Unless you have a car that is purposely adapted purely for circuit use, the road is the natural habitat for high-performance cars. Using them safely on the public highway, however, takes some care and skill as well as the willingness to adopt the right attitude and approach to the task.
Track Cars Hate Roads
Track prepared cars are invariably hideous on the road, being far too compromised to work properly in an everyday environment. Having driven a few race prepared cars on the public road, it soon loses its appeal as you hop and skip from bump to bump, blurring your vision while you are struggling to hear your own thoughts. Performance road cars, however, especially more modern ones, are set up and developed to operate in the compromise that is the real world. They are designed to work effectively and safely in what is a highly compromised environment.
Not so long ago, I was very fortunate to be able to spend some time on the road in a Ferrari 488. Of all the things that could and do impress me with that car, its ride quality was not one I expected. It is a very serious, stiffly sprung performance car, and I expected the aforementioned blurred vision, however, in a demonstration of just how far the chassis engineers art has developed, the 488 rode better and coped with surface imperfections and even potholes better than a Bentley. Despite looking and sounding like a racing car, it was very much designed with the road in mind.
The other side of the coin is that often you find that what are seen as quite hardcore cars, feel soft and cumbersome in the circuit environment. The Porsche 911 Turbo is a great example, an epic road car that copes well on track but quickly starts to feel a bit soft and relatively slow-witted. To a degree, this is even true of more track focussed road cars. Porsche engineers spend a lot of time with the 911 GT3 on the road and actually give away a chunk of track performance to ensure that the model still performs well day to day.
The Driver on Track vs Road
Driving on the road then presents a very different set of problems to circuit driving for a chassis engineer, so the development process for a high-performance road car reflects that. Cars have to be adapted so that they work properly and in harmony with their intended environment.
The same is absolutely true for us as drivers as well. The principles may be the same, but there is a big difference in the way they are applied.
Let’s have a look at braking as an example. On track, a quick driver will regularly brake using pretty well all of the available grip, the aim being to shed speed in the shortest distance possible. To do that well takes a lot of practice, skill and feel for what is happening.
A good road driver, on the other hand, will use the brakes sparingly, using good judgement and anticipation to fine-tune their speed on approach to corners and hazards. It actually takes just as much practice, skill and feel to do well.
However, slowing the car down is only one function of braking, as the brakes also transfer weight to the front of the car, meaning that both good track drivers and good road drivers can use that phenomena to their advantage by settling the car, or by creating a little extra front end grip to aid turning.
Once into a corner, the similarities continue. At this point, a car, whether driven to its limit on a racing circuit or negotiating a winding B road, wants to be left alone. What a driver is looking to do here is to balance the car using a touch of the throttle. If you imagine travelling at 40 MPH, you need just enough power to maintain that speed. The car is neither accelerating nor slowing but is balanced.
The Final Process
The final part of the process is also very similar in that the cue to begin accelerating away from the corner is the point at which you begin to straighten the steering. On track, the aim of a driver is to keep the car as close as possible to the grip limit, so acceleration will be as firm as the tyres allow. On the road, though, a good driver will be assessing the environment ahead and only using the appropriate amount of throttle. In both cases, though, timing is a vital ingredient. Too much power while still steering and you will quickly go over the limit of grip and in to a skid. The throttle needs to be applied at the same rate at which the steering is reducing.
Listen & Feel Your Car – It Keeps it Happy
So, many of the principles of driving, in basic terms, apply wherever the car is. Your job as a driver in any environment is to keep the car happy and balanced while listening to and feeling for any messages it is sending back to you. Any car will only do what you tell it, but with a high-performance car, you need to make sure you are definitely telling it the right things. You need to be smooth and progressive with all of your inputs because sudden movements will translate into the car, and you may get an outcome or behaviour that you weren’t expecting.
With powerful cars, you also have to be very mindful of the road surface as it can have a detrimental effect on your ability to go and stop. Damp, uneven or loose surfaces, when combined with stiffer suspension and wider tyres, can make life difficult, so smoothness is important and make sure that you are not overlapping braking, cornering, and accelerating.
The biggest difference, however, when using a high-performance car on the road is you have a duty of care to everyone else, and that needs to be your priority. Learning to handle the car properly to be safe will always pay dividends, but learning and adopting the right mental approach and attitude is the most important.
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Created by Richard Bott – Drivers Domain UK Advanced & Fleet Driver Trainer and Track Expert.