If you have watched Top Gear, then you will have seen endless footage of priceless supercars being subjected to a royal pounding. Smoke billowing from the wheel arches as burning rubber churns at the tarmac. The car yaws perilously sideways but maintains a surprisingly predictable course through the corner, assuming the nut behind the wheel doesn’t run out of talent.
The phenomenon of ‘drifting’ has been the stuff of Hollywood legend ever since Steve McQueen climbed aboard a Ford Mustang in Bullitt and proceeded to paint rubber across the San Francisco cityscape.
If you’ve mastered the doughnut, then you’re ready to drift because you’ve just been doing it. The easiest way to get started is to link two doughnuts together to form a figure of eight, but before we get into that, here’s some background.
Drifting as a cornering technique developed in rallying during the 1960s after some Scandinavian drivers shared their frustration with traditional cornering methods that were painfully inadequate on snow and ice. Their epiphany was: ‘Vee do it sidevays!’
The conventional style of navigating a curve as quickly as possible had always been to brake in a straight line, release the brakes and turn in the direction of the corner. The trouble with ice was the tyres couldn’t offer enough traction to overcome the car’s forward momentum. The fronts just washed out at low speed, and you missed the corner. There lay the secret.
The Swedes discovered out a way to make momentum work for them and it was as easy, in theory, as swinging an axe. They arrived at a left-hander with the car skidding and pointing in the opposite direction to the corner, the prompt for most people to abandon ship. Then they steered hard left, effectively over-correcting the slide and the car’s tail swished across to the other side with enough lateral momentum to propel the car around the curve. With the centrifugal forces that previously worked against them during the entry phase averted, temporarily, the car entered the corner at higher speed. Now the problem was keeping it there.
To keep it from falling off and embedding itself deep inside a Swedish pine, these Viking drivers had to counter the force running down the length of the car’s body. The key lay beneath their right foot and by nailing the throttle to the rug it produced enough driving force to counter the pull of gravity. It also accelerated them out of the corner faster than the conventional cornering method.
Tommi Mäkinen, a four-times World Rally Champion, explained that perfecting this took ‘at least two years, and many, many cars’.
By skidding sideways under braking in the opposite direction to the curve, the tyres dig into the surface and slow the car more effectively until you reach the turning point. Then you swing it towards the corner and use the pendulum effect to catapult you around it. Assuming that your face isn’t already smeared across the roadside, the car points towards the corner, enabling early acceleration.
This style of driving dominated world rally competition for years. In Japan it developed a cult status, as the heroes hammering the treacherous mountain pass at Touge (toe-geh) began tuning their cars to exaggerate the sideways handling way beyond anything performance-related. By that point it was all about style.
There are various techniques for initiating a drift. Each creates an abrupt loss of traction to the rear tyres and you have to be incredibly fast with the steering to control it. So fast, in fact, there are times when it’s better to let go of the wheel to allow it to spin through your fingers and catch it again when you have the correct steering angle.
The methods are:
As you approach the corner, pull the handbrake to lock the rears, aim towards the corner and throw the car into a drift. Once it’s sliding, you fling the wheel over and drive on the throttle. As soon as you’re controlling proceedings with steering and wheelspin, the handbrake returns as a control feature for advanced drifting. When you want to cut power but retain your angle of yaw, you apply the clutch and pull the handbrake in the corner. This allows the driven wheels to stop turning, and the car will drift around a tighter arc. Then you reapply the power to maintain speed and momentum through the corner.
As you approach the corner, you drop a gear and instead of rev matching or gently releasing the clutch pedal, you deliberately allow the revs to drop and pop the clutch just as you steer in. The sudden take-up of engine braking puts enough shock through the rear axle to break traction and pitch the car sideways as you steer. However, this technique can be unreliable and you lose speed.
Another option is the ‘clutch-kick’. Rather than letting engine braking do the work, you clutch in and accelerate to boost engine revs. With your foot hard on the gas, you steer in, pop the clutch and the sudden acceleration creates enough wheelspin to send you sideways.
The clutch-kick is used multiple times throughout the corner to maintain wheelspin and yaw angle. You keep the throttle pinned and rapidly kick the clutch in and out as many times as you need to defeat grip and trim the drift.
If it’s got an engine, it can drift. Everything in the book up to this point has been about managing weight transfer to produce maximum stability and grip. Now the objective is to disturb the weight so that it overcomes rear traction and the ‘flick’ is the primary tool in the drift box of tricks.
You approach the corner with slightly too much speed for a conventional entry, breathe on the brake to shift weight off the rears onto the fronts and then initiate a pendulum turn. That is, you steer towards the outside of the corner and then rapidly twitch it the other way. The rampant weight transfer causes the rear to skid, and then you stamp on the gas to hold it sideways.