For any gearhead, understeer and oversteer are regularly used terms when discussing their car’s behavior. Perhaps they use the terms “push” and “loose,” respectively, when chatting about how their car slides at speed, but it’s all the same, really. Flirting with the limit is part of driving fast, and learning how to manage these states, as well as learning when they’re preferable, is required learning for anyone hoping to become a class driver.
Understeer: How to Manage Push and Using it to Your Advantage
Understeer is probably the first form of sliding a driver will encounter when they start. When the front tires lose traction and begin to slide across the road, thereby limiting the amount the driver is able to turn into the corner, that’s understeering. This is the result of too much speed, poor weight management or an excessive amount of throttle in a front wheel-drive or all wheel-drive car.
It’s solved by a tap of the brakes, a reduction in speed or throttle. Of course, being too aggressive with the steering inputs is a way to accrue “push,” so smoothing the application of steering lets the tires take a set and get a greater purchase on the road. Understeer is comforting for some, and an effective means of breakaway in fast corners.
Understeer is predictable and, at high speed, much more manageable. For quicker races on the ovals, a little understeer is better since, if handled well, it means better tire conservation and a better lap average. It also allows the driver to put the power down efficiently, which generally translates to quicker speeds out of the corner, which is, in my opinion, more valuable in fast corners. It’s not set in stone, however, and sometimes cornering with a little oversteer is the best means around.
Oversteer: Getting Loose for your Benefit
Oversteer isn’t always the easiest to manage, but it is fun and, generally speaking, the faster way over one lap. Of course, when the rears light up it means traction is limited, but that sort of behavior usually goes hand-in-hand with a nimble front end; cars more willing to point into the corner generally rotate more at the rear.
A quick dab of countersteering is needed to catch the slide, and usually an adjustment of throttle helps to restore grip at the rear. How to adjust the throttle depends on the car and the speed of the slide. If the slide is induced by weight shifting, sometimes it helps to add a little throttle to stabilize the back end, but if the slide is caused by too much throttle in a rear wheel-drive car, a soft reduction in throttle is the ticket.
Oversteer is always hard to catch at high speed, even if a driver has lightning reflexes. However, it’s often faster. The problem, however, is just that it’s very difficult to drive a car with lots of oversteer fast and consistently; eventually it will bite. There’s a reason why small slides on the ovals turn into spins so frequently.
Where oversteer is useful is in the slower corners, where the driver should put an emphasis on rotation into the corner over traction out of the corner. There’s more to be gained by pointing the car in the right direction in these slow bends, and since a little countersteering can be managed in them, it’s often the way to go. It’s for this reason that cars on slippery street circuits or on rally stages work best with a little oversteer. Though they might theoretically lose a little time in corner-exit acceleration, it’s a reliable way to get into and through the corner quickly, which is, in my opinion, the best approach for slower corners.
Of course, a good driver will contend with both axles sliding at different times in different corners. The best know how to deal with these almost subconsciously. Where it gets tricky is when tire wear or vehicle balance changes over the course of the race and the driver needs to adjust their approach to get the most of their car. It’s no simple feat, but that’s why the best earn the big bucks!