The Holy Grail

"Mastering Power Oversteer has Always been the Holy Grail"
An article in Evo, published July 2003.

Don and two listeners sitting on the bonnets of their cars

I'm lined up at the starting gate, marked out by a couple of cones. The M3 SMG kindly loaned by the BMW press office idles beneath me with the velvet metallic potency of an MPower straight six. Ahead there's a flat, wide expanse of concrete and tarmac, pimpled with red and yellow cones. Somewhere down the line there's a corner, marked by more cones - and I'm going to take it sideways.

Only question is, will I be in control?

My first ever sideways moment still has the power to bring me out in a cold sweat, the memory reaching out down the years and stabbing me with an icy finger. MGB V8, my first powerful rear-drive car; sharp right hander; waaaay too much gas, much too early. The rapid rotation only ended when the outside wheel thumped a kerb, which jolted the car mercifully back into line. The bolt of adrenalin would probably have been very handy if I was being chased by a bull and had to vault a 6ft wall. Strapped in to a driver's seat, it only served to send my heart-rate bursting through the red line.

The truth was, I hadn't' the faintest idea what to do. Actually that's not the whole truth - I'd seen people opposite locking racing cars. It's just that until you've done it a few times yourself, you don't recognise what's happening, and when it's almost too late you just freeze. Or you make the other big mistake - you wind on too much lock, and then forget to take it off. The car overcorrects, you pile on more steering the other way, and so it goes. 'Fishtailing' is one non-technical but highly descriptive term for it.

Sincere talk over the bonnet

'Tankslapper' is another. I've done the fishtailing thing a few times over the years, and slapped a tank or two.

"So Peter, what do you want to get out of today?"

"Well, Don, what I want is to feel confident with oversteer. I want to know what to do when the car oversteers, to be able to control it."

Don Palmer, gregarious proprietor of Driving Development, famous for his 'The Wetter the Better' course, but now firmly on dry land with a new course called Creative Car Control, is quizzing me and fellow student Owen Bullock over mugs of warm tea in the canteen at the Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground. He does this with all his clients. He also wants to find out how much experience you've got, and what sort of driver you are.

Me? I'm the steady kind, like to keep it neat and smooth. All that lurid tail-out stuff? I've always been happy to leave that to blokes like Barker and Meaden. In fact, I've rarely had the nerve to try it. Too worried about making a prat of myself. Too worried about crashing and getting hurt.

There. Glad I got that off my chest. Confession time with Father Don. But boy, would I like to be able to do it. To know that I've got some power oversteer in me, that I can opposite-lock my way around a roundabout or two, or at least a few cones...

Mugs drained, we climbed into our cars - Don in his faithful M5, me in a BMW press fleet's gleaming M3, Owen in his S2 Elise and rumble around Bruntingthorpe impossibly long back-straight. We'll be using only a fraction of it; the tracks so wide that Don's able to mark out a complete mini-circuit of corners and slaloms and still leave a substantial run-off area.

After a quick demo lap of the course - a decent straight to get speed up, rapid lane changes manoeuvre, a couple of really tight turns, a series of faster snaking corners, some more tight stuff. And back to the start - it's our turn. No lectures; just drive. And I'm up first with Don alongside and Owen in the back. No pressure then.

For the first few circuits I'm simply trying to remember the course, working out which gears I should be in, and gradually upping the pace. Eventually I find the car's limit - but it's the front end that's sliding, not the rears. Ladies and gentlemen, it's our old friend, Mr Understeer.

Before we can enjoy any tail-out action we have to deal with the understeer. So Don encourages me to be smoother with my steering inputs, to understand and feel how the tyres are reacting to settle the car before I turn in to the corner, to get the front rubber biting and gripping. And though it feels like I'm going slower, the stopwatch actually reveals I'm shaving whole seconds off my 'lap times'.

Don giggling next to a driver wearing opposite lock

Don is more coach than instructor. There's no 'do it this way'; as the day goes on he lets you explore what happens at the limit of grip, asks you to describe what's happening to the car and why, nudges you towards understanding the physics involved, makes you analyse when things go wrong, planting seeds of ideas...

Like taking a lighter grip of the wheel, feeling when the fronts are losing grips so that you know you're close to the limit. As confidence grows he encourages me to come more sharply off the throttle, feel the front end bite and tuck in, and the rear simultaneously go light. The M3 is simply astonishing, with an abundance of power, wonderfully faithful responses, and excellent lines of communication from both ends. No excuses if I spin.

And now the moment of truth. Now we're going to deliberately provoke the oversteer with the throttle. Line up in the starting gate again, deep breath. Accelerate hard in second and third. Through the lane-change, car junks left-right-left - feel the back going light - and now we're bearing down on the first really tight left-hander. Entry speed ok, front tyres biting, start to wind off the lock, now hard on the power - and the rear slews round in that wonderful, floaty, scary, absolutely brilliant way. More throttle, more opposite lock. And because I've been building up to this, it feels like a natural progression. Better still, I don't have to worry about hitting anything, so I'm not afraid to stay on the power and see what happens.

What happens is pretty untidy and inconsistent to start with. The really tricky bit is to predict when the rear's going to snap back into line and wind off the lock as smartly as you applied it. On subsequent laps I manage a couple of spectacular fishtails and one comedy spin. But when it does come together it's just about the best feeling in the world. Minimal steering input, get the nose turned in , the hard on it. Through the snaking section I even manage to slide deliberately one way then the other. OK, maybe just nice or twice, but I did it, that was me in there! The rush is incredible.

Now I know why Barker and Meaden have kept me in the office all these years! This is FUN! "What you must remember", says Don, "is that the limit is not like the edge of a cliff, it's a slope, and you can have a lot of fun playing on that slope."

You betcha. And while I'm playing I'm learning to steer less, and get the steering lock off faster - which in turn helps to keep my speed up and allows me to steer more with the throttle. "My goal," Don continues, "is that when you finish the course you 'own' the stuff you've learned, because you invented your own solutions. And all those things could come in any order, you just attend to them as they arrive. It's far more important that people think about what they're doing, more than the mechanics of what they actually do. Advanced driving to me is simply advanced thinking." By the end of it, both Owen and I are grinning like kids.

White BMW leaning

Then, just to put it all into perspective, Don takes us round the course in his M5, confirming that he does indeed possess god-like driving skills, and we still have some way to go...

Would I recommend the course? Yes, with one proviso. Don takes the relaxed approach compared with some instructors. Which is great, in as much as you're more likely have a good time. But if your imagination is as over-active as mine, you might want to insist on wearing helmets for what are some pretty high-speed manoeuvres. That's said, although Bruntingthorpe's vast expanses of tarmac ain't pretty, if you're going to lose control of your car, better here than just about anywhere else I can think of.

How has taking the course affected the way I drive? I reckon I'm smoother, quicker where appropriate, and more confident. I'm thinking far more about my steering inputs, about the work I'm asking the front tyres to do. I'm thinking about how to get the car settled - and just occasionally how to get it unsettled too. I'm not trying to drive everywhere sideways, but that's probably just as well. Crucially, I hope I'll be better able to handle the car once it starts to slip down that slope. And when I'm next on an airfield or trackday, I know I'll have the confidence to push that bit harder and have me some more of this oversteer thing.

2013 Don Palmer. All rights reserved.