FWD Drifting 101

So let’s say you have a front wheel drive vehicle because that made sense at some point. Actually, there are a lot of reasons FWD vehicles make sense.

  • Lighter
  • Cheaper to manufacture
  • Better fuel economy
  • More compact
  • More interior space
  • You got one as hand-me-down

RWD vehicles have several advantages too, but let’s be honest, the only one that really matters is power-on oversteer. Burnouts are good, dumb fun and drifting is a visceral mixture of beauty and savagery that is so instantly compelling that even non-car-enthusiasts find it engaging.

Oversteer

Sadly, you’ve got a FWD econobox and you can’t join the fun. Or can you? One of the common misconceptions about FWD vehicles is that they are a bucket full of understeer. With 65-70% of the weight of the vehicle on the front tires, FWD vehicles actually want to oversteer. They just need a little encouragement sometimes. Here are some of the ways you can do that.

  • Lift – Lifting off the throttle shifts weight forward. Ideally, all you need to get a FWD car to rotate is to snap your foot off the throttle in the middle of a corner.
  • Brake – Braking is an even more aggressive form of weight transfer than lifting. Brake too much and you’ll get understeer as the tires are using all their traction for deceleration instead of cornering.
  • Hand brake – Not only does the handbrake transfer weight forward, it also changes the brake bias so that the rears do more work. Even if the rear tires aren’t locked, they will have less lateral grip because they are using longitudinal grip for deceleration.
  • Flick – The Scandinanvian Flick is a dynamic way of swinging weight around. Not only are you decelerating as you turn, you’re also throwing weight to the outside.

Things that work in RWD but not FWD.

  • Throttle – Adding throttle will not overspin the rear tires. Instead, it pulls you out of a drift! No, no, no. Don’t do it.
  • Clutch kick – Spinning up the engine and then engaging the transmission is one way to reduce¬† traction as the wheels suddenly get power. In a FWD vehicle, that just makes you look like a chump.

2 Keys to FWD Drifting

The best way to create imbalance is to start with imbalance. Yes, FWD vehicles have more traction in front, but if it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing. The first key to FWD drifting is to put sticky tires in front and slippery tires in the rear. This is such an effective oversteer formula that it would be dangerous to drive on the street. It’s not quite skid plate racing, but it’s on that spectrum. If you drive around in a circle, progressively gaining speed, your rear tires will reach their adhesion limit before the fronts and the back end will start chasing you around. Alternatively, try braking as you enter a corner. Get ready to countersteer because you’re about to swap ends.

Getting the rear out isn’t hard, but keeping it there is. In a RWD car, you use a mixture of throttle and steering to hold a slide. In a FWD car, it’s steering plus brake. The second key to FWD drifting is managing your finite supply of momentum. The critical word here is finite. You can’t build momentum. All you can do is spend it. If you’re wasteful and spend that momentum all at once, you may pivot or spin, but you won’t drift. If you want a long drift, you need to bank a lot of momentum so you can spend it gradually throughout the drift.

  1. Enter the corner at high speed. No, even higher speed. This is your momentum bank.
  2. Use a mixture of light steering and light braking to create oversteer. You shouldn’t need the hand brake.
  3. Make steering corrections to prevent spinning. The corrections need to be fast, and possibly large.
  4. Go back to step 2 a few times.
  5. Finish the drift by yanking the car out with throttle. Bonus points for getting all 4 tires smoking.

If you can drift a FWD car, you can also drift a RWD car. The reverse isn’t true.

FWD Drifting: Part 2 and Cones in Practice

Last week I talked about some of the tuning and techniques for drifting FWD cars. Some readers may be asking “why bother?” Well, because it’s a driving skill. And if you can drift a FWD car, it will help you drift a RWD car. Inducing oversteer by dynamically changing the balance of the car is important regardless of which wheels are providing power. I shot the video below on the skid pad at Thunderhill between coaching sessions.

The first part shows an exterior view of some switchbacks. It’s sort of comical how slow I’m going and how little my car looks like a racecar. But even at slow speeds it will slide around corners. In the second part, the camera is inside the car. You can see that I don’t use the hand brake. The car oversteers by changing the balance of the car, not locking the rear wheels. It’s also set up with a lot less grip in the ear. The car has RE-71R tires on front at 26 PSI (cold) and Hankook runflats on the rear at 38 PSI (cold).

The next series of shots are what I’m calling point to point. It’s just going around two cones but with different turn radii. I start with a large radius and progressively shorten it. Which one do you think takes the least time? Back in December, I posted on this topic. See Cones in Theory.¬†If you don’t want to read that whole post, here’s the short version: I make the statement that path A takes less time than B, C, or D. That’s the experiment I’m performing in the point to point videos above.

I timed the various runs and indeed, the tiny radius is the fastest (path A). It’s also in a very bad spot in the power band. I’m driving in 2nd gear the whole time, and there just isn’t as much power when driving the tighter radii. But it didn’t change the outcome. Path A is the fastest way around a brace of cones.

FWD Drifting: Part 1

There are a lot of people out there who think FWD is not fast and not fun. Well, as an owner of both FWD and RWD track cars, I can say that I have just as much fun in a FWD Yaris as a RWD Miata. One of the big reasons to hate on FWD is that you can’t drift it. Drifting is cool. Delicately balancing a car as it swings around a corner looks and feels awesome. It’s not always the fastest way around a track, but it definitely looks the coolest. I’m not a drifter and I don’t really understand drifting competitions, but I sure do understand the fun. In the next couple posts I’m going to share my thoughts on how to drift FWD in theory and practice.

First off, drifting is simply oversteer. That term simply means that the front wheels have more grip than the rears. A better way to think about it is that the rear tires have little grip. There are several ways to create oversteer. Before getting to that, let’s talk about tuning. Most cars come from the factory with understeer built into the design. After all, it’s safer if cars don’t spin. To get your car to oversteer, you may need to do one or more of the following.

  • Turn off traction and stability control if you have it. This nanny can totally kill all efforts to drift.
  • Use very lopsided tire pressures. Fronts should be a little lower than usual and rears should be near maximum.
  • Use different tires front and rear. Fronts can be a typical 200 treadwear sport tire while the rears should be hard and skinny all seasons.
  • Tighten up the rear suspension with higher rate springs or/and anti-roll bar.
  • Increase the toe in the rear. Normally, cars are aligned to be toe-in (negative) in the rear for safety, but toe-out (positive) helps oversteer.

So now that you car can oversteer, how are you going to go about it? In powerful RWD cars you can mash the throttle and the tires will spin too fast to make good grip with the pavement. Hey, anyone can stomp on a pedal, that’s cheating. How else can you create oversteer?

  • Lift – The simplest way to lose rear grip is to quickly lift off the throttle. This deceleration will shift the weight of the car forward on to the front tires. Since FWD cars naturally have more weight on the front, simply lifting off the throttle can induce oversteer. Try going around a circle at the limit of traction and then lift. You will oversteer.
  • Brake – You can very quickly transfer weight forward by braking. Really, there isn’t much difference between lifting and braking in theory. In practice, they can feel very different because the brakes act on all 4 wheels while lifting works only on the drive wheels.
  • Scandinavian Flick – If you want big drifts, lifting and braking may not be aggressive enough. Not only do you want to transfer weight forward, but also sideways. To do this, you steer in the opposite direction to load the weight on what will become the inside of the turn. Then turn as normal and the shift of the weight from inside to outside will help break traction.
  • Decrease radius – The speed you go through a turn is determined by the turn radius. Larger radii have higher speeds. So if you turn the wheel tighter it has the effect of slowing you down. This transfers weight forward, which helps oversteer. But if you’re scubbing the front tires because you turned the wheel too much at the start, turning it more won’t do anything.
  • Hand brake – Grabbing the hand brake shifts the weight forward and only applies rear brakes. It’s almost like it was made for drifting. That said, I generally don’t do it. It seems like cheating to me. Also, you could flat spot tires by locking them up. You can get all the oversteer you want without the hand brake.
  • Clutch pop – Another technique I don’t do. Seems like it puts unnecessary wear on the car. On the other hand, try coasting around a corner and then pop the clutch. It can spin you (more so in RWD). If nothing else, this is a reminder not to pop the clutch.

Once the back end of the car is coming around and you’re pointed farther into the corner than necessary (that’s oversteer), what next? First, you have to do some counter-steering to prevent the car from spinning. Frankly, this takes a lot of practice to know exactly how much. Second, don’t hit the throttle. This will transfer weight to the rear wheels and kill the drift. This is where FWD and RWD are really different. You set up the oversteer the same way: by moving weight to the front and side. However, throttle improves RWD oversteer and kills it in FWD. So you have to be patient and wait until the oversteer is mostly over before adding throttle.

Here’s my thought process as I grab some FWD drift.

  1. Drive in an arc to keep the suspension loaded on one side
  2. Turn the opposite direction in a decreasing radius
  3. Snap off the throttle
  4. Drift initiated
  5. Countersteer
  6. Wait for it
  7. Keep waiting
  8. Patience
  9. Throttle it out and recover

Tune in next week for a demonstration…