INKOO, Finland -- The snow is ankle-deep in the back garden of Marcus Grönholm's house, and it's still falling. The two-time world rally champion is off celebrating his 50th birthday, but he's left the keys to some of his favourite toys with Mercedes F1 driver Valtteri Bottas and a bunch of journalists and YouTube stars.
'Back garden' is perhaps underselling the set-up behind Grönholm's house just outside the small town of Inkoo, Finland. In a large clearing in the pine trees, two race tracks have been carved into the freshly-fallen snow and a small paddock has been made out of two gazeebo tents and an old fire truck. Grönholm's team of mechanics are busy warming up a fleet of go-karts and cross-karts in the sub-zero temperatures, while those without Finnish blood in their veins gather around a steaming coffee urn for warmth.
The conditions are alien compared to the sun-soaked circuits of the F1 calendar, but this is Bottas' natural habitat. As the latest in a long line of fast Finns in Formula One, Bottas honed his driving skills from the age of six in conditions like this. For the most part he drove go-karts in the summer and played ice hockey in the winter, but when he was old enough to buy his first car -- a V6 Ford Cougar -- he perfected the art of the handbrake turn in snow-covered car parks.
As picturesque as the glistening white fields are, the conditions aren't at their best for cross-karting. The fresh snow hasn't packed down on the racing line and the cross-karts' studded tyres are struggling for grip on the powdery surface. Not that anyone bothered to tell Bottas, who is dusting strategically-placed cameras as he transitions from powerslide to powerslide on a filming run for one of the TV crews present.
Ahead of my session I'm told that it's not too late to switch from the monstrous cross-karts to the more sedate go-karts. It's like being asked if you want to run training wheels in a cycling race against Chris Froome, but in a sudden bout of self-preservation I'm half tempted. You see, the cross-karts weigh just 320kg and are powered by motor bike engines capable of producing 150bhp at 14,000rpm. That may not sound like a huge amount, but calculated as a power-to-weight ratio it gives the cross-karts 100bhp-per-tonne more oomph than a Mercedes' AMG GT-R road car.
But how many opportunities do you get to make your debut in a competition-level race car against one of the fastest drivers on the planet in a field of snow? I'll stick with the fast ones, please.
The only way to get into a cross-kart is through the window. In order to perform this gymnastic feat, the steering wheel has to be removed before your right foot steps in, followed by the rest of your body (in an undignified manner) and finally your left foot. Once inside, a six point harness is strapped in to place before the steering wheel is returned to its rightful position, the ignition switched on and the engine fired up.
"Rev it to 12,000rpm and then change gear," came the advice from one of the friendly Finnish mechanics. "Most people change gear too early because of the noise of the engine. Don't be afraid to give it plenty of throttle. Use the clutch on upshifts, don't worry about it on the downshifts."
Any other advice?
"Don't try to be a hero."
What my 10-second briefing didn't prepare me for was the lack of visibility out on track. With low cloud, falling snow and no obvious markers, it wasn't immediately clear where the track ended and the deep snow began. That may seem like a feeble excuse, but when you're barrelling through the Finnish hinterland -- daring yourself to hit 12,000rpm before grabbing another gear -- then knowing which direction the next corner will take is quite helpful.
And yet for the first half of the opening lap it was all going quite well. Valtteri had heeded my plea to take it easy and I was just about keeping up with him. Apart from the occasional face full of snow from his rear tyres, I could use the red light on the rear of his cross-kart as a beacon to pick a route between the snowbanks. Then, with just over half a lap completed, he started to up his pace.
As we crossed the finish line to start lap two, I could just about see him in a ball of snow spray at the end of the straight. But while he was willing to keep his right foot buried to the floor as he slammed through the gears, I was backing off the throttle as soon as I was halfway through the rev range in third. My deficit in ability and bravery was made all the more clear as he pitched his kart into an arcing powerslide through the first corner.
Like all great sports stars he made his trade look easy, but when I tried to do the same I found it was anything but. Instead of the controlled oversteer demonstrated by my tutor, I clumsily ended up with a handful of understeer and ploughed into a snowbank on the outside of the corner. A boot full of throttle got me back on track, but by this point Valtteri was scampering through the next section of the track and into the distance.
Convinced I wouldn't see him again until he lapped me later in the session, I set about trying to find a rhythm. During a practice run earlier in the day I'd completed five clean laps without a major issue, but since then the definition between track and snowbank had become less clear. And so, as I exited a right hander onto the back straight, my front-left tyre found a patch of deep snow and dug in. The old trick of booting the throttle and slewing back onto the firm stuff didn't work this time and within the space of a few seconds the belly of my cross-kart was beached in the snow. Accepting my fate, I turned off the ignition, sat back and waited for assistance.
Being some distance away from the fire-truck paddock, it was Valtteri who first discovered my embarrassing situation as he continued to tear up the track on his third lap. He pulled alongside, laughed and with a shake of his head set off to find help in the form of a quad bike and a tow rope.
As short as it was, my experience racing against one of the best drivers in the world was still eye-opening. Watching race after race of a Formula One season on TV, it's easy to forget just how good these drivers are. But when you're put in direct competition and you embarrass yourself just trying to stay on the same lap, the level of driving skill at the fingertips of a driver like Bottas hits home.
The technical skills of driving a cross-kart in the snow aren't really transferable to Formula One, yet the innate feel for grip, slip and how to deal with it is essential in all forms of motorsport. And Bottas has it in spades.