An article in Performance Car, published April 2008.
Words by Dan Prosser and photography by Max Earey.
The slowest corner of the circuit, designed to induce understeer and punish excessive entry speeds, is fast approaching.
Leaving it to the last possible moment, I give the brakes a hint by dabbing the middle pedal gently, then I bury it into the carpet. The turn in point nears. I reduce my braking effort and give the steering its own hint by applying a few degrees of lock. With the turn in point beneath me, I apply all the required lock smoothly, fingertips barely squeezing the wheel rim, feeling for grip, and swiftly come off the brakes. The 335d turns in perfectly, the rear follows in line. Front end glued down, I complete the turn, wind off the lock quickly and get on the power. 428lb ft of torque sends the back end round a few degrees, and a tweak of opposite lock brings it back into line. "A gorgeous piece of work!" yells Don Palmer, high performance driver coach and master wheelman.
It was in stark contrast to my earlier attempts. A mess of scrappy understeer, missed apices and lost time. The complement was aimed at myself, but in truth the good work was Don's. What a difference a day with Palmer makes.
What's this 'hinting' malarkey then? Simply, it's a method of ensuring optimum performance from a car's braking and steering systems. The front brakes on any car are not an equal distance from the brake pedal, says Palmer, so it stands to reason that one of the brakes, the closer to the pedal, will be able to apply its force to the disc sooner. We're talking fractions of a second, but the lag could be enough to upset a car. A gentle dab before the braking point arrives wakens each brake, meaning that when the full deceleration is applied, it'll be done so evenly.
A similar method can be applied to steering. The time the tyres take to grip after steering lock has been applied is around a quarter of a second. Hide behind a door, shout 'boo' at the next person who walks by and you'll see that the time it takes for a human being to get scared is far less. That's the reason that many drivers panic when the front end doesn’t respond immediately, and why they either apply more steering lock, jump on the brakes (without hinting) or close their eyes and scream. It’s the reason many people crash. Give the tyres a hint however, let them know that they're about to receive a large input, and they'll grip almost immediately. That can be done simply by nudging the steering wheel in the direction of the corner ever so slightly before the turn in point. The nudge shouldn't be a separate input, but it should merge seamlessly into the main input. The car will become a lot sharper, and it’ll turn in more effectively.
That's a fine example of the level of detail into which Palmer's course will go. It's also the difference between an instructor and a coach. "Instructors tell you what to do", says Palmer, "but they don't tell you why. Coaches help you realise your potential." Palmer's car control course isn't an easy ride. He demands focus and attention, without a degree of unpleasantness, and requires you to be on the ball. It's all very well knowing that a tyre grips to the road, but if you don’t know why it does so, you can't maximise its potential, let alone your own.
Palmer also delves into the psychology involved in high performance driving. His deep understanding of the learning process of individuals allows him to tailor the course to anybody to ensure they get as much out of the day as possible. He can also identify what aspect of driving he’ll be focussing on with an individual after watching them drive for just 100 yards.
Rather more than just a damn good driver, Palmer is also a supreme coach. He has spent hundreds of days over his career on coaching courses, learning how to teach. There are few working driver coaches with his qualifications.
His coaching philosophy centres around five main aspects. Initially, Palmer encourages students to consider their environment, the place where they are engaged in driving. It includes the car, the road or track and weather conditions, and acknowledging these factors is absolutely fundamental. He then looks at behaviour, namely what we do behind the wheel. It's important to understand how we behave when driving so that we can understand how our behaviour changes as the coaching progresses. Thirdly, the student's skills and capabilities, the things that we can do without having to think about them, are then considered, and the course aims to help students begin to develop advanced driving techniques as skills and capabilities. The student's beliefs and values come next. Beliefs define how we operate, since it is the things that we perceive to be true that influence our actions. Values are simply beliefs that we feel are important, so Palmer persuades us to adopt truths, such as "it is important to drive smoothly", as values. Finally, Palmer encourages students to consider their own identity as drivers, the level at which they drive, and the level to which they aspire.
The most common difficulties that he tackles during his courses are excessive entry speeds, application of power before steering lock has been removed, and steering itself. Steering, claims Palmer, is the foundation of good driving. "Typically, people just do not know how to steer. I've had engineers who should have known better, endurance testers of cars, and they haven't got a clue how to steer."
Palmer preaches the virtues of a light grip on the wheel. It ensures that messages from the steering system can be felt. With a degree of lock applied, a tyre will offer resistance as long as it has grip. That resistance will be fed back through the steering rack. When the tyre loses grip, that resistance disappears, so the driver knows when front-end grip is lost. These messages can be drowned out by an overly firm grasp, meaning the driver can only tell if the front end loses grip when he or she sees that the car isn't turning in. At which point, they'll probably stuff it.
Another key aspect of Palmer's course is how to manage the weight distribution of a car. Apply power, and the weight goes to the rear. Brake, and it shoots to the front. Weight should be over the front wheels during turn in to ensure maximum grip. This is done by maintaining brake pressure as steering lock is applied, and only lifting off the brakes when the car has turned in effectively. When exiting a corner, steering lock must be removed fully before power is applied. Send the weight to the back by applying power when the front wheels are at an angle and they'll lose grip, leading to time-sapping understeer.
It’s a sod, understeer. Avoiding it is as simple as ensuring turn in speeds are appropriate, but get it wrong and there's not a lot that can be done. Gentle braking will send the weight over the front wheels, helping them to regain grip, and extra steering lock will help the front end around – up to a point. Tyres have an optimal operating angle. Exceed that angle and they lose grip; clumsily winding on as much lock as possible during an understeer moment often compounds the situation.
All of this theory is fairly simple to understand, but it's not until you practice it with an expert at your side that it begins to come together. These factors shaved 12 per cent from my time around a makeshift lap on Bruntingthorpe's wide runway.
A diesel automatic. The last one of those I drove was my dad's old Renault, which was coma inducing. I never thought I'd learn the characteristics of a rear-wheel drive chassis in a diesel auto, but the 335d that we used was almost perfect. Palmer reckoned it had a little too much grip for teaching on the limit driving, but otherwise it was excellent. Body control was sublime, the thumping torque was more than enough and the steering was, in Palmer's words, "exquisite". He highlighted the sign of a good steering system by sending the 335d into a big fishtail. By simply removing his hands from the wheel, the resistance effect from the front tyres sent the steering wheel spinning around in what looked suspiciously like opposite lock. Within a short distance, the BMW had righted itself, regained grip and continued in the direction it was travelling in before grip was lost. Astonishing, but not necessarily a recommended means of gathering up a slide.
Watching Palmer drive is something else. There's such little effort, and such sensational results; quick, smooth, and hugely sideways when he wants it to be. "The way I drive took ten years to learn", says Palmer, "but I can teach you to do it in a month. We’ll get through a lot of tyres, but it’s very do-able."
When I arrived in the morning, Palmer asked me what I'd like to get out of the day. His response was made up of three short words that soon made me realise it's the challenge of mastering rear-wheel drive that is exciting, not the prospect of ever doing so. I explained that I'd like to feel comfortable with a rear-wheel drive car at the limit. Palmer simply said, "So would I."
2013 Don Palmer. All rights reserved.