Losing control of your car is frightening. Learning how to react could save your life.
Have you ever rounded a corner too fast and felt your car slipping a bit on the road? Or perhaps you hit a spot of wet pavement and hydroplaned, skating across the water after losing touch with the pavement. Either of these experiences can be scary. But if you understand vehicle dynamics and how to correct for understeer and oversteer you can stay safe. And these are things you don’t learn by reading books. You really need real-life experience in a safe environment, with a coach.
Learn the Dynamics of Driving from the Pros
No one knows more about vehicle dynamics and making corrections on the fly than a professional race car driver. So, I was really excited when Fiat invited me along with other automotive journalists out for a day on the track at the Motorsport Ranch in Cresson, TX. Here we got to experience the 2019 Fiat 500 Abarth and Fiat 124 Spider Abarth vehicles on the track. But before we were set loose on the track with some pretty fast and capable cars, we were treated to classroom time, and skidpad and autocross training, with professional drivers from the Skip Barber Racing School.
If you have never attended driving school, we highly recommend you find a school near you and sign up. It’s usually a one-day course and it will change you forever. You will gain confidence, feel safer, and have the time of your life.
Key Takeaways from Skip Barber Racing School
- small moves = small mistakes
- weight distribution effects how much of your tire’s surface area is gripping the pavement
- understeer = going wide
- oversteer = backend comes around
- CPR: correct, pause, recover
Weight Distribution And Tire Grip
Your car’s tires are round. This means that a very limited surface area is actually coming in contact with the pavement. In addition to having good tires that are not overly worn, it is important to understand how your tire’s surface area is affected by weight distribution.
Let’s start with a stopped car. A well-designed car will have a 50-50 weight distribution, meaning that half the weight is resting on the front axle and the other half on the back axle. Sounds pretty straightforward, right?
Now, imagine you’re at a traffic light and it turns green. You accelerate. This previously static vehicle is suddenly moving forward, momentarily shifting weight from the front of the car to the back of the car at takeoff. This means there is less weight on the front tires, resulting in less surface area coming in contact with the road, which equals less grip.
And the opposite is true. If you are traveling at any speed at all, and stop suddenly, the car’s weight will immediately shift to the front, increasing the contact area of the front tires, and taking some weight off the back tires so that you have less grip in the back.
Anywhere you have a weight increase you have a larger surface area touching/gripping the road. And, too much or not enough grip causes slippage. This is vehicle dynamics 101.
Understeer and Oversteer Explained–This is What You Need to Know!
Now that we know why the car loses grip and slips, it’s time to learn about the types of slippage and how to correct them.
UNDERSTEER: This is the most common type of slipping you will experience while driving. It is also the easiest to correct for. When you are rounding a curve too fast your car may start to “go wide” meaning you aren’t as close to the centerline as you should be and it feels like you and the car are in the washing machine on the spin cycle and you’re being pushed to the outside. You start to fear that you’re not going to make it around the bend.
Correction for Understeer: Breathe. Slow down by letting your foot off the accelerator. Do not attempt to break in the curve. As the car’s speed decreases you will regain control of the vehicle and be safely on your way.
Remember: Do not brake suddenly. This will throw too much weight to the front of the car resulting in loss of grip for the back tires and make things worse. Just stop accelerating.
OVERSTEER: This is when your car has too much power coming out of a turn, putting too much weight on the back tires and flattening them so much that they become slick and the backend of the car slides around. This can result in spinning and it can be very scary, making it hard to keep a clear head and recover.
Correction for Oversteer: CPR
This little acronym will help you to remember how to recover from oversteer. The biggest thing to remember here is to make small adjustments and not to overreact.
C = Correct
Steer gently into the slide. If the rear of the car is sliding out to the right, turn your wheel to the right and ease off the gas slowly to avoid rapid weight redistribution. Keep your eyes fixed on where you want to go, not the ditch or the light pole or tree… on the road where you want to end up.
P = Pause
Check to see if more correction is needed.
R = Recover
Continue making slight adjustments to your steering and speed until you are safely back in your lane and traveling in the direction you wish to go.
Remember These Driving Dynamics Tips for Safe Driving
- Never slam on your breaks when you experience understeer or oversteer.
- Always make small adjustments to steering vs trying to correct all at once.
- Keep weight distribution in mind, especially when hauling heavy loads or trailering because these added weights significantly affect your vehicle’s weight distribution.
- CPR = Correct. Pause. Recover.
Disclosure: Fiat invited me to spend the day on the track with their cars and professional instructors from the Skip Barber Racing School. When the event was complete I was awarded a certificate congratulating me on graduating from the Skip Barber Racing School. All opinions are my own.