Drifting is one of the fastest growing automotive trends since.. Well, automobiles. Why drift though? Is it faster than grip racing? Or is it just than more fun?
In practice, grip racing will almost always be faster than drifting. All surfaces have a lower kinetic friction coefficient than their static friction coefficient, and the act of drifting simply doesn’t allow for the transfer of as much force to propel the car as grip runs can.
Now, before you guys yell at me and shove dirt rally in my face, there are notable exceptions to that statement. Rally is not the only place where some slide is faster than full grip, and there are some physics to tire compound and heat as well. The car in question also matters a great deal.
1) When Is Grip Faster?
Grip racing is when the main goal of the driver is to remain within the static friction coefficient of both their tires and their driving surface. Track days are a prime example of this type of racing, usually. Some professional versions of this type of racing include Formula 1, NASCAR, GT3, and more.
Now, keep in mind that I specified that this is during race day, not during qualifying rounds. I’ll go more into that caveat in a moment as well. However, when there are other cars around you, and you don’t have room for error, grip racing is absolutely fastest.
The setup for a car made to race grip is moderately hard suspension with semi-soft roll bars and soft dampeners. This allows for smooth, slow weight transfer, as grip racing is about keeping your weight on your tires, and a sudden jar of inertia could break you loose. This is a common setup for the racing mentioned above.
2) What About Drift, When Is It Faster?
Under very particular circumstances, drifting can be faster. Before we discuss that, though, we should define drifting. A drift is a purposely initiated slide, with the intended effect of gaining angle in your turn. Powersliding, on the other hand, is putting as much power as possible down when leaving a corner, and the rear end stepping out. We’ll talk about powersliding in the next section, when we talk more about Formula 1 and GT3 qualification. For now, drifting, and when it is faster.
Drifting is faster when there is less grip in the surface you’re driving on, when corners are tighter, and when gravity is more powerful than your car’s acceleration. When there is less grip in the surface, that is in examples like dirt and gravel rally. Instead of using tire grip as a rail, they instead use it as a thrust vector.
The aim in rally turning is to get your wheels pulling you towards the exit of the corner as fast as possible. There isn’t enough grip to reliably run straight through turns. Fishing out the rear end, or drifting, allows you to get those thrust vectors aimed much faster.
When corners are very tight and when gravity is more powerful usually happen simultaneously. In a hill climb event, drifting is often the fastest way through a corner. As you are travelling uphill, you can approach corners much faster than you normally could, since gravity is assisting you slow down in your turn. Drifting your car helps slow you down more, as well as getting your wheels pointed towards the exit. In this way, drivers can maintain their straight-line speed for longer, and achieve it much faster out of the corner.
3) Where Does Powersliding Fit In This?
Powersliding is, in essence, a combination of both grip and drift racing. Using modern physics concepts, and the gripping properties of tires, powersliding is the fastest way around a tarmac track. You’ll almost definitely hear grip purists claim this is wrong, but they are just misinformed.
In Formula 1 and GT3 racing, I had said before that grip was fastest. I also said that I specified racing, and not qualifying, for a reason. In qualifying runs for both these sports, it isn’t about beating the other drivers in real-time. The entire purpose of qualifying runs is to set the fastest lap time. The drivers are usually given three tries to get the best time possible, in order to qualify for the real race.
During these qualifying laps, you’ll frequently see powersliding as drivers exit corners. This is the fastest way to exit a corner, with some wheelspin. With the properties of modern-day tires, they tend to grip better once heated. The tires get relatively warm simply from driving, but having that little bit of slip in your driving increases both coefficients of friction. Depending on the tire and the amount of wheelspin, it is very easy to exceed your current static friction coefficient with a spinning tire’s kinetic friction. This property is why drag racers have a “burn box”, is to heat their tires before a drag race. Since there is no “burn box” for F1 or GT3, the sliding to heat tires is done during the race.
Why Isn’t This Used Often?
The reason this tactic isn’t widely used during races is because it is very easy to mess up. The human error in grip driving is medium, as if you lock the wheels braking, you can always let off and re-grab the brakes. If you power in a corner too hard, you can let off the throttle. With powersliding, though, there is no room for error. Too much power and you’re sideways in a wall. Too little power and you don’t get the spin you need.
While using the power-over technique to start sliding isn’t easy, it’s incredibly rewarding! It’s definitely the fastest of the ways to initiate a drift.
4) So, Which Should I Use?
This depends on where you intend to drive. If you are going to use a tactic on the street, I would suggest grip racing for three reasons. One, it’s legal to do, apexing corners in your own lane is completely legal. Secondly, though, it’s much easier to do. Most road-going cars don’t have the horsepower, and most drivers don’t have the experience to consistently powerslide at the right rate to increase grip. Thirdly, DOT-approved road tires don’t have the same physics properties as racing slicks do. Heating a road tire doesn’t always generate a high enough kinetic friction coefficient to surpass your usual static one.
If you’re going to be driving on loose surfaces (such as dirt, gravel, snow, and mud), then drifting is faster. This is much more difficult, though, as how a car handles on each surface is unique to that surface. Make sure to learn over time and practice your techniques, or your car may end up in a ditch. The reason I recommend drifting on dirt is that the rules of tarmac, where your tires don’t heat properly, don’t apply here. Rally isn’t about heating your tires to increase grip, you’re using your tires as thrust vectors. You can do that with a DOT-approved street tire in a similar manner to a WRC car.
I will almost never recommend someone use the powersliding technique until they’ve been racing for many years. If you’re set on learning this method, though.. Make sure you know your car, know your track, and know your tires, and know your conditions. One wrong move, and you can total your car, not to mention cause damage to yourself and the area around you. If you’re used to drifting, start by going wide at the end, and then thin your angles until you’re almost straight at the end of the curve. If you’re used to grip, then start with a grip run and slowly add more and more power as you exit your turn, letting the rear step out just a little bit, and then practice controlling that.