aren’t just groomed circles in the snow. Each separate testing station has the infrastructure required to support a team. That means offices, workshops, lifts, snow-making machines etc. You’d imagine there’s a decent kettle and nice stash of pot noodles in a well stocked kitchenette too.
SHPG has a total of 7 ice flats for testing. And test vehicle handling they sure would. From the brakes to the chassis to the tyres, a nice ice flat is a great surface for finding out quite a bit about a new car. Then tweaking it. Then testing again. Which is probably why there’s an average of 10 or 11 in each team conducting testing. You need engineers, drivers, designers etc.
The difference between driving on the snow or ice flats and in the real world is variation of surface friction. It’s not too often in NZ you’ll head out when the roads are perfectly blanketed in freshly groomed snow. Nope. You’ll be on the road already and encounter the ice as you round a corner. Which is to say...you’ll move from a road with relatively high friction to snow or ice and little or no friction. Hence the Split Mu. Manufacturers get to see how their new vehicles react as they move from a heated asphalt surface to ice or snow. And then back again.
The world is not flat. Sorry flat-earthers out there. SHPG isn’t flat either. Which is why there are various gradients on offer for testing. Some are split too, so the left (or right) set of tyres are on snow/ice, the other side is on asphalt. Kind of like having one foot on the ice rink and the other clinging stubbornly to safer ground. But try running around the circumference of an ice rink like that!
Yup - if there's a blizzard going on outside then come in and test in the relative comfort of an ice tunnel.
For us - these are the ultimate. 12 tracks, up to over 2kms in length, for you to hone your driving ability on what is essentially a snow covered race track. Except it’s all about handling and not racing. We’re sure no racing goes on. Honest.
Where else can you do it?
You could head up to the Arctic circle. Arjeplog, Sweden is home to the famous Colmis Proving Ground. A proving ground in Lapland? Yup - sounds most festive. Colmis has been around since 1985 and is one of the worlds best known and most popular proving grounds.
From Lapland, you could head to proving grounds in Finland, China, Japan, Canada, the United States and a few other places. There’s a long list of places to test vehicles, not all winter only.
But NZ has something unique. We imagine the idea of coming to New Zealand appeals too. After all, almost 4 million people a year pay us a visit so we must be pretty attractive.
But you said anyone can do it?
Of course. If you have the money you can do most things. For about NZ$4,000 you can attend the Mercedes-AMG Winter Driving Academy. For that handsome sum, you’ll get to stay at a top Queenstown hotel, eat in plush restaurants, a suitcase full or Mercedes swag (jackets etc)...and the thrill of taking to the snow in some of the most powerful Mercs you’re likely to drive.
BMW have a similar offering with their ‘Alpine Experience’. You even get to drive on ice at night with this one. We imagine that could be a little hairy.
Don’t have the spare cash for such an adventure? No worries. Stay in the warm and take a virtual tour here, courtesy of VW.
Time to Chill
We realise the title of this blog is ‘Winter Tyre Testing in NZ’ and we’ve hardly talked about tyres at all. We got a little excited about the SHPG. And it stands to reason the tyres are central to pretty much everything that goes on there. Especially for new models from the likes of Mercedes. That’s because you know they’re likely going to be released on the market with specially developed OE tyres from Continental. So we’re pretty chilled about not talking too much about tyres specifically. We’ll just leave that talk on ice for a while.