Feature Gordon Torbet joins a Skid Car Experience class at Dubai Autodrome to explore the principles of oversteer and understeer.
Are you experienced?
The terms "understeer" and "oversteer" are often bandied about by motoring journalists who assume that everyone knows what they mean, and would know what to do if your car just happened to experience either of them while you're behind the wheel. In all honesty, there are a lot of journos who wouldn't know what to do if their car suddenly swung out of control and headed for a spin. I thought I did. But when I went on the Dubai Autodrome Skid Car Experience, I realised I didn't know the half of it.
And I wasn't alone. Damanjit Oberoi and Manuel Bermudez had also signed up for the one-and-a- half-hour session. "All of us think we know how to drive", says Damanjit, "but now I have two young children and a high performance CLK500, there are situations where you could put in the power and get yourself into trouble, so I want to learn to do the right thing." First, the all important briefing with our Belgian ex-rallier, motocrosser and circuit racing instructor, Jan Vanmeerbeek, in which he explains the principles of understeer and oversteer as well as the likely outcome if you fail to control them - generally involving guard rails, ditches and hefty insurance premiums. "Most of the time, it's the driver who is at fault. If you brake too hard, accelerate too hard or steer too hard, these are all cases where you can lose control of the vehicle."
Jan explains first that understeer is when you turn the steering but the car struggles to hold the line that you want around the corner. "What you feel with understeer is the steering gets very light and you won't follow the course," says Vanmeerbeek. Most of the time it's because you've misjudged how tight the corner is and the front tyres simply can't give you enough grip in relation to the speed of the car. So, lesson one: if you don't know how tight a corner is, slow down. But there are other potential causes of understeer: over- or under-inflated tyres, a puncture, gravel, water, oil or debris on the road surface - all of these are common on the motorways of the UAE and, if they occur half way around a corner, you won't see them coming.
Fortunately, coping with understeer is relatively easy, but as we would find out it requires your attention to immediately recognise when it's happening and to react in time to keep you on the tarmac. "The main thing you can do," advises Vanmeerbeek, "is to get off the power and try to steer a little bit in the direction of the skid so you get the grip back into the wheels and then bring the car back on line." I had a feeling that this might be easier said than done. And then there's oversteer - losing grip at the back of the car so that it begins to head into a spin - a common cause of accidents at speed, especially when the driver overreacts and sends the car violently snaking down the motorway, stopping only when it hits something very solid. However, the thought of being taught how to deliberately lose the tail end of a 3.6L V6-powered car and eventually be able to hold it in a drift brought a smile to my face. But the serious point to this training is, of course, that there are a lot of powerful rear-wheel-drive cars on the region's roads, and few people who would actually know how to control them in emergency situations.
Simply put, Vanmeerbeek says, "If you put too much power on in a rear-wheel-drive car, you'll start to spin the back wheels and they'll get light and swing out." He continues, rather matter-of-factly, that "the action with oversteer is very simple - you counter-steer and get off the throttle. You must try to react immediately." But until you actually get behind the wheel and induce the back end to break loose, you have no idea just how quickly that reaction has to be. We're taken to the skid car that we are about to start throwing around on the dusty run-off area of one of the circuits sweeping corners. It's a new Chevrolet Lumina S mounted on a metal cradle. At each corner of the car is a free-rolling wheel that looks like it's come from a giant shopping trolley, which are linked to a hydraulic pump capable of lifting each corner off the ground. "In the car, there is a device which I control to make you lose grip on the front or the rear tyres," says Vanmeerbeek. This enables him to simulate any road condition at the push of a button, from gravel and snow to ice and aquaplaning. Controlling understeer is actually pretty easy; it's just a matter of awareness, feeling when it's starting to happen and coming off the power.
Oversteer, however, has far more violent results if you don't "catch" it, and so is that much harder to master. Hence Vanmeerbeek's advisory: "It's a thin line between control and spinning the car - and you will spin. If you feel sick, let me know. That way we can get you out of the car." Looping a 20m diameter circle of cones, it's not long before we are pirouetting like a ballerina to the accompaniment of howling rubber and dust clouds. "The more the car breaks away at the rear the more you have to steer into the direction you want to go," explains Vanmeerbeek patiently. "But if you put too much counter-steer, all of a sudden you will lose control completely." It's a delicate balance between reacting quickly and counter-steering enough in the direction of the loose rear end to stop the car from becoming a fairground ride, but not compensating so much that the car swings back more violently in the opposite direction. But 20 minutes into the session and it's all coming together. With Vanmeerbeek confident that we know what we're doing, the next challenge is to drift the Lumina for as long as possible. As a guide, Vanmeerbeek explains: "When you feel the car break away, counter-steer in the direction that the back end is heading and lift off the throttle. When you feel the car starting to come back into shape, give a little bit more throttle. Your co-ordination between steering and throttle is very precise."
Amazingly, after 10 minutes of further pirouettes, I succeed in holding a drift in both directions for a good half circumference by just using slight adjustments to the steering and feathering the throttle. As a big fan of the drift scene, this is a real rush. At Dh595 a session, the Skid Car Experience might hit your pocket, but it is incredible fun and might also save your life. And if you think it all sounds too difficult, Vanmeerbeek concludes: "You should never be afraid that you can't control the vehicle, because you can. It's just a skill."
To book the Skid Car Experience at the Dubai Autodrome call: 04-367 8745 or visit the Dubai Autodrome website at www.dubaiautodrome.com and click on the Track Experiences link for more details.