Episode 5: The Joy of Oversteer
When a car gets sideways (oversteer or fish tailing), in order to correct it do you turn the steering wheel half a turn or more or less? How do you get the feeling of what the car is doing?
Great question. This is honestly one of my favorite subjects in the whole wide world. Being sideways in a car is one of life’s greatest pleasures – to me at least. Actually, come to think of it – it is probably in my top 2 favorite things of all time, and most definitely the only one on that list worth printing.
Yes- I confess, I am an oversteer junkie. Growing up as a kid I idolized Mr. Gilles Villenueve (father of Jacques). He was a God of oversteer and to this day I challenge you to find an image more daring, romantic and down right impressive then the sight of one of our national heroes driving the wheels off his F1 Ferrari, sideways - at places like Monaco, Watkins Glen or Long Beach!
To further this point, watch Gilles' epic battle (above) with Rene Arnoux. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kl2tIFxSEGA&feature=related
So to make a long story short, from a very early age mastering the art of oversteer was pretty high on my priority list, and it still is.
I consider it a blessing that I have been able to develop these skills and translate them to others through working with some of the best race, rally and skid control schools in the world.
As for your question, the answer is I have no idea.
Every situation is different and requires its own amount of steering. What I can explain is what controls your steering inputs and what to focus on to maximize your effectiveness behind the wheel.
In short, it is about how the human eye controls our motor skills, but first we need to take a step back and look at a few basics.
1) How do you recognize oversteer?
2) Which direction do we turn the wheel?
3) The truth about vision. What we are looking at will determine how we turn the wheel. Look where you want to go and the steering wheel will follow.
1) Recognizing Oversteer
Conventional wisdom suggests that we feel oversteer- the seat of the pants sensation. This notion is partially true. We have proprioceptors in our skin and muscles detecting movement, sensory neurons in our inner ear detecting motion and orientation, and on a more obvious scale we can feel the steering wheel getting heavier as a car starts to rotate – BUT, these are not primary indicators.
Want proof? Ever play a video game? You can drift; slide and fish tail a car on your X-Box, PC, or PS3 all day long, sitting on the couch. Zero movement, zero balance change, zero steering wheel load. The main indicator that tells us the car is starting to slide is our eyes. Visually we detect axis change.
It is all about the visual frame of reference that you are seeing and the changes that occur when you slide.
To simplify: Say you are driving down the road and your eyes are seeing the road ahead of you, with the overpasses, traffic, other landmarks and so on. The car starts to rotate and suddenly you are seeing the ditch, a tree, the field beyond it. At this point your brain kicks in and says – “something looks different here”
When driving (whether racing or going to the grocery store), always look up. Keep the horizon as your visual resting point. The farther you see ahead, the larger your visual frame of reference, the more sensitive your eyes are to detecting that frame of reference changing (i.e.- axis change).
All of this means you will detect your oversteer sooner. The early stages of oversteer are exponentially easier to cure than full on later stage oversteer, which if left treated for too long can be incurable.
It is easier said than done and there are two big things working against us – posture and the habits induced by posture.
Looking up, ahead and keeping the horizon as your target are not natural things to do. Reason being when sitting in the average chair – office, dinner, or car – the natural resting angle of your neck and spine leaves your head tilting slightly down. Typically in a car this leaves your line of sight resting slightly down, approximately 5-6 car lengths ahead. In most cases the horizon is slightly farther up the road.
Looking 5-6 car lengths ahead diminishes your visual frame of reference, and lowers your oversteer detection time. For most drivers this visual lead time becomes a habit, ingrained in the muscle memory of everyday driving, and like any bad habit it is not easy to change.
Check out this educational video featuring yours truly in a Lexus ISF. www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHANIBGJGJs
We detect oversteer through our eyes picking up on axis change. On to the next step.
2) Turn the Steering Wheel
STEER INTO THE SKID! For years we have all heard this and for years people have been confused - “does this mean in the direction of the skid, or against the direction of the skid?”
Let’s make it simple. Ditch is bad. Road is good. Keep the front wheels pointed towards the road.
Take a moment and try this at home. Hold an imaginary steering wheel and visualize the car spinning to the left – this would make the imaginary “road ahead” to your right – or what was originally your centre. To keep the front wheels pointing in the direction of the “road ahead” you would be steering to the right, but in reality all you are doing is keeping the steering wheel pointing in the direction of the “road ahead” or the preferential target. Keep your imaginary steering wheel pointed at the road and your body pivoting around it to the left and right. The car is rotating but we are keeping the steering wheel pointed at the “road ahead”.
Have a close look at the photo on the right. Gilles is well and truly out of shape but his front wheels are lined up perfectly straight – aiming at the road ahead, which also happens to be in line with the horizon.
Which brings us to the original question: How much do we turn? A half-turn or more or less? (And how quickly do we do this?)
And to expand upon my original answer: Only your eyes can tell.
3) The Truth About Vision
Our eyes are what co-ordinate the movements of our body. Out of a possible 180 degrees of vision (peripheral left to peripheral right) there is a very narrow band called our Foveal or Central Vision that acts as our targeting system. It is this Central vision that allows us to catch a football, ski between the tree’s, walk through a door way and steer a car. Think of it in terms of visual co-ordinates. When driving you constantly need to provide your hands with the correct co-ordinates.
The goal is to keep the front wheels pointed at the road ahead, therefore your hands need to be steering the wheel in that direction – but how do your hands know where the road ahead is? By looking at it with your central vision.
It really is that simple.
Honestly, doing that can be extremely hard, in part due to it being counterintuitive. Let me pause briefly to differentiate the two types of oversteer: Intentional and unintentional. When we are playing around in an empty parking lot provoking oversteer, we are ready and waiting. When it happens by surprise it is a whole new ballgame. Oversteer is much harder to correct when it is unexpected.
When we are surprised by something it is our natural tendency to focus on it. This is called target fixation. Think of the countless tales of a car hitting the one tree within miles of the scene – target fixation. When you rear-end the car in front when the lanes to the left and right are wide open – target fixation. Think of a deer jumping in front of your car – that would get your attention right? But by looking at that deer all we are doing is giving our hands the coordinates of the deer – what we need to do is look around Bambi and give our hands a different set of co-ordinates.
A car spinning is exactly the same – the ditch, the tree and the field grab our attention and more importantly our Central vision - the exact moment when your attention and eyes need to be on the ”road ahead”.
Mastering oversteer is a matter of keeping your eyes focused on where you want the car to go. The miracle of human biomechanics will take care of the rest.
Hands at 9 & 3, eyes up!