Understeer, Oversteer? Or Right Down The Line?

An interesting debate on Twitter recently amongst leading Formula One photographer Darren Heath, Evo journalist Richard Meaden and GT Porsche’s Stuart Gallagher stimulated a train of though for us. Darren Heath was commenting that many motoring writers are obsessed with oversteer shots and questioned it, the main thrust being to ‘stop driving like thugs and just drive fast.’ He has a point. It’s nothing new, but I’m blaming a combination of Ken Block, Top Gear and the whole ‘drift car’ movement.

Of course, everyone likes to see a car driven at the maximum of it’s capacity. And we all know that understeer just looks ‘wrong’ and it feels even worse. But the endless images and videos of cars driven with tyres smoking at a rate that we all know full well will see them lasting just one or two laps maximum, steering on full lock and the car visibly slowing down. That just doesn’t do it for us.

Sometimes, oversteer is not an option...
Sometimes, oversteer is not an optional extra…

Sometimes in my view there is a degree of self congratulatory driving by some journalists and indeed, why not? Who wouldn’t want a shot of themselves looking like a Scandinavian rally hero. Even if it is at a far lower speed than potentially possible and only for 1/250th of a second? But surely, the best drive stories aren’t just about the guy in the drivers seat hooning around a hairpin bend. And we’re hoping here at Historic Racer, that’s not what you want to endlessly read about either. Powerful writing influences on me from a younger age are people such as the great Russell Bulgin, LJK Setright, just because he was so different. And Dennis Jenkinson for that amazing report on his Mille Miglia beside Moss. Plus I would be remiss to not mention the encouragement I received from a friend now passed on, aviation journalist and P51 Mustang expert Paul Coggan.

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Four Wheel Drive - wheels dead ahead...
Four Wheel Drive – wheels dead ahead…

The very best stories convey what it was like to be there. They put you in the jump seat, looking over the driver’s shoulder. In recent years, some magazines seem to have developed a trend towards what I consider a “Me, Me, Me” style of journalism which comes across to the readership as, “Look at me doing skids on Route Napoleon, racing round the ‘Ring…” I don’t think it’s the current financial climate that’s made readers spot this, rather that there’s a difference between ‘Look at me” and “We both enjoyed this, didn’t we?” I’ve written on my personal blog about this previously, you can read it here.

But back to that original understeer / oversteer headline question. Do I think the best drivers drive with the wheels pointing right ahead, never sliding at all? Far from it. But all cars are different and drivers are too. Some drivers are happy feeling gentle understeer, the onset of an oversteer posture a feeling of dread. Others are quite happy with oversteer, the feeling that a car may not want to turn into a bend instilling cold sweat.

Ice Driver’s Andrew McKenna sums up how I feel quite well. “Many modern racing cars are designed to be driven at less than 100% of the driver’s ability. I’ve driven cars that are very quick, capable of pole setting times. But you felt yourself that you were capable of more. And yet when you try to push that bit harder, the lap time goes away. So for some modern cars, not all, the quickest way is to back off a little, which is frustrating for me. I’m of the opinion that a great car chassis lets the driver express himself and the quicker he goes, the more the car responds, an oversteer posture not showboating, just a sign that the car’s going so quickly, it’s running out of grip.”

So I’m not against oversteer shots, just a little less of the gratuitous tyre smoking. Like any great sportsman at work, the very best drivers don’t really look as if they’re making a huge effort. As they say on the other side of the Atlantic, “Your mileage may vary”.

Mr J Clark esq. Not breaking sweat. Copyright Michael Cooper
Mr J Clark esq. Not breaking sweat. Copyright Michael Cooper

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Author: Neill Watson

If you love the sound of the Cosworth V8 as much as the V12 Merlin, the smell of Jet A1 as much as Castrol R and admire the late Ray Hanna as much as Sir Stirling, you’ll find you’re both on the same page. Neill's love of art deco buildings means that his ideal home would be a brilliant white, 1930′s control tower in Southern France, with crisply mown grass, biplane parked on the driveway and a Ferrari 288GTO in the garage. This is something that those around him tolerate, though it does concern them from time to time.

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  • Good article. Raises good issues. I would only add from my vintage racing (Lister Corvette and McLaren CanAm car) that it was the same with the older cars. If you push too hard it is slower. Jackie Stewart said it best with his adage that smooth is fast.

  • Thanks for the comment, glad you liked the article. Two lovely cars you have there!

    Will probably write some more about this issue in the near futute, seems by my inbox that plenty of others feel the same way!

    Neill W