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Top Gear’s guide to driving well: holding a powerslide

Everything you wanted to know about driving but were too afraid to ask, vol. 2

  • Is there anything more fun to do in a car than powersliding? No. And not even that thing you’re thinking about, either, because there are far more fun places to do that, where the risk of a handbrake going somewhere delicate is all but obviated.

    There’s something so incredibly exhilarating about pitching a car sideways, feeling the back end step out and holding a graceful arc via a combination of throttle, steering and almost giddying levels of glee.

    But how do you do it? Well, we asked Ollie Marriage how he holds the huge powerslides that make Top Gear magazine’s cornering shots at least a million per cent better than going around a corner normally. He said, “Right, well, the thing you have to do first is work out the balance point of the car you’re driving...” and then said many more things, while miming oversteer with his hands. Afraid to admit that we’d tuned out (there was a very pretty butterfly nearby), we decided to ask another member of the TG team.

    Down at Dunsfold, we asked Stig how he manages to hold high-speed slides around the Top Gear track. He stared at us for exactly 15 and a half seconds, before walking away. It’s one of the better conversations we’ve had, to be honest.

    Luckily, we do know a bit about this ourselves, so we’re happy to impart a few lessons on the art of oversteer.

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  • For a long time, we thought the terms ‘powerslide’ and 'drift’ meant roughly the same thing, kind of like ‘time share’ and ‘terrible idea’. But it turns out, if you’re the kind of pedant that lives to correct other people, there’s room to contrive a subtle difference between powersliding and drifting that goes beyond how many hours of Initial D you watched before attempting it yourself.

    If your car is already sliding before the apex of the corner, you’re drifting, apparently. If you give it a boot-full of throttle mid-corner and oversteer your way out, that one’s a powerslide. With that cleared up, feel free to keep using them interchangeably; god knows we will.

  • First things first: you will need drive going to the rear axle to do a proper powerslide. It’s easiest in a purely rear-drive car, but it is achievable in some AWD cars. Second thing... er, second. You should not do this on the road. You should not do this on a track where the rules say you should not drift or powerslide. You should, however, do this at specific drift / powerslide days at a track or skidpan. Or, if you’re flush with cash, you can also sign up for one of those ice lake driving weekends, which are pretty much heaven on earth for those who can afford it.

    Back to the task at hand. Approach the corner at a gentle 20 to 30mph, making sure you’re in a low enough gear to keep the revs up, and therefore the power on hand. Turn in sharply with your foot off the accelerator, then, as you feel the front end dig in and drag the car around, kick the throttle to make the rear end break traction. That was the easy part.

    Now, much like a Van Halen album, it’s all about 1984... er, Balance. So this is where you’ll balance the car on the throttle. Too much and you’ll spin out. Too little and you’ll straighten up. Two fast, we’re told, and you run the risk of being two furious.

    This balancing on the throttle keeps the wheels spinning at the right rate to keep the slide going, and it’s why you’ll hear people who wear race boots to the office talk about ‘steering a car from the rear’. No, it doesn’t mean they’ve been driving a forklift; rather, they’ve been balancing their car in oversteer to negotiate a corner. Or at least pretending that they’ve done that.

    But what about steering? Well, it can get quite technical and involve terms like slip angle, but the gist is that you steer into the slide, which is also known as countersteering. How much you’ll have to countersteer depends on how heroic your slide is. If your back end is right out on the ragged edge, you’ll need a lot at first but, crucially, as the car comes back into line, you use less and less until your front wheels are pointing straight ahead in the direction you want to go to. If they’re pointing in a direction you don’t want to go, you’ll still go there, because that’s just how cars work.

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  • But let’s say your car doesn’t have enough power to overcome the grip of the rear tyres, just by bunging it in and stamping on the throttle. It’s probably going to happen a lot, to be honest, especially on dry tarmac surfaces. Modern sports cars have tremendous levels of grip from modern tyres and suspension, and overcoming that on power alone takes a very decent amount of power.

    But this doesn’t mean that glorious oversteer is off the cards, however. You can often practice on wetted skidpans, gravel tracks or snow courses, where even a handful of horsepower and a bit of commitment is enough to extract long, sweeping drifts.

    The other side of the coin is to get the car either set up to rotate – or already be rotating – before you take a stab at the throttle to push the back end out in a lairy slide. This takes an awareness of what the car is up to and the forces acting on it. If you’re the kind of person who answers the question ‘what is your car doing?’ with ‘um... driving?’, you may have a bit of a way to go before you grasp what we’re getting at here.

  • There are a number of techniques available to kick the back end out and initiate a slide, and they work in different ways.

    Putting the clutch in and turning the steering wheel while pulling on the handbrake locks the rear wheels and slews the back end out. Let the car rotate, release the handbrake and steer into the slide, then quickly let the clutch out and get back on the throttle to continue the slide. Again, this part is all about balance.

    Braking and lift-off oversteer work the same way, just at different speeds. Both techniques cause a weight transfer to the front suspension, increasing grip at the front and decreasing grip at the back. If you’re turning into the corner when this happens, the back end will step out, so you can countersteer into the slide and apply enough throttle to keep the back end out. Then follow what you’d normally do in a power-oversteer scenario. Because you did read that slide, didn’t you?

    Lift-off oversteer requires more kinetic energy than braking oversteer. If you stand on the brakes in your car, you can feel the weight shift forwards, even at slow speeds. Now try to get the same effect by just letting off the throttle. Now you see what we’re dealing with here. We (and people who do this sort of thing for a living) would recommend that you try this one last, when you’re comfortable with the techniques, the track and your car, because you’ll be travelling at the sort of speeds where things can go properly wrong.

    Another time-honoured technique is the Scandinavian flick, named after the Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian rally drivers who immortalised the manoeuvre. The trick is, as you’re coming up to the corner you want to slide around, get off the throttle (and often brake) for maximum front grip, then, with the brake released, turn away from the corner and back in a sharp movement to transfer the weight and rotate the car in your intended direction.

    And now that we’ve given you an inkling of how to do it, feel absolutely not at all free to get out on the road to try it yourself. There might be nothing more fun to do in a car, but explaining why you’re now parked in someone’s sitting room does temper the thrill somewhat.

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