Almost every car on the road has the engine up front, under the hood of the car. Very few sports cars, and even fewer economy cars, feature an engine placed behind the driver (Previa, I’m looking at you!). This engine placement is seen quite frequently when you get to supercars and hypercars, however. If this layout is good for high-performance cars, wouldn’t it be good for drifting too?
Mid-engine cars can absolutely drift, sometimes even better than front-engine cars. While it’s not impossible to find a Grassroots drifter in a mid-engine drift car, there are no mid-engine vehicles in Formula D currently. However, the weight distribution is similar to that of an EV, and there are EVs in Formula D. With the C8 Corvette’s release, we may be on the brink of having our first mid-engine FD car.
(FOR ACRONYM REFERENCE: FR stands for Front-engine, Rear-wheel drive. MR stands for Mid-engine, rear-wheel drive. EV stands for Electric Vehicle, and both FD and Formula D stand for Formula Drift, the highest-level drifting competition)
Swinging a mid-engined car around is almost completely different than a front-engine car, though. If you’re a pro drifter, having only driven FR cars, getting into a MR car will feel very different. Granted, pro drifters will generally adapt faster, but the point is the feel of FR is vastly different to that of an MR setup.
Problems With Mid-Engine Drifting
Like front-engine cars, the mid-engine chassis has its own host of issues. Whether it’s cooling the engine, front-end plow, or even transmission location, there’s bound to be issues. That’s just cars, though, any car is going to have some issues. The difference isn’t in the severity of the issues, or even the frequency, just that they have different issues.
With the mid-engine design comes a large change in the weight distribution of the car. This design may be better for acceleration and handling, but requires a careful driver to do so. Taking the Toyota AW11 MR2 for example, it has a weight distribution of 43%/57%. With a 14% weight bias towards the rear, a lot of the grip on the front wheels is lost. Even more of this grip is lost under acceleration, due to the natural weight transfer of the car.
As you can see in the video, his wheels are cranked to the left, but since he’s accelerating, his car doesn’t have the grip to turn. It certainly doesn’t help that the pavement is extremely wet, and that he was already moving straight forward before he tried to turn!
You’ll feel this issue most while accelerating out of a turn during a drift. Most of your weight will be on the rear wheels, so any sudden input on the steering will cause them to slide as well. Making much slower steering inputs will help you spread the force of the transition out over a longer time. Having better front tires will increase your grip all around, including in off-balance scenarios.
The easiest way to avoid this issue altogether, though, is to lightly tap your brakes right as you begin to turn. You don’t need to lift off the accelerator during this, it’s okay to have both on at the same time. This will transfer some weight back to the front wheels, giving them more grip for cornering. This is useful for both racing and drifting, since very similar weight transfer techniques are used in both motorsports.
Many mid-engine car owners will preach their issues with “snap oversteer” in their cars, instilling fear into those who haven’t driven an MR car. They’ll tell you that all the weight over the back of the wheels caused it to grip up and send them into a wall! While it may be true that their cars had “snap oversteer”, that’s almost never by fault of the car. A car is simply a machine, one that does what the driver tells it to do. If someone who does club racing in an S2000 were to get in an MR2, they’d probably complain about this too.
The issue of snap oversteer isn’t solely the fault of the car’s engine placement. While the engine being over the rear wheels moves the center of gravity back, that doesn’t cause it to snap. The suspension geometry is a more likely culprit, especially on stock springs (which were soft). The most likely culprit, however, is a driver treating their MR car like a FR car by starting their countersteer too late, or using too much steering input.
The solutions to this “issue” are just as easy as the oversteer solution. Swapping a set of racing coilovers into your car is the first solution, helping with body roll as well. The easiest, and most effective, way to solve this issue is by quickening your steering inputs. Front-engine cars are forgiving since most of their mass isn’t being flung about when oversteering. Mid-engine cars have a majority of their mass in the rear. Any steering input that isn’t perfectly timed, or isn’t executed quickly enough, will cause that mass to shift around. Once that mass is off-balance, any wrong move can cause the car to either spin out, or “snap oversteer”. Just be smarter/quicker, and this won’t happen!
Good Luck Repairing It..
Front-engine cars have a much easier time being maintenance, with the entire hood opening, and access from both the top and bottom. Mid-engine cars, however, are much more difficult to service. The underside of the engine usually has the transmission and lots of structural bracing. The access hatch on top is generally either small or inconvenient, with insufficient room to do many repairs or modifications. Rear-engine cars don’t suffer from this as much, since the entire rear clip can be removed for much easier access.
Pros of Drifting Mid-Engine Cars
Mid-engine cars, like front-engine ones, have their upsides too. Between their rear weight bias, their superior moment of inertia, and their tendency to carry tunable engines are all major upsides. Some FR cars have tunable engines as well, but the first two benefits are exclusive to mid and rear-engine cars. Rear-engine cars are very closely related to mid-engine cars, both having their engines behind the driver.
The primary difference is the placement of the engine relative to the rear axle. Mid-engine cars will have their engines in front of the rear axle, where rear-engine cars’ engines are behind the axle. This means the car’s weight distribution will be further rear-biased, and the drive system will be mounted reverse to a mid-engine vehicle. Neither of these characteristics are inherently bad, just different. Wheelstand-based drag cars tend to be this layout if possible, such as early VW Beetles, and some very custom vehicles. The El Camino’s long, empty bed is a good place for an engine. Long, flatbed trucks are also good candidates, as are school buses (that’s not a joke!).
High Rear Grip
With the engine positioned near the rear axle, a lot more of the car’s weight is on the rear end of the car. On average, 50% to 70% of an MR’s weight will be on the rear wheels, which is good for drifters! This means you’ll have more mechanical grip to the ground, making for a much more responsive platform. The more mechanical grip you have, the less you have to rely on tires to get a good bite at the ground. You’ll be able to inflate your tires more, getting more life out of them, reducing the amount of money you spend on new rubber.
The more natural bite your car has on the ground, the more your inputs are going to affect it. As I mentioned previously, an MR needs a quick driver, since the car reacts so quickly to their inputs. Once executed correctly, however, this car is incredibly agile. Formula Drift cars run setups that attempt to get high rear wheel grip, which is exactly what an MR setup has! If the pros go after it, you know it’s good.
Moment of Inertia/Momentum
With the center of mass in an MR car being so far back, this makes for a very nimble car. When a car turns, the rear wheels only have to pivot, the front has to move a great distance. If the engine were in the front, all that mass would have to be shifted. In a mid-engine design, however, it can just pivot, reducing the energy needed to turn the car.
Another benefit of having a rear-biased mass is the momentum. Taking long, sweeping drifts requires a lot of momentum to carry you through. If all your weight were in the front, it wouldn’t be travelling as fast, therefore not carrying as much momentum. An engine in the rear has to travel a much larger distance while drifting, allowing it to carry much more energy through a turn.
Conclusion: Is Mid-Engine Drifting Better Than Front-Engine?
It’s usually very difficult to call one design “better” than another. This is an exception to that rule. With an experienced, smart, and quick driver, a mid-engine drift car will out-perform a front-engine drift car of the same spec. The only potential issue with this design is cooling, especially at low speeds. Utilizing two side-mount radiators would help alleviate this issue, though.
The technology exists to make a far superior drift car to those we see today. But due to the skill required to handle a mid-engine vehicle whilst sideways, it is unlikely we’ll ever see a full conversion from front-engine vehicles. Front-engine cars make more sense for automotive manufacturers to produce as well. With a much larger market for FRs, cheaper manufacturing costs, and significantly more practicality in daily life, the MR can’t hold a candle to that. While it may be the superior racing and drifting layout, it makes for a rubbish daily car, compared to an FR.