Are rally school courses any use for offroaders?
Of what use is a rally driving course to an offroader? Certainly it’s fun, but you’d have to wonder if there’s any practical application. The terrain may well be dirt, but rally cars are don’t spend a lot of time below walking pace. Yet the answer is that rally training is of immense value to offroaders, which is why I spent a day at RallySchool.com.au. That, and the fact it was fun!
Let’s start with two generalisations. The first is that any course, experience or tip that improves your car control in one type of driving will generally be of benefit in pretty much any other type of driving.
The second is that a technique entirely appropriate for one type of driving may be entirely inappropriate for another. The trick is knowing what to take from type to type, and that starts when you first get into the car.
When you’re driving a high-performance vehicle you want to be as securely belted in as is comfortable, and down low. This is so you feel as one with the car as possible, as you need to be correcting slides even before they’ve truly begun, and in general getting as much feedback as possible from every control you’ve got. By the way, the correct way to do up a five or four point harness is tighten the thigh straps first, then the centre if fitted, and only then the top straps.
The offroad driving position is a little different, and by “offroad” here I mean low-range, low-speed work, not higher speeds on dirt roads. When offroad the connected-to-car idea still holds, but it is more of an advantage to sit high so you can see the terrain as often you’ll need to be looking just in front of you. At higher speeds your focus shifts ahead, at 2km/h you need to be aware of what’s ahead but the problem in front of your nose probably demands more attention. You’ll also perhaps need to crane your neck or move your body around to look out of the windows.
Something the same is the position of the body relative to the controls. In offroad and road driving you want to be able to push your body back into the seat, reach forwards with an arm and drape your wrist over the top of the steering wheel. If you need to lean forwards so the back of your shoulder isn’t pressed against the seat then you are sitting too far away from the steering wheel, so adjust the controls. If it feels wrong, then you’ve been doing it wrong all those years. The other check is being able to fully extend your legs to comfortably depress the pedals to their full extent.
The steering technique also changes, and indeed when the chief instructor learned I was an offroad instructor he asked me if I taught push-pull, the classic technique of shuffling the wheel keeping your hands at around quarter-to-three on the steering wheel. I knew where he was going with that – he was going to beat it out of me - but I said yes. The main other technique is rotational steering, where you fix your hands at quarter to three and keep them there as the wheel is turned, and if you need more than around 100 degrees of turn you release the lower hand and grab the higher steering wheel spoke. This allows the wheel to be turned very quickly, and you always know which way it is pointing when you’re spinning it.
The thing is, there isn’t a “best” way of steering overall, just a best way for a given car in given conditions. For a high-performance, high speed car push-pull is madness and I use, advocate strongly and teach rotational steering. But for most offroading it doesn’t work as well. There are several reasons; firstly when you have about 100 degrees of lock on you need to go one-handed to grab the opposite spoke. At that point you’ve got little strength on the wheel, and when offroad you may well be clambering over rocks the size of footballs, or negotiating deep ruts. This sort of terrain can put a great force on the steering wheel, and you need both hands on it, firmly, no two ways about it. Also, at high speed in a performance car 90 degree of lock is a lot. It's very little at walking pace in an offroad vehicle.
A second problem is that often you need to change over controls with the steering wheel turned, for example engaging lockers, changing gears, talking on the CB and so on. If your hands are turned away from the auxiliary controls you can’t do that. With shuffle you can as your hands are always ideally placed. The idea of doing anything like that mid-corner in a performance vehicle is just wrong, but low-speed offroading doesn’t really have a concept of driving a corner as in performance driving. The wheels are just turned, and you may well get out of the car, walk around to check things out, get back and complete the ‘corner’, such that it is.
Here's our Discovery easing down a rocky slope at around 1km/h. You don't need rotational steering for that, but you do need to be able to hold the steering wheel very firmly in one position because of the rocks and the weight on one wheel.
That said, this advocacy of push-pull doesn’t mean that it is always better offroad. A good example is fast mud driving, as in the photo below.
...but not fast. The car is in the loose dirt which is why it is spinning all four wheels. Closer to the inside line the road doesn't have much loose dirt and there would be better traction. This is an instructor hotlap so he's out there intentionally to drift, but you're taught the difference and effect of staying on the grip line.
Notice below how quick the wheels are spinning. The power is on.
In the shot below the wheels are pretty much frozen by the camera, so not rotating as fast because there’s no power. The driver has decided there’s enough of a skid and is now correcting. That’s done by reducing the power, and turning the steering wheel in the direction he wishes the car to go.
Car still rotating, wheel turned even more, still no power. No brakes either (look at the rear lights), as that would over-rotate the car. Before getting this far the driver would have looked ahead, assesed the corner and is now mindful that the terrain he is on has a slight downslope, which will help keep the skid going.
Now the driver has felt the car catch, feels the skid won’t develop any further, and it’s time to go so power is applied. The wheels are now blurred because they are rotating much quicker. The shutter speed (1/80 sec) was the same throughout the sequence.
As ever, wheels pointing where you want to do. There's the benefit of rotational steering in this situation.
Incidentially, that sequence also shows a "fast in, slow out" approach to corners. Look at how long the driver has had to wait before getting on the throttle and how far through the corner he is. The quicker way is to sacrifice a bit of corner entry speed so you can get on the power early and rocket out of the corner. That's "slow in, fast out" and a racing maxim. However, that sequence above is just a hotlap where the idea is to throw the car around, not set the quickest laptime. I suspect customers are more thrilled with wild sideways action going a bit slower than finessing a car along at higher speeds.
Check out the front suspension in this shot below. The outside front wheel is compressed and the inside front fully extended. That's partially to do with the natural body roll of the car as it corners, but in this case the right front is in a dip. Picking your line is as important on a dirt road as it is in low-range territory, and a rally perspective will magnify any errors. Given a choice, you may as well take the line that gives the biggest safety margin and is easiest on your vehicle.
...still not happy with the amount of sideways...
...looks like he was aiming for around 45 degrees, gets it and maintain the drift by throttle and not steering out of it. It's harder to see in this set of photos but he is also looking where he wants the car to go, as indeed is his passenger.
Note 1: There are a number of organisations that provide rally drives. Some just provide a driving experience, others provide training if you're willing to listen . It can be hard to work out which is which. I learned something at www.rallyschool.com.au, and if you're into learning track work as opposing to just fanging around then you can't go past BMW Driver Training either - read more about that here.
More rally photos including a larger version of the one below are at my photo website.