Automotive engineers, and their electronics and component suppliers, go to great lengths to keep you from crashing if you drive into a corner too fast. Or make any other bonehead move. When designing vehicle dynamics, their goal is to make the front tires lose grip before the rear tires in such situations. Engineers call this condition understeer, racers call it push, and others call it plowing. Advanced Driving Tips will help you conquer understeer.
ABCs of Push
The reason push is good: Most drivers' natural reaction will merit a "B" in this skill test. When their front tires lose grip and the car starts sliding nose-first, most drivers say "Oh, fudge!" (or similar), and jump off the accelerator. Those who do not turn the steering wheel more and stay away from the brake pedal, receive a "B" and, most likely, come away unscathed, except for an elevated heart rate.
To get a "B+" the driver must (depending on the car, tires, and situation) turn AWAY from the corner to allow the tires to regain grip. Tires designed for racing may reward a driver who turns about 10 additional degrees into the corner. (In high-performance and race driving, rarely is there a single solution for all situations.) The B+ driver will also smoothly release-not jump off-the accelerator. The B+ driver may also hold on about one-quarter throttle, but this is more of a racetrack thing.
To get an "A," the driver must anticipate the loss of grip and get rid of some speed before the front tires lose traction. To anticipate, rather than react, you must get in touch with your tires. (Advanced Driving Tips: Tires)
You'll get no more than a "C"-and might just get a big red "F"-if you turn the steering wheel aggressively toward the inside of the corner and/or step on the brakes. The reason: The car is sliding because you have already asked more of the front tires than they're capable of giving. Turning the wheel more or stepping on the brakes is like writing a check on an overdrawn account. Also, if you aggressively turn the wheel toward the inside of the corner and traction suddenly returns, the car will either spin out or dart toward the ditch or oncoming traffic.
An example of the latter situation: A patch of black ice on an otherwise dry road. There's plenty of grip on either side of the ice. As soon as the car clears the problem area, it will go wherever the tires are pointed, even if that's toward the ditch. A car is an obedient but-unless it's equipped with electronic stability control (ESC)-unthinking servant. Without ESC, a car is kinda like a Marine private: It'll salute smartly and charge into certain destruction, if that's what you order.
Computer Driving Aid
If your car is equipped with ESC, this computer driving aid can teach you how to deal with push (aka understeer). If you drive too fast into a corner, try to brake hard and turn at the same time, or start accelerating too soon with a front- or all-wheel-drive car, the ESC will reduce engine power and apply brakes on individual wheels in an effort to get the car to turn. When the ESC comes on, imagine a driving instructor wagging his finger at you.
If you don't have ESC, you can experience understeer on an empty freeway transition ramp. Incrementally accelerate until the car starts to run wide of the path you desire. Lift off the gas and wait for the traction to return. Once the tires have regained traction, accelerate again. It'll push again. Repeat until you have a good feel for understeer and how to compensate for it. (If you do this progressively, there'll be no problem. If, however, you charge at 60 mph into a ramp marked 30 mph, even ESC might not save you.)
Tires and Brakes
It's possible to effectively brake and turn (or turn and accelerate) simultaneously. However, a tire can give only 100 percent. If you're braking as hard as possible, you can't turn the steering wheel. You must release some pressure on the brake as you turn the steering wheel. Also, you can't mat the accelerator in the middle of the corner. You must wait until the steering wheel is almost straight before giving it full throttle.
An important note: While auto and tire engineers work hard to make your car push at the limit, any number of factors can cause it to oversteer, go loose, or try to spin out. These include underinflated rear tires, mismatched tires, worn-out rear tires, and a host of suspension problems.
Get a handle on push, understeer, plowing—whatever you call it—and you're ready to progress onto the next step of our Advanced Driving Tips series.