Speed Secrets: How to Adapt to Your Car

By Ross Bentley

November 01, 2017

One of the key areas that separate good race drivers from great race drivers is their ability to adapt their driving to suit the car’s handling, or from one type of car to another.

Some drivers, despite how the car is handling, will only drive it one way – their style. And guess what? A driver’s style will never suit every handling characteristic. If you cannot adapt your style to suit the car’s handling, a change in track conditions, a mechanical problem, or a different type of car, I doubt you will ever be a real champion race driver.

In 1992, Michael Schumacher finished second in the Spanish Grand Prix, despite the fact his Benetton was stuck in fifth gear only. What was really impressive was that other than about two laps when he first encountered the problem (as he figured out how to adapt his driving to the situation), no one but his team even realized he had a problem. His lap times barely changed. That is one of the reasons he is the legend he is.

Although it would be impossible to list every possible problem scenario you may someday face when racing, I am going to attempt to identify a few common ones, and give you some suggestions as to what you may be able to do to adapt your driving to help the situation.

The overall objective with the following suggestions is to give you some knowledge as to what you may be able to do to reduce the effect of the problem. In other words, what can be done so the problem has the least effect on your lap times and your ability to race your competitors. Of course, if at all possible, you would adjust the car – the anti-roll bars, brake bias, weight-jacker, etc. But if you don’t have any more adjustment, or any adjustment to begin with, it is all up to your adaptability once you are in the race.

Entry Understeer

The best place to start when trying to figure out what you can do with your driving technique to help any handling problem is to think about the weight balance of the car. If your car is understeering in the entry portion of a corner, consider what you can do to induce some forward weight transfer; and, what you can do to lessen the weight transfer to the rear.

To increase the forward weight transfer, you can increase or lengthen the amount of time spent trail braking into the corner. That means not trailing, or easing off the brake pedal so quickly, keeping a little more pressure on the pedal for a little longer. And, if it is a corner that requires little to no trail braking, then it may be a matter of waiting a little longer – being more patient – before beginning to accelerate; or, squeezing on the throttle a bit more gently.

One of the challenges is when you are chasing another car. As you approach and enter the corners, the distance between your car and the competitor’s car is reduced. Visually, it seems you are catching him (even if the time gap has not changed – it is just that you are traveling at a slower speed). So, your natural instinct in trying to catch him is to actually ease off the brakes and get back to throttle a little sooner. That, of course, exaggerates the understeer, slowing you a little more. Then, you “try” a little harder, carrying more speed into the corner, causing more understeer, overheating the front tires more, causing more understeer, you “try” even more… and so on. As you can see, the problem just gets worse and worse.

The key, then, is to be patient. You will probably end up entering the corner a mile-per-hour or so less. If you focus on increasing the forward weight transfer, and decreasing the rear weight transfer, you will be able to get the car rotated (turned) earlier in the corner and get back to throttle solidly – without having to come back off it to control the understeer. That will improve your acceleration out of the corner and down the straight, giving you a better chance at passing the opposition.

Avoid the temptation to turn in a little earlier. If anything, you want to turn in a little later, opening up the exit line so that you can focus on the acceleration phase of the corner.

One of the benefits to trail braking more is that you may actually be able to begin your braking slightly later (since you are doing more of the slowing down in the entry phase). However, that may also be part of the cause of the understeer problem – overloading the front tires. If you are carrying lots of speed into the corner, still have a fair amount of braking going on, and trying to get the front tires to change the direction of the car, you may be asking too much from them. In this case, the cure is to begin braking a little sooner and trail brake a little less – be patient.

If the weight balance of the car is not the cause or the cure of the understeer, then you have to consider one other thing. It doesn’t matter where in the corner the understeer is, think about what you are doing with the steering wheel. Often times, corner entry understeer is caused by the driver cranking in too much steering input, or cranking it in too abruptly. Try turning the steering wheel a little less, and a little more gently. I know it may not feel right – the car is not turning enough (understeering), so you turn the steering less? Exactly. Keep the front tires at an angle that they can work at. If you steer the front tires too much, they can’t help but give up their grip and begin to slide.

Again, be aware of how much steering you have input, and try taking some out. Or, turn the steering wheel a little slower, a little more gently as initiate your turn-in. Give the tires a chance to build up their cornering grip.

Entry Oversteer

Oversteer is often a result of too much weight on the front tires, and not enough on the rears. If that is the case during the entry phase of a corner, that probably means you are braking too hard into the corner – you are trail braking too much.

The cure then is pretty simple. Just begin braking slightly earlier, and trail off the brakes a little sooner as you enter the corner. Perhaps, especially if it is a corner that requires little to no braking, it is a matter of beginning to accelerate sooner (but very gently), transferring more weight onto the rear tires.

Again, when you are chasing another competitor, it is easy to fall prey to the “brake late and I catch him” impression. Always keep in mind that you will gain more, both on your competitors and in reducing your lap times, by early acceleration than you will be late braking.

One other thing that may help reduce corner entry oversteer is to turn the steering wheel less abruptly. Ask the car to change directions, from straight forward to a curved path, a little more progressively.

Mid-Corner Understeer

Usually the best way to handle mid-corner understeer is simply by modulating the throttle to change the weight balance of the car. In other words, just breathe - ease off - the throttle to cause some forward weight transfer, giving the front tires more grip.

Often, the reason for the understeer is not related to the car’s set-up, but that you have gotten back on the throttle to begin accelerating just a little too abruptly or early. Again, just breathe the throttle to transfer some weight forward.

Also, just like with the entry understeer, be aware of the amount of steering input you have dialed in. Perhaps the cure to your car’s mid-corner understeer problem is just unwinding the steering a little bit to allow the front tires to get some grip.

Mid-Corner Oversteer

Dealing with a mid-corner oversteer is almost always done by changing the car’s weight balance. In this case, that means squeezing more throttle on. However, one of the reasons the car has begun to oversteer is that the speed you are carrying is slightly more than the rear tires can handle. So, the last thing in the world you need right then is a bunch more speed. That is why it is critical to just squeeze on a little more throttle.

The mid-corner oversteer could also be caused by wheelspin (in a rear-wheel-drive car, of course). If your car’s set-up is the cause of the wheelspin, about all you can do is be as gentle as possible with the acceleration, and possibly alter your line slightly. If possible, try driving the car a little deeper into the corner before turning in, make the initial turn radius a bit sharper, aim for a later apex, and then let the steering unwind as early as possible. This makes for a straighter acceleration line, meaning that there will be less cornering force to combine with the acceleration force that you are asking from the rear tires.

Exit Understeer

If your car has an exit understeer problem, the best thing you can do without reducing your acceleration is to alter your line. Your prime objective is to lessen the amount of time you are turning the car while accelerating. So, if you turn in a little later and sharper (even if this means slowing the car down a little), and aim for a later apex, it will allow you to unwind the steering a bit earlier. That means you will be accelerating in a straighter line, reducing the harmful effects of the understeer.

And one more thing. The more gentle you are with the acceleration, the less understeer you will have. If you jump on the throttle, the understeer is going to be exaggerated. So, squeeze on the throttle.

Exit Oversteer

Exit oversteer can be related to one of two things: either it is power-oversteer, caused more by the car’s inability to put its acceleration traction to the ground; or it is due to the weight balance.

Usually, the way to deal with either type of exit oversteer is much the same as with exit understeer. The goal is to open up the exit of the corner, increasing the radius of the corner as soon as possible, by using a later turn-in and exit.

One of the other things you have to keep in mind with exit oversteer is to be gentle with the throttle under acceleration. If you stand on the throttle, even if you have altered your line, you are going put a big load on the rear tires. Over time, this will overheat them, making the oversteer problem worse, even causing it to oversteer in other parts of the corner.

There is one other approach to dealing with a car that oversteers at the exit of a corner – especially one that has an extreme oversteer problem - and that is to almost give up, or sacrifice that part of the corner. Instead of slowing the car down and using a later turn-in and apex, you pretty much do the opposite. As you approach the corner, you brake later and carry much more speed into the corner, taking an earlier apex, and then get the car straightened out and pointed down the straight well after the apex. The idea here is that since the car will not accelerate out of the corner very well, you might as well try to take advantage of where the car is working – the corner entry.

Before using this technique, I would make sure that every other technique didn’t work, as you will not be setting any track records using this approach. However, once in a race, it may help you hold off a competitor behind you – at least for a few laps. Perhaps the biggest challenge in using this technique is that it is unlikely you have a mental program for it. Therefore, you may just want to try it on a test day or during a practice session sometime, so that you are prepared for it.

The overall theme to practically all of these situations is learning to manage the car’s weight. After all, as a race driver, you are a weight manager. And that’s this Speed Secret: adapt by managing weight.

Ross Bentley

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