The philosophy behind drifting is very simple – get your rear end to lose grip as you corner. This ensures that the tail end of your car swings out and attempt to overtake the front. Your job, as the driver, is to apply the counter steer and catch the slide before the car spins around.
From a physics point of view, it is therefore important for a drift car to have a heavily front-biased grip distribution. This allows the car to pivot about its front axle as the lively rear end swings out. The handbrake turn comes about from this principle, and this can be effectively applied to cars of any drivetrain configuration.
However, to sustain a drift, you need to continuously send a flood of torque to the rear wheels and ensure that they do not find traction, and this is where the need for a rear-wheel drive setup for drift car comes in. You can get a front-wheel drive car’s rear to swing out, but at the end of the day, you still need twist going to the back if you want to keep the slide.
It all sounds absolutely easy on theory, but as always, the doing part is a bit more complicated. This is especially true for drifting, if, as a driver, you are used to ensuring you have maximum traction to power you through corners. Drifting involves deliberately breaking traction, and calls for the driver to do things that go against his or her natural instinct.
Recently, we were invited by Goodyear Malaysia to take part in a drift clinic at Putrajaya organized by Team Goodyear Malaysia drifters Ariff Johanis and Jane Cheah. Although the clinic was held as a build-up to the Goodyear International Drift Series held last weekend which Ariff and Jane also participated, our tight schedules have pushed the publishing of this story back a little.
No matter. The idea of the exercise is to introduce to us some basics behind the sport of drifting, which would give us a better perspective the next time we cover and comment on drift events. What we managed to learn on the day were merely basics, though they were not in anyway easy.
Like any good driving class, the drift clinic lesson started with Ariff giving us tips on getting into our proper seating position. These are the same tips you will get in any driving class, and believe me when I say it is very important you get this right before you twist the key.
These tips apply in all driving conditions, and I encourage that you use them in your daily driving as well. If you drive a manual car, like we did, ensure that you sit close enough to depress the clutch pedal all the way. Your seat back should be adjusted to the inclination that, with your shoulder rested firmly against it, your wrists can touch the top of your steering. This sitting position ensures that all of the relevant controls are within easy reach, and once you adopt to it, it is very confidence-inspiring on your spirited drives.
The drift clinic was split to two half-day sessions of five journalists each. Three cars were made available for the day, all of them Toyota Corollas – an AE86 flanked by two KE70s – all powered by the venerable 1.6-litre 4A-GE engine in varying states of tune and, err, condition. We were all told to pick our cars and then drive off within the confines of the parking lot to adapt to their characteristics.
I hopped on board the stripped-out ’86 complete with an aftermarket tacho, roll cage and ‘Goodyear Racing’ strips emblazoned along its flanks. Its clutch and gear change were easy to operate, though its non-power steering rack took some getting used to. Heel-toeing of the brakes and accelerator was impossible, but completely unnecessary for the purposes of drifting. Right here is the early indication that smooth driving techniques should be momentarily abandoned for the purposes of our exercises today.
The first exercise of the day was remarkably simple. Accelerate down a short straight, depress the clutch, turn-in, and pull the handbrake. Because our exercises were done in low speeds, it’s possible to pull this exercise off doing each of those steps one at a time. Problems come when you try to do everything at once without the proper coordination, or pulling the handbrake at the wrong moment. You need to feel the weight transfer on your shoulders before yanking (and I mean yanking) the handbrake.
During the course post-mortem, Jane remarked to us that in drift competitions, the handbrake maneuver is usually used when approaching corners at high speeds. Because this technique naturally shaves pace off the car, it is only preferred when the car has built-up sufficient momentum in order to be able to sustain the slide over a long bend.
Next, we went on to the next method of dumping the clutch to induce a power oversteer. This is the technique which rear wheel drive is required. The same course as the handbrake turn is used, but this we approach the corner at a slower speed, and depress the clutch whilst still on the straight. As you turn in, the engine must be kept boiling at high revs, and once you feel the weight transfer, dump the clutch. This forces a sudden avalanche of torque to the rear wheels, overwhelming rear traction and causing the rear end to swing around.
As you can probably imagine, this is a more difficult technique to adopt compared to the handbrake turn. While I had no problems dumping the clutch, I also had the unconscious tendency to release the accelerator to compensate. The result, my car cornered with perfect lines without breaking traction. Fail.
Another problem is that if you dump your clutch at the wrong moment, i.e. before you feel the weight transfer, you will end up getting understeer instead. Once understeer sets in, you will not be able to kick the tail out.
It eventually turned out that the ’86 I was driving had a worn clutch, so even though I stomped on the accelerator, getting its tail to step out wasn’t at all easy. After swapping into one of the KE70s, I was eventually able to get a couple of runs right before having to make way for the other participants to try.
Up till now, the exercises were all done in right-handers. The next exercise was to simply repeat the first two in left-hand turns. Sounds easy? It’s not, because your perspective has changed, although the steps remain the same.
The fourth exercise of the day was an attempt at doughnut turns. Once again, the theory is simple. Go slowly round a cone in a constant radius, and suddenly dump power to the rear wheels. From there, continuously modulate your steering and throttle to go around the cone in a sliding motion.
It took me a few tries to get it right, because to get started, circling the car around that cone at a constant radius is a task that sounds a lot easier than it actually is. I got it right once, and at that moment, my vision was fixated on the cone. The cone was the only thing of relevance in my world at that moment, and everything else was just revolving around it.
We went on to the figure ‘8’ towards the end of the course, which I must admit to not having too much success with. Therefore, it was to my great surprise that in the free run, which cones were randomly placed around the training ground and we were asked to drift in freestyle, I was ranked first amongst participants of the session – earning a pack of chicken rice as my reward.
Some of you out there might be tempted to go and try out these techniques on your own. We don’t particularly advocate that you do so, but if you are insistent, we suggest that you find a big empty car park which gives you plenty of room for error. Also be warned that wear & tear to your car will be accelerated, so if you’re looking to get yourself into this, spend money to keep your car mechanically tip-top. Drifting as an exercise is demanding for both man and machine.
Believe it or not, the whole exercise left us with the same level of sweat and shoulder aches as a full-blown gym workout. I did not underestimate the level of technical competence required, though I was caught off-guard with the physical demands as well – we were, after all, driving non-power steering cars without air-conditioning. At the end of the day, however, it was all very satisfying. Chicken rice never tasted so good.