Autos Managing Editor Grant Yoxon and Senior Writer Paul Williams learn to handle oversteer on the skidpad (Photos by BMW Canada).
By Grant Yoxon
I think I’m a fairly good driver. I drive cautiously. I always leave plenty of space between myself and the next car. I look ahead scanning for danger, planning my escapes. Yet this winter, I braked on a Queensway on-ramp to slow up behind a slow moving car that I didn’t see soon enough and came face to face with my worst fear, a dramatic rear wheel skid that threatened to turn my car 180 degrees in the opposite direction.
I did what I had been told many times before and turned into the direction of the skid. But when the car did not respond, I kept turning, my eyes wide and fixed the whole time on the object of impending doom, the snow clogged ditch on the high side of the ramp.
I managed to regain control, not because of any driving skill on my part, but simply because of good fortune and enough room to wildly fishtail all over the ramp without hitting anything.
I decided then that I needed driving lessons. No, not basic how-to-drive lessons, but lessons that would teach me those rarely used skills – how to control the car when the car is out of control.
Paul and Grant wait their turn to put new knowledge into action
So I signed on for a day of driving lessons with BMW Canada’s Advanced Driver Training program. Offered in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver from April to November, BMW’s Advanced Driver Training Level One is a one-day foundation course that focuses on inner city driving. The course covers the fundamentals of good steering, braking and handling under a variety of taxing situations. BMW also offers more advanced courses, but level one is a prerequisite.
The level one course consists of an hour of classroom instruction, followed by exercises in braking, obstacle avoidance, and solving rear wheel skids (oversteer) and front wheel skids (understeer). A fleet of brand new 2003 BMW 330i sedans is used.
During a break in the day’s activities, I talked about my winter driving mishap with chief instructor Pierre Savoy, an experienced driving instructor and racer who has worked with David Spenard Racing School, Jim Russell Racing School, Porsche Cars North America and BMW Canada among others.
“You were looking down the hood and not where you wanted to go,” Mr. Savoy told me, noting that I wasn’t looking far enough ahead to anticipate the situation in the first place.
The crucial role of vision was a recurring theme throughout the course. “The eyes tell the hands what to do,” Mr. Savoy told me and 19 other students attending the course during our classroom instruction. “Look where you want to go and you will steer there.”
Class room instruction also cured our bad habits inside the car. We were taught how to sit behind the wheel (legs and arms slightly bent), how to hold the steering wheel (at the 9 and 3 o’clock positions), and how to turn the steering wheel through quarter, half and full turns (hand over hand).
Before we could solve driving problems on the course, we had to create them. The BMW 330i sedans were equipped with an electronic systems on-off switch. Turned off, the cars were without anti-lock brakes (ABS) or dynamic stability control (DSC III) systems.
We were able to experience first hand how long it takes to stop a car under full panic braking from 30 kilometres per hour and 60 km/h. Double the speed and a car will travel nearly four times further before stopping. With the front brakes locked in a panic stop, steering control is lost. Turning the wheel does nothing, the car continues straight ahead. We learned how to ease up on the brake pedal to allow the front wheels to turn – a technique called threshold braking – and regain steering control. We also discovered the benefits of ABS – electronic threshold braking that allows you to brake hard and steer at the same time.
Even so, we were cautioned by Mr. Savoy, “if there is time, brake first, then steer. If not, steer first, then brake once the car is straightened out.” Braking, when a car is unbalanced, should be avoided at all times.
In obstacle avoidance, the importance of looking where you want to go, became paramount. Our task – to steer a car at 60 km/h through a small opening, less than half a metre wider than the car and at a 45 degree angle to the direction of travel. Complicating the exercise we had to decide whether to go left or right based on a light that could only be seen in the periphery of our vision. “Impossible,” I thought.
“Don’t look at the problem, look at the solution,” Mr. Savoy urged. And when you look at the gap, rather than the obstacle or the light, the impossible became not only possible, but easy.
Next up was understeer and oversteer. With the 330i’s dynamic stability control turned off, it was easy to induce front wheel and rear wheel skids on a watered down circular skid pad. Solving the problems was not so easy until we learned to look where we wanted to go. But the hands do what the eyes command and very quickly everyone in the class learned how to recover from “terminal understeer” (plowing off course with wheels locked left or right) and oversteer situations that had many of us spinning 360 degrees.
With BMW’s DSC system turned on, it was nearly impossible to induce understeer or oversteer, demonstrating just how accomplished these electronic active safety systems are.
BMW’s Advanced Driver Training level one course costs $480 for the day. But consider that you will spend more than $20,000 on a vehicle that may last from five to ten years, $480 seems like a small price to pay for skills that will last a lifetime.
To learn more about BMW Advanced Driver Training visit www.bmw.ca on the web.