Very rarely have I driven a car that was perfectly neutral. In almost every case there will be an imbalance of either understeer or oversteer — even if it's just by one percent.
Sometimes the imbalance is dialed in for a reason. Other times, it's just a bad car. Can you drive an ill-handling car as fast as is humanly possible? Yes you can. Here's how.
When you drive a car to the absolute limit of adhesion, eventually the grip from the tires will give way. It has to. It is simple physics. When it does, one of three things will happen.
Either the front tires will slide, the rear tires will slide, or both the front and rear tires will slide in an equal four-wheel-drift. Driving fast requires we push to this threshold and drive around the issue that rears its ugly face.
Before we delve in deeper, what are understeer and oversteer? Understeer, or "push," is when the front tires lose grip during the turn and the front end of the car just keeps going straight. Oversteer, or "loose," is when the rear tires lose grip and the back end wants to come around on you. But you knew that already, right?
(FYI I refuse to refer to understeer as "tight." I am an open-wheel guy and will not use strange NASCAR terminology that makes no sense. How can understeer be tight anyway? Just because it is the opposite of loose?)
With that in mind, let's figure out how to drive around these problems that will almost certainly be plaguing any competitive driver:
What's Better? Loose or Push? Well, it depends. On an oval you almost unanimously want a touch of push (I am talking open-wheel here). Why? Because a loose car will make you shit yourself at 220 mph, and an IndyCar is not a machine that can handle large rear drifts. If it gets loose, generally, you lose. At the same time, you do not want too much push. Loose is fast, if you can hang on to it. So you free up the car for qualifying, where the driver can withstand the looseness for just a few laps, then dial it back for the race, to provide a more friendly platform.
On a road course it becomes a little different. You want a car that will rotate effectively around its axis at apex. Mid-corner understeer just delays throttle application; you have to wait for the front to grip up. But on entry you want a confidence-inspiring setup with a grippy rear-end. That way you can attack the corner and carry a whole bunch of speed down to apex. That extra speed puts more weight on the nose at turn-in and that should help the car rotate. So focusing on making the car solid on entry is the first step to solving any mid-corner or exit issues you might face.
I Have Understeer. What Should I Do? You say your car is a serial understeerer and you can't change its setup? You need to drive around the problem. First, you must try to brake later and carry more speed into the apex, using more trail braking (turning in while still carrying a touch of brake to set the nose of the car). Trail braking will help keep the nose down as long as possible to allow you the best opportunity to rotate the car efficiently in mid-corner. If you are applying power in a long bend and the front pushes, releasing the throttle slightly will generate front weight (and therefore grip), as would a slight graze of the brake (while still the on throttle).
OK, But My Car Has Mid-Corner Oversteer. Then you need to give up a touch on entry. So brake earlier and do not trail-brake. Pick up a touch of throttle early in the turn, as this will put weight on the rear tires and settle the back down.
Easy. But What If I Have A Loose Car On Entry But Mid-Corner Push? Now it gets tricky. This can be a bugger to fix (without working on the mechanical set-up). You have to deal with one of the issues, as you can't fix both from just driving technique. The mid-corner push will result in a late application of power and therefore a bad exit from the turn. If you enter slower to assist the oversteer on entry, you are going to make the mid–corner even worse. So cut your losses and attack the entry as best you can given the loose condition you must entertain. Try to trail-brake in and be ready to catch the rear. This way you sacrifice as little as possible on entry and give yourself the best chance to help the push in the middle, and still salvage a good exit.
What Else Do I Need To Know? If you have either exit understeer or oversteer, the philosophy for both is the same. Try to have a later apex and rotate the car as much as possible before power down. That way the car will be straighter at exit which will eliminate some of the possibility of push, or in the case of the loose exit, allow both rear tires to be more evenly loaded, allowing for better rear grip and therefore better traction off the bend.
If you are driving a car with the rare trait of being totally neutral, then just be content you don't have a lot to deal with. Hit your marks and do your thing. Having a car as beautifully balanced as this is as unlikely as being invited to a tea party between North and South Korea. So make the most of it.
Handling imbalances are ever present. If you don't think you have one, chances are you aren't driving fast enough. The best drivers can adapt to a car's flaws and rid the problem by adjusting their driving. In Formula One, Alonso is the best at this. He has a way of taking an underperforming car and turning it into a race winner, while his teammate lames around mid-pack.
Remember; if you are not driving at 100 percent of the car's capabilities, then the handling will not be as the engineers intended. Cars are tuned by pros that are setting them up at their very limit. So the faster you go, the better the car will handle. And if you still have issues, then adapt your driving and allow your ability to overrule the car's inherent deficiencies.
About the author: @Alex_Lloyd began racing in the U.S. in 2006. He won the Indy Lights championship in 2007. He's competed in the Daytona 24-hour twice and the Indianapolis 500 four times — placing fourth in 2010. The native of MADchester, UK began racing karts at age 8, open-wheel race cars at 16 and finished second to Formula One World Champion - and close friend - Lewis Hamilton, in the 2003 British Formula Renault Championship, followed by a stint representing Great Britain in A1GP and winning races in Formula 3000. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife Samantha (also from England) and three young "Hoosier" children. He also enjoys racing in triathlons and is rather partial to good old English cup of tea. But not crumpets.
Photo Credit: BrainToad/Kia