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Is a heavier or lighter car better for drifting?

Engineering Explained: How To Build A Drift Car The Wrong Way

If I was hired to design a drift car on a budget (prior to having a discussion with Ian Stewart, RTR Drift Team’s technical director), my thought process would probably have gone something like this:

More weight on the front wheels means they’ll have more grip to help control the drift. It also helps prevent the car from completely spinning around, as the front weight likes to remain forward. On top of this, less weight on the rear wheels means they’ll be easier to spin.

Rear-Wheel Drive
For obvious reasons; you don’t really want an explanation, do you? Although it can definitely be done with AWD in the right conditions, it heavily reduces the need for massive amounts of opposite lock.

Stiff Rear Springs
Keep in mind, the goal is controlled oversteer. Stiffening the rear suspension increases the rear slip angle under cornering, and this induces oversteer. With stiff rear springs, in addition to stiff rear anti-roll bars, body roll will be kept minimal so the suspension geometry can maintain an ideal state.

Hard Tyre Compounds
Having a hard compound for the rear tyres will once again allow for the rear slip angles to exceed those of the front. The front will maintain grip for control, while the rear will easily spin. That’s exactly what you want, right?

High Rear Tyre Inflation Pressures
The formula is kept simple once again. We’re trying to allow for the rear tyres to spin more easily. For the same reason that hypermilers hyper-inflate their tyres for low rolling resistance, we want to reduce friction as well. More pressure means it’s easier to spin.

What do you mean, drift?

Now if I gave the above logic to a professional drifting team in a job interview, I’d be ask to leave the room immediately and it would erupt in laughter as I closed the door (story of my life). While it might appear to make sense to you and I, much of what I’ve told you above is terrible advice if you’re planning on drifting professionally.

My focus above was attempting to make the front of the car easy to control while making the rear of the car induce oversteer more easily. Unfortunately, all I did was reduce rear grip. Performance is taken away. The car is now undeniably slower and handles worse in almost every way. Ah…

What Are The Pros Doing?

Soft Rear Springs
A softer spring rate means more mechanical grip. The goal is to make mechanical grip as high as possible. Why? Because with more grip, the car can perform drifts at higher speeds. This isn’t entirely intuitive at first, but it clicked quite well in my head while I was watching the pros at Evergreen Speedway attempt to drift in the rain. There was no traction so the drivers had less control over the car’s behaviour, the cars were spinning out frequently, and above all else they were driving quite slow (though as fast as conditions allowed). Quite frankly, the rain made things boring.

Wide, Soft, Sticky Tyres
Just like everyone in motorsport, these guys want grip. Wide sticky tyres are perhaps the biggest part of this equation. Compound is key, but teams are limited to street legal treads in Formula Drift, and often this is dictated by sponsorship. You’d see wider, stickier tyres if it was allowed. Grip is key, as again, it gives the driver more control of the angle — if the angle is too great, lifting off the throttle will reduce the angle as the tyres try to grip up. If you have non-grippy tyres they’ll just keep spinning, no matter what you do.

Super Low Rear Tyre Pressures
Vaughn Gittin Jr’s team wouldn’t give specifics (the mysterious art of drifting) but after having discussions with various teams around the speedway, I don’t think seeing as low as 15psi in the rear tyres would be out of the question (maybe even lower). I do know that even the front tyres of Gittin’s Mustang are lower than a stock Fastback, and that the rear tyres are significantly lower pressure than up front. The rear tyre pressures are low enough that even with the added heat from spinning, they won’t approach the pressure of the front treads.

Technically, It’s Fun

Ride Along With Vaughn Gittin Jr.

Of course, there’s way more to a fine-tuned drift machine than just the rear springs and tyres:

Suspension Tuning
RTR Drift Team uses soft springs to start, but the fine tuning of the suspension is done with dampers and beefy roll bars. Both are adjustable, and changes will be made depending on the course and conditions. Bars and springs dictate how far the body rolls. Dampers dictate how long it takes the body to move over. •

Steering Angle
The angle the tyres can point (as well as the Ackermann geometry) plays a big role in the dynamics of drifting. You can actually control the speed of the car through the steering angle as well as the brakes. The more sideways the car gets, the more it slows it down since forward thrust is decreased. As your car gets more sideways, you’ll need more steering angle to be able to compensate. There’s certainly a balance of finding the right drifting angle for each corner and each car’s setup, but having the capability of a very large steering angle will allow for minor corrections while driving as well. Though Vaughn Gittin Jr. doesn’t run into this territory, apparently some teams can rotate the tyres to as much as 80-85 degrees of steering angle. Again, at these angles it becomes more of a tool to correct a drift or make a correction under tandem driving, as the high angle will slow the car significantly.

LSD or Spool
Different strategies will be at play here, but ultimately the power needs to be able to reach the tyre with the most traction. LSDs and locked diffs make sure that all the power gets put down and that both wheels spin simultaneously.

Though some teams do use aerodynamic bits to improve their vehicles, Gittin Jr stays away for two simple reasons. First, the vehicles are commonly at speeds low enough that aerodynamics are unnecessary. Second, as the vehicles often travel sideways, the aerodynamics would need to be active to take advantage of the angle the air is approaching at, so the benefit of a fixed wing is minimal.

Still curious about drifting? Check out the video below for more about a Mustang with a better power-to-weight ratio than a Bugatti Veyron SS.

Drift car setup and tuning

drift car setup

For drifting you must have a rear wheel drive car or a four wheel drive car which has most of the power going to the rear wheels.

Assuming you want to go into drifting on a budget you will need a car you can afford to break and repair easily.

You will have lots of crashes, and mistakes when you are starting out so something rear wheel drive, like a BMW or older cars like the classic Ford, Nissan, Toyota or even an older American car will have a ready supply of cheap parts.

The only essential modifications for drifting are the Diff and suspension. Obviously weight reduction and increasing the power output of the engine would be nice but on a budget and while you are learning these are unimportant.

Patience, steady control and very deliberate slow throttle and steering controls are the difference between hacking a car around and drifting.

Drift Limited Slip Differentials (LSD or slip diffs)

Let’s look first of all at the Diff (limited slip diff or LSD hereafter) and what it does. Imagine you have a pencil with 2 cotton reels on each end. When going in a straight line both cotton reels rotate at the same speed.

But when on a curve the reel on the outside needs to rotate faster than the inner reel otherwise it will just be slipping over the surface and not gripping.

The LSD in a car sends the driven power proportionally to the wheels with more going to the wheel that needs to rotate a greater distance. The drawback of having a Slip Diff fitted is that when one wheel has no grip and spins all of the power goes to this wheel.

It is something you’ll notice if you have one wheel in snow or mud and the other on a grippy surface leaving you effectively stuck. On a fast road you can get a sharper turning circle and put down more power if you moderate the rate of power going to each wheel.

An LSD is exactly that and is usually specified as a ratio.

For drifting you need a locking diff (or permenantly locked) that encourages the back to slide over the road helping to prolong the duration of the drift.

An adjustable diff will give the best of both worlds but can prove very expensive and is not something available for most cars so go with something like a 2 way diff with 4.788 final drive ratio.

On a track or road the LSD will make a big difference to lap times and cornering speeds especially in low grip conditions like wet roads or when you are really hammering the engine so if you intend to do some track work get a slightly higher ratio diff.

Drift Suspension Settings

The second area we shall consider is suspension modifications and setup for drifting and you will find detailed articles on TorqueCars tuning pages if you want to go into more detail on suspension tuning.

For drifting you don’t really need much negative camber, just lower it to get rid of body roll stiffen, unless you’re going to use the car exclusively for drifting.

Most use a slight toe out setting on the fronts, of around 1.5 to 3 degrees but this varies according to car and drivers preference. It will keep the front planted and give a fast turn in.

As a rule, the more camber you roll on, the sharper the turn in will be.

The idea of camber is to keep the tire flat and in contact whilst cornering and without camber the edges of the tire will lift up under cornering reducing your grip.

When you are starting out the body roll can actually give you a wider margin of error as well as reducing your overall control of the drift.

Anti roll bar & sway bar stiffening, strut braces, poly bushes and firmer springs are worth considering but again not essential.

As you get better you will be able to set up the suspension to suit your personal driving style and preferences so if you go for an uprated suspension kit make sure it is adjustable or you will need to go out and buy another set of springs and dampers later on.

Front Wheel Suspension Mods

The front wheel geometry also needs to be adjusted for optimum drifting.

The standard steering lock on most cars is not quite enough for pro level drifting, so fitting a new front suspension kit, a camber kit and adjusting the steering rake/angle will also help you to pull those angles.

Because each cars steering setup is different we can’t go into specifics here as this is a general tuning guide, but ask in our forums and our members are sure to point you in the right direction (literally).

Please avoid camber plates, wobble bolts and spacers, these are ok in most cases for street cars (with some debate over safety) but on a drift car they are much more likely to fail as they are put through a lot more stress.

Let’s look at the AE86, a legend in the world of drifting.

The Toyota Corolla AE86 is becoming the classic drift car of choice.

They are a really good starter car for drifting the power band is just right, nicely balanced.

They cost a fortune to buy now. I would stick fairly standard and go for lightening the car — this has better dividends in drifting.

If you wanted to spend a bit of money we spoke with an AE86 drifter and asked about his AE86 setup.

He says, «Fantastic for drifting is the Toyota Corolla AE 86 (Hachi Roku — Japanese for eight six.) and I recommend a limited slip diff 2 way with a 4.778 final drive ratio.»

He also added an APEXi SAFC II fuel controller too. To get more power from the car an engine swap was done and his selection of engine for drift competition use:- An AE92 big port engine (red top) TODA cams 304/288 duration 8.5mm lift.

Mated to TODA adjustable cam pulleys, NGK R plugs, OER Quad throttle body kit with pipercross or K&N Filters.

Exhaust — Trust DD exhaust.

Tein coilovers at the front but on the rear use something like the TRD’s blue SS 8 way adjustable shock.

Stick on some 9×14 in rims with 185/60/14 Yoko A539 (Check the tyre size I’m not too sure of that for those rims but for drifting you certainly want a tight fit to the rim!)

Pre-requisites for a drift car build project

There are a few things to bear in mind that should be regarded as fundamental to drifting.

  • Any RWD rear wheel drive car can drift! Some cars nonetheless are easier than others to drift in.
  • The greatest drift cars are rear-wheel drive or have a 4WD system that can be switched to RWD.
  • A locked slip diff will be a tremendous aid in sustaining a drift and should be considered an essential (you may weld the diff to lock it, rather than buy a new locked differential)
  • Both Short and long wheel base automobiles are suitable.
  • Power is not essential but it really helps. Power to weight is more important though.
  • Stiffened suspension with more negative camber at the front than the rear.

Moving along from the minimum indicated above it is useful to accomplish weight reduction

Lighter cars accelerate more quickly and have superior handling.

The car’s responsiveness will be improved by lightening it. Removing side glass and replacing with Perspex, taking off the chairs carpet and all other unnecessary equipment replacing panels with carbon fiber.

Clearly, removing the seats, carpets, radio, seat belts, headlining, and air conditioning reduces the family car to an unworkable daily hack.

However, adding a couple bean bags for the children to sit on will not significantly increase the weight (Please note that it is neither legal or safe to seat your children in a bean bag in a car!).

Spare wheels add weight, therefore eliminating them should be a relatively simple weight reduction alteration.

You might think that with many modern run flat tyres, you may limp home without air in your tires, making the spare wheel obsolete. The trouble is that these tires are usually much heavier.

Weight savings will be further enhanced by the inclusion of a lightweight racing seat.

Lightening the vehicle improves handling and performance. To save significant weight, remove the glass windows and replace them with perspex.

While replacing windows with Lexan or Plexi saves considerable weight, the primary front screen should remain as safety glass for obvious reasons.

Numerous businesses offer replacement body panels made of aluminum, GRP fiberglass, or carbon fiber for maximum weight savings and robustness.

When you open up the bonnet of a car, you realize how hefty the panels are, and how much weight may be saved by stripping out as much metal as possible.

Carbon fiber bonnets/hoods continue to look fantastic, but make sure you purchase a high-quality fitment, as many panels are poorly constructed — always size the panel/bonnet/hood on the car before drilling and installing fasteners, etc.

Fitting a roll cage will add a small amount of weight to the weight you’ve saved, but it can literally save your life and improve handling by maintaining the car’s stiffness.

With a roll cage installed, you can remove a lot more metal from the automobile — side impact beams, inner arches, and panels — without removing any of the car’s structure.

Numerous additional metal components can be lightened by drilling holes in them, and if done correctly, they should retain a good deal of the structure’s stiffness. Alloy wheels contribute to further weight reduction.

Due to the rotational forces involved, lighter wheels result in improved handling when changing direction. Generally, most alloy magnesium wheels improve airflow to and stopping power of the brakes.

Door hinges and locks add weight as well, and can be removed if the doors are welded shut; the welding will also help reinforce the car’s body shell. When installing new parts on the automobile, it is worthwhile to weigh them and choose the lighter choice, especially for items such as brake pads and discs.

Numerous engine components are too heavy — alternators, water pumps, flywheels, and even pistons and blocks — so we are constantly looking for methods to decrease weight — we may appear picky, but saving 200g in five different locations cumulatively reduces weight by 1 KG. Specialist manufacturers produce lighter, more efficient radiators than the typical factory radiator.

Increasingly, traditionally cast iron components are being manufactured in lower-weight materials.

Don’t stop at the car; embark on your own diet (have you ever seen an obese guy win a race?

I anticipate a deluge of correspondence on this one!) — More information is available at

Engine Tuning for Popular Drift Cars.

Nissan seems to be popular cars on the drift scene, so we’ve covered engine tuning options for the following engines, which all make good transplant options.

Scroll to the bottom of the page and you’ll find links to the makes and models we cover, and it pretty much includes every car ever made now.

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