Drifting…

cerbera5_2_493fb552d6a8a-lightboxThe extra four years of 4.5 ownership (and all the adventures therein) meant I’d become even more attached to it. Another four years of depreciation also meant it wasn’t worth selling. So, somewhat bizarrely to some eyes, the Cerbera 4.5 was joined on 5 March 2005 by another Cerbera: the Boss Cerbera.

Heading up marketing at TVR had the benefit of the press fleet being under my control. With the UK’s media in the south, my home was a useful ‘hub’ for the press cars. A win-win scenario was being able to coordinate my commuting to and from Blackpool with press car movements. My own cars (the 4.5, the Boss or The Duchess) would get left at home or in Blackpool for return legs. It was quite an efficient system and from time to time, I would end up with as many as four TVRs at home. With traffic slowing or stopping outside, the house began to feel like a tourist attraction.

Despite access to the Boss and the two press Sagaris’, the fastest I ever did the Blackpool/Milton Keynes run was in the 4.5 – a coincidence of frame of mind on the day and favourable traffic conditions. The guys in Blackpool were somewhat shocked by my arrival …about an hour earlier than expected.

When I left TVR in June 2005, I extracted the Espada from storage and laid up the 4.5 in the Espada’s active storage space. The 4.5 was due a major service and, at nearly 8 years old, needed a bit of TLC to make the chassis pretty again. When the Espada went back into hibernation in the winter, the 4.5 came out and went to Silverstone Performance for “a thorough rodding out”. The service and repair costs quoted in my initial data panels were for this work. The ‘big’ 12K/annual service was £860 inc. the tappets. The list of other works included a new radiator, refurbishing the chassis (just cosmetic), replacing a broken headlamp glass, repairing a broken bonnet hinge, brake pads …and much else totaling another £1,000. I wasn’t in a hurry for it to be completed so it spent a few months as a ‘filler job’ at SP.

I picked it up in March to do a drift day at Silverstone. It was wonderful to climb back in after what had, including its period in storage, been about 8 months away. It was like we’d never been apart – that favourite pair of shoes feeling.

So, straight out of the workshop and round the corner to the South Circuit for my first serious attempt at the noble art of drifting. As a TVR driver for over 10 years, the concept of oversteer is clearly not an alien one. In fact, holding a reasonable drift isn’t either but ‘transitions’ (switching drift direction) were what I expected to have the most trouble with.

The Drift Academy does a course using MX-5s but also offers a ‘free practice’ area for £85/day plus one-to-one in-car instruction for an extra £25 if you want it. The free practice area, which I used, had bollards set out in a sort of peanut shape.

The Drift Academy instructor explained the basics: flick the car into oversteer, let go of the steering wheel for it to spin out to the lock stops, then re-grip the wheel and modulate the throttle to control the drift. This was some way from my expectation of dialing in a particular amount of lock and holding the loud pedal in just the right place.

My first attempt was to try it ‘my way’. It didn’t work, I spun out. Finding a sweet spot with constant lock and constant throttle is asking a bit much. So: I tried it the ‘proper way’. This way wasn’t a great deal better and I still spun out. I offered the driving seat to an instructor. He spun out too.

The Cerbera – in fact any TVR – has a very quick rack (typically about 2 turns lock to lock) and not a great deal of lock. Apparently drift cars have their steering arms modified to provide loads of lock. TVRs (except maybe the Sagaris) are softly sprung – drift cars are stiff. These reasons are largely why TVRs are notoriously hard to drift. Time to ponder what to do…

When I started racing I was given an explanation about car control that was like a Eureka moment. My crew chief said that cars have three steering controls: the steering wheel, the brake pedal and the gas pedal. I’d never thought of it like that before but this pearl of wisdom had a profound effect – all of a sudden oversteer and understeer became ‘tools’ of my trade. Provoking or neutralizing them with more or less gas and left-foot braking became concepts to practice and exploit.

I found my own way to get the Cerbera to drift. To start with I’d get the wheels spinning with a burst of throttle, perform a Scandinavian Flick to exaggerate the roll-oversteer, throwing the rear end out then wind out to opposite lock ‘manually’. Working the steering wheel AND modulating the throttle held a drift. My main fear at the start of the day was transitions because the soft suspension and roll-oversteer, in a fish-tailing situation, can cause a vicious tank slapper. In reality it wasn’t so bad. Sure, the flick from lock to lock was quite violent but the trick was to provoke it early in anticipation of the trajectory the car would follow. The less I fought the car and just let it slip where it wanted to go, the easier it got. In fact, when I became positively lazy and really relaxed (apart from the sawing action on the steering wheel and dancing on the gas pedal) I swear I could have gone around the peanut shape smoking a fag with my elbow out of the window.

My Eureka moment with drifting was to disconnect my brain from the spinning rear wheels. Instinctively, wheelspin provokes a sense of urgency, or panic even, if you don’t expect it, so screeching tyres and billowing smoke gets the heart racing. However, despite what the speedometer says, the car is moving considerably slower than its wheels. As soon as my brain was connected to the car instead of the wheels, it became MUCH easier.

Unsurprisingly, the rear tyres were shot by the end of the day so I gave the 4.5 back to SP “on slicks” and went home in The Duchess. While in SP’s custody, the 4.5 was then used to ‘model’ their new SP12 lightweight alloys for TVRs. More on the wheels and other improvements to the 4.5 next time.

 

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Phil James