I’m a child, just like you. I like to go sideways, in a plume of my own tire smoke. I enjoy opposite lock, balancing the throttle and brake in a smooth, effortless symphony. Generally I prefer to do this on gravel. Sounds familiar, right?
In a rear-wheel drive car, looking heroic (even if you’re not actually cornering that quickly) is pretty easy. But in a front-wheel drive car? Well, that’s a bit trickier.
FWD is typically associated with sipping fuel and lousy weight distribution. It is not known for epic gravel drifting. Trying will likely just induce understeer, and then you’ll probably crash into a ditch. I know this to be true as I, rather embarrassingly, crashed into a ditch during the Lake Superior Performance Rally in a B-Spec Honda Fit.
It was raining, the gravel was mostly mud, and I’d never competed in a rally before. Circuit racing didn’t train me well for the diminutive Fit. On one of the first stages, I turned into a right-hand bend and then… well, crap. I understeered into a ditch, got stuck, and became miserable.
Welcome to rallying.
I learned from my mistakes that day, made the necessary adjustments to my driving, and caught back up and won my class. In the end, a jolly good time was had by all.
So what changes did I make to properly drift a FWD car on gravel?
Well, firstly, I didn’t really drift. Drifting is slow, for show, and not the quickest way around a turn; in a rally, you balance theatrics with getting the car to turn. You must never scrub excess speed. But here, on Jalopnik, we aren’t talking about being first at a rally. We’re talking about simply getting a FWD car to slide, awesomely. We’re trying to make you smile. So let’s get started.
Commit To The Drift
It can be somewhat intimidating to commit to a gravel turn. You know it’s going to be slippery, you know you’ll be sideways, and you know you’d rather not crash. So what happens is you go in slower, and you brake early.
Being timid ensures you don’t transfer weight sufficiently onto the front tires, which means you’ll pick up a giant dollop of nasty understeer. This is what happened to me in the wee Fit.
Here’s what you need to do: Attack the turn, hard. Brake late, and get the weight transferred to the front. Suddenly the car will feel on its toes, and subtle steering inputs become more reactive.
For a tighter bend, a delicate Scandinavian Flick is preferred. You don’t need to go all Ari Vatanen with it, swinging wildly from one side to the other. But turning fractionally to the opposite direction and getting the weight moving ensures momentum will help the back of the car rotate.
At this point, upon turning in, if the back isn’t already coming around—you’re in trouble. The ditch awaits.
Left Foot Braking
I’ve said this many times and I’ll say it again: I’m an advocate for left-foot braking on the street (providing you’re a competent driver who won’t ride the brake or act like a tool). Admittedly, left foot braking is optional on the street. When trying to slide properly on gravel, however, it really isn’t. After all, the world’s greatest YouTube video is not called “Climb Dance” for nothing.
And it really is a dance. For much of the turn, you’ll want both feet overlapping—gas and brake. As we’ve talked about, the brake will help transfer weight to the front wheels, which is quite literally the only way you’ll get a FWD car to turn on gravel. At the same time, if you don’t pick up some throttle, you’ll simply come to a graceful stop. Gas keeps the momentum up, therefore you’ll be balancing both pedals and optimizing the weight distribution. If you pick up some understeer, use a little more brake. If the slide is getting out of control, pick up more gas—transferring weight off of the front tires to straighten everything up.
Most of the turning on gravel is done with your feet. Your hands are just there to balance it all.
Brake HARD… but not TOO hard
Part of the issue I faced in my debut rally was braking too harshly—not on entry, but in the center of a bend. I wanted to get the weight over the front tires to get rid of the understeer, so dabbing the brake mid corner was the right thing to do.
But because of the mud, I was locking the wheels (and not just the rear). This meant I’d shoot off the side of the road like a former teammate of mine often did (his last name begins with M, by the way).So, when touching the brake to increase rotation, be careful not to stab it too hard.
There’s a reason gravel drifting looks effortless in videos, and it’s because those that are good at it remain incredibly smooth. Every action is precise and deliberate. They never force the car to do something it doesn’t want to—they coax it, caress it.
Sliding a FWD car correctly on gravel takes more skill than simply booting the throttle, like you might in a RWD car. And so, in getting it right, FWD is actually more rewarding. It takes finesse, skill, and patience. Also, don’t simply yank on the handbrake every 50 yards. That’s cheating.
So give it a try (someplace safe, of course). Just because you have a Fiesta doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy bountiful skids. After all, Fiestas—even close to stock ones—make for badass little rally cars. As does the Honda Fit, I discovered.
That is, providing you avoid the ditch.
@Alex_Lloyd is Head of Content at Beepi, a radically transparent and easy way to buy, sell and lease cars online. A racing driver who competed in the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and the Indianapolis 500 four times, his column Three Wide is about the culture of speed.
Photo of the Fit, with permission, via Scott Rains