I’ve been very fortunate in recent years to have been given the opportunity to race in the BRSCC Formula Ford Championship. It’s allowed me to race at a variety of British tracks and has given me access to a few high performance road cars such as the featherweight Lotus Exige and the portly but powerful E60 BMW M5. I was very grateful to have been given these opportunities because I knew that due to financial pressures, they wouldn’t necessarily last.
I stopped racing in 2013, and although I’d only spent a couple of seasons in single seaters, it helped develop my driving skills immeasurably. Due to my racing experience, many of my friends and colleagues have asked if I can drift. In fact, I think quite a few of them expect me to be the Keiichi Tsuchiya of TeamCT (in fact it’s actually our resident intern Milky Diamonds). Maybe that’s because they think that all racing drivers have the innate ability to fling a car sideways and hold it on the lock stops like a hero. But racing never really teaches you to take a car beyond its natural limits. There’s a few reasons for this.
Firstly, racing is expensive and you don’t want to take more risks than you need to. Explaining to the team boss that you’ve bent the car because you were trying to powerslide out of a chicane won’t go down well! Secondly, racing cars, and Formula Fords in particular, have no steering lock. Get the car a few degrees sideways and you’ll most likely end up facing the wrong way. And finally, you rarely get the opportunity. This comes as a shock to a lot of people, but on test days you simply don’t have the time to hoon about. You’re paying a lot of money to be there (or your rich benefactor is) and you have a limited amount of track time.
So how do most racers like Kevin Magnussen learn how to go sideways? Well, racing teaches you a lot about car control. You have to be able to take the car to the edge of its operating window. You get a feel for where the limit is, and how to correct the car if it starts to get out of shape. The key to a fast lap around somewhere like Oulton Park is keeping the car dancing through the fast corners in a controlled four-wheel drift, just on the limit of adhesion. Then, as the tyres go off you have to work with the changing balance of the car. Learning how to ‘feel’ what the car is doing certainly helps when learning how to drift, but it only gets you so far.
Most racing drivers actually learn the art of drifting through the opportunities that arise outside of their racing duties. I mean, if you watch Lewis Hamilton drifting a road car you’d think he’d received some sort of god given drifting gift. But he didn’t always posses those unique skills. There was a great article written some years ago by Autocar which sought to find out who was better at going sideways, journalists or racers. Lets just say a young Lewis didn’t fare that well! Ultimately it’s PR press days, working as an instructor, and having access to cars which aren’t theirs that allows them to hone their craft.
But for racers like myself on a low budget, those opportunities are few and far between. So when I found out that Toyota would be running a ‘learn how to drift’ event at the 2015 Goodwood Festival of Speed I was all over it. I mean, that’s what I call marketing done right!
Due to work commitments, my girlfriend and I could only make it to the FOS for the Sunday - I would urge you, if you are a fan of getting up close and personal to the cars, avoid Sunday at all costs. The event is packed and getting access to anything is a chore. It’s more of a family day out than an enthusiast’s choice. But because we knew it was going to be busy, we hotfooted it across to Toyota and managed to secure a place on the drifting event.
We were escorted to the back of Goodwood House by some very helpful Toyota staff where we were greeted by a couple of good old fashioned Land Cruisers. We were then taken on a short drive down to the iconic Goodwood Racing Circuit (If Heineken did racing events…) where Toyota had set up a small skid-pad surrounded by a selection of GT86s. Perfection.
I let a few other people go first so that I could see what the grip levels were like. After watching a few runs (and spins) I deduced that the wet tarmac had the adhesion of black ice, perfect for some low speed slides, but tricky nonetheless. When it was my turn, I have to admit I felt a little nervous. I had spoken to my instructor Richard, who was a fellow Formula Ford racer, so he expected big things!
I got my seating position sorted and was determined not to spin on my first attempt! As I got to the first turn I gave a sharp stab of the throttle which brought the rear around, I turned into the slide and tried to sustain it as long as possible before I brought the car back into line. I was pretty happy with my first attempt! I tried again and again, getting a bit more angle each time, whooping (internally) with a determined joy. With my confidence increasing, and knowing that I didn’t have a lot of time in the car, I gave it a bit more throttle. Unfortunately this led to a slightly embarrassing and oh so predictable pirouette. I was finding the handwork quite difficult - the term, ‘sawing at the wheel’ comes to mind.
We pulled over for a quick pep talk where Richard explained that the reason for my over corrective approach came down to my time in Formula Ford. He explained that he did the same thing coming from karting, because your instinct is to not let the car get too much angle, and to turn into the slide quickly. You have to get used to letting go of the wheel, allowing the car to get big angle, and then balancing it on the throttle. I put this into practice and instantly it was a lot easier. Allowing the steering wheel to run through my hands as the car stepped out, without applying an immediate input was difficult, but the more I did it the more I got comfortable.
By the end of the session, I felt I was getting the hang of this drifting malarkey and we decided to see if I could complete a transition, the holy grail of sideways fun (even if we were only in first gear). So, I prodded the throttle pedal, allowed the steering wheel to run through my hands, and caught the slide. I then balanced the car with a surprisingly limited amount of throttle, jumped off the gas and onto the brake, turned sharp right and allowed the car to come around and, again, balanced it on the throttle! It wasn’t perfect - I’m not the next Chris Harris, not by a long shot - but I was overjoyed knowing that I could do something that I’d been watching journalists do for years.
Later in the day another driver from Toyota gave me a demonstration run and showed me how it should be done. Her car control was impressive; she was completely at ease behind the wheel and her inputs looked effortless. There is nothing better than sitting beside someone who has truly mastered the art of drifting. It dawned on me that I still have a long way to go, but I have certainly been bitten by the drifting bug!
After years of learning how to drive the quickest line around a track, I now see what I’ve been missing out on. After some convincing from my colleague Melike I think I need to take it to the next level. What about a Car Throttle trip to Ebisu? Who’s coming…