You know there isn't enough traction to take this corner. It's too tight. There's too much snow. If you just turn in, the car will plow wide. But you don't just turn in. You ease off the gas, brush on the brake, and feel the front end dig in. You use the simple art of weight transfer.
With many parts of the country already experiencing the first blast of winter weather, drivers are once again forced to tackle the challenges of motoring on snow and ice. Try as we might to prepare our vehicles and adjust our speed to the conditions, we'll inevitably find ourselves beyond the limits of grip and relying on our skid control skills to get us out of trouble. With that in mind, let's look at one of the most universal, basic, and often overlooked skills at your disposal, weight transfer.
[Friend of Jalopnik Wyatt Knox works at the Team O'Neil Rally School and Car Control Center. You've seen his work before on how to recover your car from different types of skids and how to do a J-turn. He's a two-wheel drive national champion and Someone You Should Trust. Here are his words on how to manage weight transfer, and why it's so effective at keeping your car in control. - Ed.]
What Is Weight Transfer?
Putting weight on the front is achieved by lifting, turning, and/or braking. Lifting off the gas brings the car's momentum forward. Turning in to a corner brings the car's momentum forward. Getting on the brakes brings the car's momentum forward. They all push the front tires down onto the road surface.
That's what gets more grip from them.
When when you need it, weight transfer helps tremendously in avoiding or curing understeer (understeer is the tendency of a car to slide with its front wheels away from the intended direction of travel, as opposed to oversteer, which is the opposite).
What Can Go Wrong?
Caution: The more weight you put on the front end, and the more abruptly you do it, the lighter the rear end becomes. This can easily lead to oversteer, where the back end of the car gets so light that it slips out of line and the vehicle starts to spin sideways down the road. This happens more often downhill, when driving cars that are naturally lighter in the rear (front-wheel drive cars and pickup trucks), and on off-camber surfaces.
How Do I Correct If Things Go Wrong?
The only way to cure this situation is to get the weight back onto the rear tires to give them the grip that they need. This is done by releasing the brakes, countersteering (look where you want to go and turn there), and accelerating when necessary.
Watch Out, Snap Oversteer
More caution: Weight is not only transferred from front to rear, but from side to side... and this weight is all moving around on springs. As we all know, compressing a spring and releasing it suddenly can have drastic effects, and the same is true with all vehicles. Using weight on the front to make oversteer, and then overcorrecting even slightly can put the car into a counterskid, where the weight is bouncing from one side to the other and the vehicle fishtails back and forth, often followed by a spin or crash.
Smooth and appropriate weight transfer, good hand position and steering control, and always looking down the road (especially in a bad situation) are the foundations of building solid car control.
You can also use weight transfer to pre-load and unload the suspension over rocks and potholes, often making the difference between being stuck on the side of the road and making it to the finish line (or home).
Staying alert, driving prepared, and using the right tires will keep you safe when your road turns into slush. Just never forget what forces are at work when you turn the wheel.