Mastering The Drift: Understeer Vs. Oversteer


Mastering the drift - how do understeer and oversteer work?

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Not all cars are born with razor-sharp driving dynamics, massive traction, and the ability to go drifting at a whim. Every vehicle on the road tends to either understeer or oversteer under the right circumstances depending on factors such as drivetrain configuration, grip, speed, steering input, and driver skill. For the majority of drivers on US roads, the effects of oversteer and understeer will rarely be felt, especially when speed limits are adhered to and traction control systems are left in place, but knowing how to react in the event that understeer or oversteer does take place could save you from injury and expensive vehicle repair bills. In this piece, we'll be discussing what understeering is, what oversteer is, and how you can prevent or take advantage of going beyond your car's grip limit.

Understeer Vs. Oversteer

Understeering into a tree and oversteering into a lamp post are both caused by a loss of grip at the tires. Understeer occurs when the front tires lose grip, while oversteer is caused when the rear tires lose grip. Let's take a look at what drives understeer, how to correct oversteer, and everything in between.


What is Oversteer?

Oversteer tends to take place when powerful rear-wheel-drive cars' rear wheels lose grip. Once the rear tires lose grip, the back end of the car will travel quicker than the vehicle's nose. This can feel as if the rear of the car wants to overtake the front of the car. If we have to define oversteer in technical terms, we'd say that the rear end slip angle is higher than the front end slip angle. The converse is true for understeer.

Oversteer might be terrifying for the inexperienced driver, but those who have watched any sort of performance motoring TV shows or movies such as The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift will understand that controlled oversteer can be lots of fun and looks pretty cool too. The entire sport of drifting is based on a car's ability to oversteer and the driver's ability to control that slide or drift as it is most commonly referred to.


How to Correct Oversteer

Whereas understeering affects the front wheels, what causes oversteer is a loss of grip in the rear and is often described as the rear of the car wanting to overtake the front during cornering. Oversteer is what one typically sees in movies and on car shows such as Top Gear, where the rear end comes out and forces the car into a slide. It's easy to convince powerful RWD cars to oversteer by simply punching the throttle and sharply turning into a corner, but the same effect can be achieved when the driver brakes too hard when turning into a corner or by completely coming off the brakes during a sharp turn. This is known as lift-off oversteer and can be experienced by front-wheel drive cars.

  • To correct oversteer, it is recommended that one turns into the direction the car is sliding towards, pointing in the direction of your intended line.
  • Once this has been applied, the rotation of the vehicle will slow down or completely stop. This pause in the rotation is a critical point: no further correction is then needed.
  • Once the rear tires regain grip, the rotation will end, and the car will straighten out very quickly. To maintain control, the driver must undo the "corrective" steering angle at the same rate as the vehicle comes back into a straight line. This whole process is referred to as CPR (Correct, Pause, Recover).

What Is Understeer?

Understeering is arguably more predictable and therefore 'safer' but can still land you in a sticky situation if you don't know how to control it. What causes understeer? Well, when the car is traveling too fast, and the front wheels lose grip first - this will push the nose of the vehicle to the outside of the corner you're turning into, or in slippery conditions, you will see the car barreling in the direction you're traveling while rendering the steering useless. Understeer is most common on front-engined, FWD cars, and certain AWD cars, but certain RWD cars can still understeer.


How to Correct Understeer

The first thing to do is reduce the speed at which you are traveling by lifting off the throttle (don't completely let off). If you're hard on the brakes, you can also reduce pressure and steering angle input. These actions may sound counterintuitive, especially when a traffic light pole or indigenous bear is looming, but these tips will give you the best chance of correcting understeer before it turns into a traffic circle tragedy. On a race track (in an RWD car) you can also often correct understeer with a burst of power.

Cars That Love to Drift

Drifting is one of the most popular forms of motorsport globally, and it all revolves around some of the best sports cars oversteering in a controlled manner around a track. These are some of the most popular drift cars around.


The All-Wheel-Drive Conundrum

AWD cars can also understeer and oversteer, but correcting either is a whole lot more complicated than in RWD and FWD cars since all four wheels are powered.

Managing oversteering in an AWD car depends significantly on the power bias: how much power is sent to the front and rear wheels will determine if you correct oversteer like an FWD car or RWD car, which can be confusing to even the most experienced drivers at times.

However, AWD cars are typically known to understeer, and clever throttle and steering work will minimize this issue. If you have tons of power on tap, understeer can quickly be turned into some four-wheel drift action with a punch of the throttle, but your margin for error on the road you're on needs to be greater as AWD cars need more space and tend to react to throttle inputs less quickly. Fortunately, correcting understeer or oversteer in a properly sorted AWD car can be as simple as pointing the wheels in the correct direction and mashing the throttle.


Which is better: understeer vs. oversteer?

As we've learned, there is a big difference between understeer and oversteer, but which one is best? For the significant majority of drivers, understeer is easier to control. Many manufacturers design their cars to understeer on purpose for this exact reason. Some experienced drivers prefer vehicles that are able to oversteer, and many enthusiast cars such as the Toyota 86 are engineered to be easily controllable in an oversteer situation.

How do I make my car understeer less?

There are numerous ways of eliminating understeer in FWD cars, including maintaining the correct tire pressure, getting a good wheel alignment, adding a larger sway bar to the rear, using stiffer rear springs, and sometimes even removing your front sway bar if you have one.

How do I make my car oversteer less?

To lower the tendency of your car to oversteer, it is recommended that one reduce the rear ride height, slightly increase the rear toe-in, reduce the rear brake bias, soften the rear roll bar, or reduce the rear damper compression stiffness.

Is drifting an actual sport?

What started in 1970s Japan soon became popular in the USA; drifting competitions hosted in the late 90s in California eventually prompted the founding of Formula D in 2003. It is now recognized as the premier North American professional drifting championship series, and is taken seriously as an automotive sporting event, as much as drag racing, gymkhana, and even NASCAR.

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