Anatomy of circulation: what makes a car an ideal driver?

Porsche 911 2019 - tracking side

Porsche 911 is the appeal of the king

We all recognize incredible conversion when we experience it. But defining this elusive quality is more difficult. We ponder the question

White Porsche 911 angles into a turn. It's a quick corner, the top end of third gear, but instead of gently coaxing it into the top, driving its mass and lowering the loaded tire into a clutch circle where longitudinal and lateral forces trade forever on the clutch, the driver abruptly raises and then flattens the throttle. Instantly the car pulls to the side.

He wants to spin, but the driver catches up with the fast-moving steering tail. But no attempt at recovery has been made. Instead of the legs standing down, the tail remains, now towing a red-hot ball, spraying rubber particles. But he still considers the top and still finds a way out before making a straight line and howling farther up the straight line. A few minutes later, his driver slows down the car, stops in the pit lane, rolls down the window, and says for someone to listen: "Now that's what I call handling."

And I suspect that neither you nor I would truck with that. But just because it's true doesn't mean it's the whole truth, or, as I'll strive to show, even a lot of it. What follows is my attempt to describe what the handling really is - and for the most part it has very little to do with the dreaded Gemini's oversteer and understeer - and what qualities need to be developed into a car in order to deliver this.

At its core, appeal doesn't measure a car's ability to skid while its tires melt, but something much simpler and more precious: the car's ability to follow the driver's instructions.

If this sounds like a statement of the obvious, then you are on this chassis of the engineers of the world, whose efforts fail in such a simple matter. To see what I mean, take the car to Tikhoy Pyaterochka, apply what you judge to be the necessary steering lock to negotiate and not move your hands. Normal speed is normal. Will it go where you thought you pointed it? If that's the case, can you keep lapping saying a constant-radius roundabout without moving the steering wheel? If the answer to one question is "no", then your car will not be where you want it to be. He does not follow your instructions.

You'd be surprised how many machines can't do this apparently simple task. When I first started doing this job over 30 years ago, I was trained in this particular phenomenon by none other than former Formula 1 driver, teammate Jim Clark and car columnist John Miles; I was amazed at how accurate and inaccurate most normal roads were. In the years that followed, cars got a lot better as chassis structures gained stiffness, suspension became more sophisticated and tire sidewalls bent less, but in the modern era of electric steering systems where the traditional "feel" is all but eradicated, combined with variable-ratio racks that give different results for the same input by not only the angle of rotation, but also often at speed, knowing exactly where you're showing a ton-a-bit of fast-moving metal gets harder again.

But there are elements, even more than, and how often they were wrong. Take a humble steering wheel. Just think, for a moment, what he must do. It must interact with the other components mentioned above (structure, suspension, wheels and tires) and, if the car is handled predictably, be as linear in its actions. But it also needs to be properly oriented: too slow and you'll be circling your arms and fidgeting, and if the car is slipping, it will take longer to catch. But too fast and the car will feel terribly nervous, even in a straight line, and when it slides you will need more precision in order to catch it. It also needs to be properly weighted for reasons, I don't think it needs to be explained, and both on- and off-center.

What's this? Not even close. The wheels must be positioned in such a way that even rather oddly built drivers can place it where it is convenient, where it is not obscure tools, and in a way that allows the car to be driven by the wrists and elbows rather than from the shoulders with straight arms. It must also be properly angled. Yes, it's true that Stirling Moss used straight arms to spin circles around the opposition and Minis steering wheel mounted on London bus corners, but even the best rules have their exceptions.

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What about wheel size? Less more sporty, right? Possibly, but it also makes the car more difficult to steer, which is why Porsche and McLaren use fairly large wheels. That is, the rim itself, its thickness, its squidgyness (if there is such a word), the material with which it is broadcast… so the steering wheel is not only the wheels: it is the main interface between the driver and the car, and if any of these elements are not hurt the handling of the car to which it is attached.

We can take things even further. Forget the road, the car steers, its clutch or the limit of the balance and just ask yourself: Can you see this damn thing? One of the legacies left from Gordon Murray's McLaren F1 is that all McLarens made greenhouses today are like bowl goldfish. And when you're in a car that's wide, low, and fast, having enough vision to place it exactly on the road is not only soothing and relaxing, in a very real sense, but it also makes for better driving. I drove a Lamborghini Aventador SVJ last year right after the McLaren 720s category and I found the Lambo immeasurably harder and intimidating to drive - not because it was faster, because it wasn't, but because compared to you looking out at the world through a mailbox.

There are other important details as well. What is placement like a pedal? If the car is mechanical, can you heel and toe under both light and heavy braking? How do the brakes feel? If you catch yourself thinking about your car's brakes, there's almost certainly something wrong with them. Are the pedals directly in line with the seat? If instructions, where is the shift lever? Ideally, no more than the width of the splayed arms from the steering wheel.

About what kind of security systems? How obsessive are they, is there an intermediate sport setting and does it really make a difference? Can you separate the traction and stability control, can you turn off all the hardware altogether when the time comes and it comes again if, say, it detects a certain amount of slip from full ABS?

The car's handling also shouldn't fundamentally change in speed or load, although it almost always does, even these days with computer-controlled damping. You don't want the car to dangle all over the place the moment you're trying to corner quickly or load your family and camera, but the amount of roll, pitch or roll the car can exhibit is of little concern as long as the movement is properly controlled. On the other hand, a car that is so tethered to the springs that it doesn't move at all is likely to be deflected by bumps, bumps, and changes in the road surface that do nothing for reliability.

Which finally brings us to the limit of the thing. For me, the amount of raw clutch a road car can produce is not very exciting. In fact, and often, this gets in the way, because it makes little sense to give a Great car a balance limit if that limit is so far away that no one will ever reach it. Also, the faster you go, the faster things happen, which can create all of your own problems. That's why cars like the Alpine A110 and the Toyota GT86 have been as praised for the easy access they afford their limits as they are for their behavior once you've arrived.

So how can a car analyze and over the limit? Of course, different specs apply in different configurations - a car's frontwheel drive will never oversteer under normal conditions - but it doesn't matter if you're sideways at 100 mph or negotiating dodgy multi-story, the car should always do what you expect.

This means that, within reasonable limits, the speed at which the car slides is nothing like as important as the speed of that slide. In Iota, if the car glides quickly, but in a perfectly linear fashion, it will be much easier to catch, operate and enjoy than a single rate of change of slip which is based on the slip angle. This mid-engined car will tend to slide faster than a front-engined car, but as long as the slip speed is manageable, this isn't a problem. In the 30s of our British driver's car competition, a mid-engined car won more than front- and rear-wheel drive cars combined.

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Once the slide is caught (and assuming it's all done on schedule), then the car should allow the driver to resolve the issue in order to restore, save or extend the said slide. And if the choice is to be restored, the steering, tires and suspension must work together to ensure the chance of overcorrection is minimized.

So my little picture, what questions, at least to me, about the path, the road of the car. But I ended up as I started by repeating the only rule that really matters: regardless of price, power, size, and intended use, if a car behaves the way its driver desires and hopes, it's a superficially goodhandling car. If it's not, it's not. Just.

Great-car handling

Citroen 2CV6: The genius of the interactive independent suspension and the low center of gravity provided by the flat formations of the engine is made for unbelievably good, if visually dramatic handling.

Ferrari Dino 246GT: not the first mid-engined car, but the first to retain proper control of its rear end when it ran out of grip, thanks to its superb steering and not much sticking.

Panther Solo: vegetating a host of other issues, the first car to marry all-wheel drive with a mid-engined layout offered marvelous balance and superb steering while it lasted.

Caterham seven: For over 60 years, the Caterhams and their Lotus 7 predecessors have been proving that when it comes to handling, there is no substitute for weight maintenance.

Porsche 911: even early on, which got a bad rap because people hadn't learned how to ride them yet. From a slow, fast approach, the 911 has amazing handling.

Not so great transport processing of cars

Chevrolet Corvair: the rear engine and primitive swing suspension gave such an unusual appeal that Ralph Nader wrote a book about it. It was called unsafe at any speed.

Ferrari 348: probably the car with the meanest rear end I've come across. It glided pretty nicely at first, but shifted more than a few degrees and it was gone. And disappeared.

Rover 213: a more slavish head-to-head plow nose I can't remember though, perhaps because I'm not old enough to have tested the Morris Marina. A very dark disc.

Ford Sierra Cosworth: Surprised? You wouldn't be if you were driving wet on Dunlop D40s. Without a car, I experienced a greater gap between dry and wet roads.

Fast Audi showrooms and estates: some were better than others, but all spent too long immersed in 50 shades of understeer. A little more balance would be great.

Big-handling car for £10,000

Toyota GT86 (from £9000): stiff and soft at the front and tires from a Prius mean not much grip and a bunch of the most easily controlled skid imaginable.

BMW M3 (E46) (from £8000): with a howling straight-six at one end and a brilliantly steered axle at the other, this is one of the most balanced BMWs ever, and a full bargain today.

Honda Integra type R (DTs2) (from £8000): imported officially in 1997-2001, many say it is the greatest handling front-wheel drive car. And they still bargain.

Mazda MX-5 (from € 2500): any MX-5 will do, as long as it's been looked after, but I prefer the originals and Mk3 over Mk2. Condition is everything, so be prepared to pay more for the right car.

Peugeot 205 GTI (from £4000): (1.6) is widely regarded as the greatest hot hatch of all time and one of the most exciting handling cars you can buy. Many have been mods, so the story is critical.

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