The Stuff of Legends

An article in Performance BMW, published June 2008.
Words by Louise Woodhams.

The M3 Evo in a slide

The moment of truth. I'm going to deliberately provoke oversteer with the throttle. Accelerate hard in second and third, take a deep breath, I'm now bearing down on the first really tight left-hander. Entry speed okay, dab the brakes, feel the front end bite and tuck in and the rear simultaneously go light, start to wind off the lock... now hard on the power. The rear of my M3 slews round snapper Gary, who's standing just a few feet away, camera poised to capture my first spectacular drift. Perfect, shouts Don in my ear.

Being a motoring journalist, I'm in the envious position of having done a variety of limit handing courses. In all honesty, I thought I was a pretty good driver; I could recognise where the racing line is and brake in the right places, but really I had no idea of what my M3 Evo was capable of. I needed some professional help, someone who could help me learn more about driving on the edge and more to the point, recognise when I am perilously close to falling off that edge. Every time I was at Bruntingthorpe for a shoot or a trash, there was always one particular person who, whatever he was driving, held perfect drifts all the way through the top bend and out on to the centre of the straight. I later found out that the guy behind the wheel was driving guru Don Palmer. It was time to give him a call.

Don talks about logical levels

As corny as it may sound, Don dedicates his life to trying to help as many people as possible to drive safely, he takes up the story: "It all came about after I was forced off the road 18 years ago in a convertible E-type Jaguar. I woke to find myself upside down in a ditch, with a doctor commenting how petrol was leaking into a head wound. That incident changed my life and nearly ended it." He spent the next eight years in road driver training and later got a job in the USA, teaching chassis engineers with Grand Prix ace Jackie Stewart, which he says was the making of him as a limit handling coach. He also studied neuro-linguistic psychology after developing a fascination for the subject, and reckons it's one of the keys to successful coaching. Think driver training mixed with therapy, while being back at school.

A week after our initial chat on the phone, gaining how much experience we each had, and what sort of driver we both were, Joel and I arrived at Brunter's canteen around 9.30am, to find Don already tucking into his bacon sarnie. Before I even sat down, he fired his first question at me. "So, Louise, what is it that you want to get out of today?" I later learn this is an approach that Don uses with all his clients, in fact throughout the entire day our brains were stretched, working out the answers to his seemingly cryptic but, as it turned out, entirely logical questions. My objective was to execute the perfect drift short, but within that to raise my awareness of how to optimise track driving techniques, I told him. "And you Joel?" he quizzes. "I want to drive like you," Joel replies. We all smirked, knowing full well that it takes far longer than a day to reach Don's incredible understanding of limit handling. "Okay, successful driving is about managing the vehicle, the environment and yourself. It's vital you maintain a clear relaxed internal state of mind and body, after all, who you are is how you drive," urges Don before adding with a smile: "Let's go play!"

BMW oversteering

Out on Bruntingthorpe's impossibly long back straight, Don used cones to mark out a complete mini circuit with a series of lane changes and slaloms, and still left a substantial run-off area; the track's so wide. After a quick demo lap with the man himself it was my turn to climb into the M3 for some one-to-one coaching. What first struck me was how he gave me very little direction, leaving me to find my own feet, and while it was quite unnerving, it was paramount to me acquiring the knowledge myself. Quite quickly I find the car's limit - but it's the front end that's sliding, not the rears, "It's our old friend, Mr Understeer," muses Don. We then swapped seats so the master could show me how it's done, after which it's question time. "What do you notice about my driving?" he asks. Calmness, smoothness and minimal effort were the things that struck me straight away. Whereas my stint saw a blur of arms winding the wheel from lock to lock, Don was using minute adjustments to direct the car exactly where he wanted it to go. He tells me that any mistakes and errors should be considered as opportunities to learn and that if you don't spin, you aren't discovering the limits of your driving or those of your car. Indeed, when the inevitable happened, I wasn't made to feel a fool.

Throughout the morning, driving sessions were interspersed with Don reviewing what we had learnt and also giving some excellent theory input about fundamental principles of car control including: basic vehicle dynamics (oversteer and understeer), recognising and understanding how you know when you're at the limit of grip, understanding the language of tyres and steering at the limit, simple phases of cornering, the importance of dynamic weight distribution and the beginnings of handling at the limit.

So, for example, before we could enjoy any tail-out action we had to deal with the understeer. Don tackles it with graphs and charts, and the aid of a section of tyre. The demonstration was to show exactly how a tyre reacts with each input from the driver. He then told us to sit in our car, take a light hold on the steering wheel and turn it slightly "Notice any resistance?" he asks, "now turn it until the tips of your fingers feel resistance and notice how far you've turned it. Now stand outside the car, put your arm through the open door and try the same thing while watching the front wheel and tyre. Does the wheel move fractionally before the tyre or at the same time? What do you feel? Now try the same exercise on grass."

BMW understeering

There is a slight delay between the initial steering input and when the tyres start to respond; Don can explain and demonstrate this, but most importantly he guides you to the point where you can feel it for yourself. He teaches a technique where the initial steering input is subtle, feeling for the response before applying the rest of the required steering. He calls it 'hinting', and it works for any transition - brakes and throttle as well as steering. Once you're in tune with the signals your car is sending, you can communicate with it instead of trying to force it. Put simply, it's all about the steering, and once you've got that sussed, everything becomes so much easier. Above and beyond that, Don insists that it's also about having fun.

After lunch it was all about building on the basics, and our attention shifted to the important details that make all the difference. We continued to focus on manipulating the car on or near to the limit of adhesion, but developing more elegance and finesse in doing so. As Joel and I spent time honing steering skills, control and freedom started to come naturally. This time I was looking beyond the corners, braking and setting the car much better for each turn. The understeer had gone and I had stopped turning-in too early; one of my worst habits as Don is so kind to point out. I was amazed at the difference it made as I turned the car in precisely and came out of each corner set perfectly for the next. My steering inputs had become non-existend compared to the start of the day, and I was feeling in control of the car, letting the rear end step out just far enough before catching it. Somewhere between wondering what all the questions are about, answering them and driving round and round this course, it suddenly all starts to make sense. Subtly but quickly, both Joel and I had made significant progress.

Don talks about steering, using a section of tyre

Don's whole approach to driver training is unusual, and possibly the most unique I've ever experienced. He doesn't dictate or instruct in the traditional sense, but encourages you constantly to think and analyse what is going on around you. He doesn't tell you what to do, rather he suggests you should notice what happens if you try something. "I don't tell you how to drive or even tell you directly what you're doing wrong. I might suggest you go fast so that you go faster and together we'll find out what happens. I simply help people to develop appropriate beliefs about their driving so they can learn for themselves what makes the difference." He also believes it's crucial to have a mental picture of what you are trying to achieve; to analyse your driving, pull it apart and work out how to improve it. You learn, and quickly too. What he says often appears to be obvious and almost common sense, until, that is, you get behind the wheel for yourself and try to refine it, and you discover it's actually harder than it sounds. One thing he said that stood out for me was, "driving fast on track is all about going slow enough. Do less, be more."

It was really helpful to discuss something and then have the luxury of putting into practice what we had learnt, with no one but Joel and I on the circuit, over and over again until we had properly understood the techniques. By the afteroon, our pace had increased considerably and we were driving our cars smoothly and precisely, but pretty much to the limit of their grip. I'd come away with my tyres in shreds, and I was mentally exhausted, but the drive home became a good time to reflect upon what I learnt, and how much of a difference it made to how I drove and thought. Don had increased my confidence and brought about the biggest and most important transformation in my driving, and for that I can't thank him enough.

The Technique

Most rear-wheel drive front-engined cars tend to understeer. To deliberately provoke oversteer choosing when and how you get on or off the throttle is critical, as it allows you to choose the yaw angle. So, more throttle will cause the back end to step out, necessitating a change in the angle of steering, whereas less throttle will bring the back tail in, reducing the slip angle at the rear. At the same time, the weight transfer to the front of the car makes the steering more effective, requiring a sensitive input to compensate. Don says that when driving over the limit, RWD cars are the epitome of everything fun and he highlighted this superbly in the E36 M3, which was an incredibly well balanced machine when driving on the edge - in his hands, at least - offering oodles of oversteer on tap. Just what we like!

2013 Don Palmer. All rights reserved.