Now that we’ve spent some time explaining where engine performance comes from, and how to get more out of your MINI Cooper S or Cooper, we need to inject a note of reality. No matter how much potential speed and performance an owner builds into a car, fast is as fast does. At the end of the race, it is going to be the better driver who wins, nine times out of ten.
Any experienced auto racing competitor will tell you that some of the best money you can spend on your car is the money you spend on improving your own driving skills. We can tell you that, without a little training and some practice, no one is capable of driving the MINI anywhere near its limits, even with the equipment it comes with right out of the showroom.
There are a growing number of courses available at tracks around the country where you can receive instruction in advanced driving skills. Some of these courses are taught in cars owned by the school, but in many of them, you can drive your own car so you can apply the lessons you’re learning in your own MINI. You can locate a course by checking the MiniMania website, as well as other online references, such as the driving schools list on the Autoweek website (www.autoweek.com).
But you don’t need to wait for the next driving course to start learning how to improve your driving. We’ll be happy to pass on some basic information and tips that your instructor also will cover in the first part of these courses. You can begin practicing the tips immediately, so you’ll be that much further ahead when you first get behind the wheel in an advanced driving course. We guarantee that you’ll be processing so much new information at that point that you’ll be glad you did a little homework and practice before you got there.
It’s All a Matter of Balance
Good driving is not just a matter of pointing the car where you want it to go and pressing the gas pedal until you get there. If you want to drive well, you must begin by thinking about the weight of the car. This wouldn’t be so difficult if your wheels were connected directly to the chassis like they were in your old red wagon. But they’re not; instead the chassis is connected to the wheels with springs and shock absorbers.
This is fortunate, because if you remember that old red wagon, you’ll remember what you felt like when it hit a bump. Pretty shook up, as we recall. Those springs and shocks allow you to drive your MINI over pretty bumpy roads in relative comfort. The springs absorb the bumps, and the shock absorbers keep the chassis from oscillating up and down after the spring takes care of the bump.
However, with springs and shocks, the car will rock when it moves. Accelerate and the car rocks towards the back end. Put on your brakes and the car rocks towards the front end. Turn hard to the right and the car leans to the left, with the right side lifting up. Vice-versa when you turn to the left. The technical term for this is weight transfer.
You might think of the car as suspended on a pin at its very center, able to rock forward and back and side to side. It will even rock from corner to diagonally oppposite corner if your speed is changing at the same time that you are turning a corner or changing lanes.
Really good street driving, and good track driving depends on how well you manage the transfer of weight in your car from back to front and side to side. The reason why weight transfer is important is because when you take the weight off a wheel, it loses traction. Likewise, if you put more weight on a wheel it doesn’t move as easily.
In the extreme, take too much weight off a wheel and the car can skid out of control. So, most of what we’ll learn in our advanced driving course has to do with managing weight transfer, so that we can go, stop, and turn corners as fast as possible without losing control of the car.
Start now to think about how the car feels as it accelerates, brakes, and goes around corners. See if you can feel it rocking back as you accelerate, forward when you brake, and from side to side as you turn corners. It’s sort of a Zen thing. You want to try to become one with your car.
The first rule in managing that weight transfer we’ve discussed is that we want to be as smooth as possible with everything we do. Smooth with the throttle, smooth with the brakes, smooth into and out of corners.
The simple reason for that is that if we’re abrupt with our actions, then the car will become “unsettled” as the racers call it. And just like it sounds, that is a bad thing.
Push the gas too hard too quickly and the car will rear back, taking weight off the front wheels. Since those are the wheels that provide the car’s steering , the front end of the car will become unstable and not respond as readily to movements of the steering wheel. This can be disconcerting, to say the least.
Push the brakes too hard too quickly, and the car will rock forward. This takes the weight off the rear wheels and moves it onto the front wheels. If the car is in the middle of a turn, with the back wheels lifting up and losing their grip on the pavement, the car will begin to pivot on the front wheels. This also is not a good thing.
Similarly, if you throw the car into a turn too quickly, it will rock towards the outside of the curve, taking weight off the opposite side of the car, upsetting your steering. If you’re accelerating at the same time, then the car will be leaning back. Put the two motions together, and you have less weight on the steering wheels and less weight on the side towards the turn, meaning that one front wheel will be exerting almost no pressure on the pavement.
As you might guess, it is going to be difficult for the car to make the turn. Instead, it will continue to plow forward. We call that phenomenon “understeer.” When a car understeers, it is trying to continue to go straight down the road instead of turning as you intended for it to do. At the extreme, you find that you can’t get the car to go around the corner. Instead, you wind up pushing off the outside of the road. When this happens to racing drivers, they often say they “ran out of track on the turn.”
Consider the opposite phenomenon. If you’re going too quickly when you start to turn and then realize you’re in trouble, you instinctively try to slow down by letting off the gas and pushing in the brake. What happens? The car, which is already leaning out because of the turn, then also starts leaning forward. At that point the weight of the car shifts off the inner rear wheel, which is helping the car stay stable around the corner.
With limited traction on one of the rear wheels, the rear end of the car can start to slide out towards the outside of the turn. This phenomenon is called “oversteer.” When a car oversteers to an extreme, it will also slide off the road, but this time it will be the rear end that slides off first. Of course, it is possible for an excellent, experienced driver to control the oversteer by compensating by turning the front wheels the opposite direction of the skid. This has even been turned into an emerging motorsport, called drifting.
Experienced drivers simpify this oversteer-understeer thing. If the car won’t turn when they want it to, they say, that’s understeer. On the other hand, if the car turns when they don’t want it to, that’s oversteer. In racing slang, a car that is understeering is said to be “pushing.” A car that consistently oversteers is said to be “loose.”
To avoid all of these problems that result in the car doing what you don’t want it to, the recipe is to be as smooth as possible when you use the throttle and the brakes. Instead of jamming your foot to the floor to go faster, squeeze the throttle down. Instead of slamming your foot on the brake when you want to stop, roll on to the brake, feeling it bite as you press it down. Either way, your passengers shouldn’t be able to tell when your foot let off one pedal and pushed down on the other.
Likewise, when you’re turning into a corner, don’t change direction any faster than the car can absorb the change. Feel the shift in weight balance as you turn the wheel into the corner, rather than jerking the wheel over and having the car overreact.
Front Wheel Drive
A distinctive feature of the new MINI, as with the classic Minis that inspired it, is that the engine drives the front wheels. For the purpose of making a car that is small and maneuverable while having lots of interior room, that is a good thing. For the purposes of getting the car around the track or autocross course quickly, or being good on the highway, well…let’s just say it is different.
We all know that the fastest cars on the track all have their drive wheels on the rear, so we can assume that there isn’t any inherent advantage in racing a front wheel car, but nevertheless, if you learn to drive the car well, you can find ways of making that front drive do some pretty amazing things.
So what’s the problem with front wheel drive? The first part of the problem is that the car has to be steered and powered by the same wheels. This means that if you’re going fast in a straight line, using the traction of the front tires to pull you along, they aren’t going to be as effective in making the car change directions. That’s the oversteer problem we discussed above.
Likewise, if you’re turning the wheels and using their traction to hold the car in the corner, they are not going to be able to absorb very much forward push. In addition, since a car tends to lean back as it accelerates, it is more difficult in a front-wheel drive car to really put the power to the pavement. As a result, the front wheel drive car isn’t as fast out of corners as a rear-wheel drive car with the same engine torque.
The second part of the problem is that as you accelerate or brake, these issues get worse. When you accelerate, you’re taking weight off the front wheels, making them less effective at steering the car. Likewise, when you put on the brakes the weight shifts to the front of the car, making the understeer even more of a problem.
So, what can we do to overcome these problems. There are some changes that can be made to the suspension and brakes to reducee the difficulties, and we’ll discuss them later. But there is a lot that can be done by the way you drive.
First, if you’re coming into a corner too fast and the car is understeering—refusing to go the way you want it to go—if you simply let off on the gas a little bit, the weight will transfer to the front end and give the front wheels more traction which will help the car steer around the corner.
Following the same principles of physics, if you find the rear end starting to get loose, especially as you come out of the corner, you don’t want to let off on the gas, or worse, hit the brakes. If you do, the car will pitch forward even more, and the rear end will come around with a vengeance. At that point, you may find yourself facing backwards as you slide off the track. Instead, what you want to do is use that power on the front wheels to pull you through the curve. Keep the throttle even, maybe even accelerating a little bit, as you drive your way out of the skid.
This ability to put the power to the front wheels on corners was what made classic Minis so much fun to watch on the track in the sixties. Experienced drivers would power into the curve, then turn the wheel and briefly release the throttle, or even tap the brakes, to break the rear end loose. As the car rotated and was aimed in the proper direction, the Mini driver would get hard on the power and scoot off down the road, leaving the rear-drive cars wondering where he had gone.
Rally drivers found the MINI’s ability to rotate its rear end and then power out of corners particularly valuable in rally driving. On a rally route, the surprise of a tight corner might cause a traditionally powered car to slide off the road with the power wheels unable to get traction. Mini drivers, like Paddy Hopkirk for example, would simply let off the throttle and give the handbrake a yank to release the rear end and bring it around the corner, then get on the power to drive the car out of the corner. Today, this cornering technique is a standard feature of rally driving; in those days it was revolutionary.
However, right now you’ll probably be happiest if your car simply goes around the corner with you in control, without understeering or oversteering. So let’s talk about turning corners.
The Best Way Around the Corner
Using the concepts of balance and weight transfer, we can talk about how to take corners in the safest and fastest manner. Sure, we all turn corners all the time; been doing it since we started driving. But you might be surprised to learn that there is a right way to turn corners, and a variety of wrong ways.
In order to get the car around the corner fast and safely, you want to be as smooth as possible, keeping the car balanced at all times. You don’t want to be making abrupt changes in speed, abruptly hitting the gas pedal or brake, while the car is turning. Not only does this upset your passengers, it upsets the car, and that can be much more serious.
Turning corners properly is the most fundamental skill as you start to explore the world of fast track and autocross driving. Everything else in performance driving is built on proper cornering, since most races are won or lost in the turns. How fast a car can go on the straights is pretty much just a function of the car’s power; how fast it goes through the turns depends as much on the driver’s skill as it does on the capabilities of the car.
To turn the corner smoothly, quickly and safely, you should think about the turn as having three segments: braking, turning, and accelerating.
Before You Get to the Corner
As you prepare to practice the skill of turning corners properly, you should start by running down the check list from the previous chapter. Are you seated comfortably in a reasonably upright position with your back firmly against the back of the seat? Is your seat and steering wheel adjusted so that you can push in the clutch comfortably and hold the steering wheel with your elbows slightly bent?
Are your hands positioned on either side of the wheel just below the sides of the rim, with your right hand somewhere between three and four o’clock and your left hand between eight and nine o’clock? Are the rear-view mirrors set so that you can see directly behind the car and into the blind spot on each side? If so, we’re ready to go.
First Segment: Braking to Slow Down
The first segment of the turn is slowing down. First, check your mirrors to make sure there is no one right behind you who could run into you as you slow down and as you turn. On the road, you should also signal for the turn, of course.
While the car is still going straight, you should reduce your speed to the level that your eyes, seat, and brains tell you is slow enough to get around the corner safely without sliding off the outside. You should make sure that you do all of your braking while the car is pointed in a straight line and before you start to turn. Remember to look as far around the corner as possible. This will feed in the information that your brain needs to tell you when to start braking and when you’re goint slow enough to complete the turn safely.
Experienced drivers will tell you that the fastest way to get around any corner is “slow in, fast out.” Your car should be going at its slowest speed at the point when you begin turning the wheel.
Second Segment: Turn-in and Transition
In the second segment, you will turn the wheel to take the car around the corner to make the turn, move your foot from the brake pedal to the gas pedal and begin to drive the car around the corner. The point at which you begin to turn into the corner is what racers call the “turn-in point.” (We realize the terminology is pretty obvious, but it does make sense.)
How can you tell where you should start your turn? Here you’ll depend on your eyes, which should have been looking around the corner. Basically, you don’t want to make your turn until you have a clear line of sight around the corner. You should be able to see where the path of your car will come closest to the inside of the turn, and where you will finish the turn.
Racers call these two points the “apex” and the “exit” or “track-out” points of the turn. To make the turn as easy as possible, you’ll want to start your turn at the far right hand side of your lane or as near the outside edge of the road as you can, then across the lane or road to the inside edge, and finally back out to the outside edge. Following that line through the corner will make the turn as open as possible, allowing you to turn both more quickly and more safely than if you had to turn more sharply.
Once you are able to see most of the path of your turn you should begin to turn the wheel. (By the way, when we get into how to turn corners quickly on the track or autocross course, you’ll discover that this path is the fastest one you can follow.)
You should keep a little pressure on the brake as you begin to turn in, to make sure that the nose of the car stays down, keeping pressure on the steering wheels. But just as soon as you’ve turned the steering wheel as far as necessary to make the turn and the car is pointed around the corner, it’s time to get off the brakes completely and get on the throttle.
The way you make the change from braking to acceleration is important in order to keep the car balanced. On the one hand, you don’t want to take your foot off the brake abruptly and immediately slam down the gas pedal. If you make the change properly, your passengers should not be able to tell when you stopped braking and started accelerating. If you had a racing instructor sitting in the passenger seat, they would tell you to “roll off the brake and roll on to the throttle.”
On the other hand, there should be no hesitation from the time your foot comes off the brake until you start pushing on the throttle. This is no time to be coasting; as soon as you’ve finished slowing down and started to make the turn, you should have your foot on the gas to keep the car under control.
Once your foot is on the throttle, you’ll want to give the car enough gas to keep the car balanced from front to rear until you finish the turn-in and begin to unwind the steering wheel. How long this period lasts depends on the radius of the corner. In a simple 90-degree turn, this transition period is very short; on a long sweeping corner on the other hand, you may be “balancing the car on the throttle,” as racers say, for a long time before you reach the next stage of the turn.
Third Segment: Acceleration and Exit
The third segment of the turn is acceleration. At soon as you have turned as far as you need to and the car is pointed around the corner, you should start to smoothly accelerate. Here you can really take advantage of the front-wheel drive on your MINI. Since your power comes from the front wheels, you can start to accelerate much sooner than is possible in cars with rear wheel drive.
That driver in the rear-wheel drive car has to be very cautious about how much they accelerate at this stage of the turn, since their car’s weight isn’t back on the rear wheels yet. If they get on the throttle too soon, they can easily break the rear end loose into a skid. In fact, in the middle of the turn they might even still be on the brakes, practicing a technique called “trail braking” which you don’t have to even think about.
As you accelerate, you’ll pass the apex of the corner when you can begin to allow the steering wheel to unwind as the car moves out to the exit point of the corner.
By the time the steering wheel has rotated back and the car is completely straight, you. When you get the opportunity to do this on a race track, you’ll be able to really put your foot in it, but when practicing this on public streets and highways, you’ll of course be limited by the speed limits.
Practicing the Fundamentals
Try to remember this sequence every time you come to a corner, whenever you’re driving. Start braking before you get to the corner and before you begin to turn. As soon as you can see your path around the corner, turn the steering wheel and rool off the brakes and unto the throttle.
Keep the car smooth and balanced by lightly using the throttle until the car is aimed towards the exit point. Then get hard on the throttle and let those front wheels pull you through the corner as the steering wheel unwinds.
Practice this sequence every time you turn a corner until it becomes second nature. On the street or highway, your turns will be faster and smoother, but more importantly, you’ll be more in control of your car and better able to cope with the unexpected than the person who just blunders around the corners any old way. Mastering these fundamentals in everyday driving also will allow you to begin working on advanced driving skills on the track or autocross course much sooner.
When you have an opportunity to ride with a very good driver, you’re bound to be impressed with how smoothly they drive, especially in the transitions from acceleration to braking, and into and out of turns. We didn’t say these transitions were done slowly; we said they should be done smoothly. In advanced driving classes, the instructor will be telling you to “roll on to” the brake and “roll on to” the accelerator.
To develop that smoothness yourself, as you drive pretend that there is a cup sitting on the dashboard, filled to the brim with water. Try to make your transitions and the consequent weight transfers as smooth as possible so that not a drop splashes out of your imaginary cup as you accelerate, brake, and turn.
At the very least, your passengers will enjoy the ride much more if they’re not being thrown around, and we guarantee your smoothness will make you a better driver, staying safer on the streets and becoming faster on the track.
Did we mention that the position of your head also matters in how well you drive your MINI around the corners? That may seem silly, but in fact most driving instructors can tell a lot about how well a student is driving just by looking at the direction of their head. This all comes back to the point made in the last chapter. To drive well, you must look and think way ahead of where you are.
When you’re driving into, through, and out of a corner, you should be looking as far ahead as you can see. It’s a proven principle that the car will go where you are looking. If you’re looking straight down the racing stripes on your hood, you are unconsciously going to be steering in that direction as well.
So as you come up to the corner, look around the corner as far as you can see. When you start to exit the corner, instead of looking straight ahead at the curbing ahead of you, you should be looking as far past the exit and down the road as you can see. This focus ahead gives your arms and hands the information they need to steer your car around the corner efficiently.
Focusing ahead also insures that should an obstacle appear by surprise as you round the corner, you’ll have as much time as possible to react to it. Keep your head up and your vision focused far ahead and your speed into and out of the corner will be improved, not to mention your safety.
What about Crisis Situations?
All of this smoothness we emphasized earlier is a good thing when you’re in control of your car and there are no surprises. But what happens when something goes wrong on the road up ahead and you have no choice but to respond in a hurry? Good question. Our discussion of weight transfer will help explain what to do in different types of crisis situations.
Panic Braking and ABS
Let’s talk first about the modern braking system that is standard equipment on your MINI and nearly every other new car on the road. Your MINI is equipped with an anti-lock braking system (an ABS system). This system is designed to allow you to hit the brakes hard in a situation where you absolutely, positively, must stop as quickly as possible, but without the problems of the old days where the brakes locked up and the car started to skid.
The system is pretty easy to explain, though the mechanics behind it would be impossible without modern electronics. Say you come around a corner and a child suddenly darts out into the street chasing a ball. You jump on the brakes as hard as you can. As you would expect, one or more of the wheels reaches the point where the contact between the brake pads and the brakes is stronger than the contact between the tire and the road and the wheel stops spinning and starts to skid.
In the old days, your instructor would have told you that you should immediately release and re-apply the brakes, so that the skidding tire could start to turn and go back to its job of helping the car slow down. However, with the new ABS system, the car can do the job better than you do.
As the wheel starts to skid, sensors in the wheels notice that one wheel has stopped while the other wheels are still turning. The sensor passes this information to the brake system computer, which causes it to go into anti-lock mode. At that point, the computer causes the brake cylinders to start to pulse, alternately pushing and releasing the brakes. This pulsing allows the skidding tire to start to spin, doing exactly what you would do, but much more quickly. With the pulsing brakes, the car can come to a straightline stop very effectively, much better than you could manage.
Why are we telling you this right now? We’re going to bet that, unless you’ve already had this situation happen to you, you’ve never actually experienced the operation of an ABS system. If you haven’t, we’ll also bet that the first time that brake pedal starts pulsing on its own, you’re going to panic and let of the brake pedal, so that the system stops working.
We recommend that you try out your ABS system as soon as possible. Find a large parking lot that is empty at some point during the week, or a backcountry road with no traffic. When you’re sure no one is around, hit the brakes hard. You don’t need to be going very fast to get the full effect. Take the car up to about 25 mph and stomp on the brake pedal, then hold your foot down.
Don’t panic when the brake pedal starts kicking back against your foot. What you’re feeling is the pulsing of the brake system, pushing and releasing the brakes for you. While you keep your foot on the brakes, the car will come to a stop. It won’t feel pretty, but it will work better than you could manage on your own; we’ll guarantee that.
The key thing is that, in a crisis stop (we won’t call it a panic stop, because as a very good driver you won’t panic, now that you know what to do) you get your foot on the brakes hard and keep it there until the car comes to a stop.
Panic Braking and Turning
But what happens if the obstacle is right in front of you, or you’re coming around a corner when you have to make the stop? A very good feature of the ABS system is that it will bring you to a smooth stop, while allowing you to continue to turn.
When we mentioned the problem of turning and braking above, we noted that the weight transfer off the steering wheels could cause the car to plow, or skid. However, when the ABS system activates, it helps restore the ability of the wheels to steer the car out of trouble. That is, it will do that as long as you can manage to remember to keep your foot firmly on the brake while you steer around the obstacle.
The first time or two you try this trick, you’ll probably have trouble with it. It is tough to remember to keep your eyes up and looking at where you want the car to go, turning the wheel to follow your eyes, while at the same time the ABS system is pounding back on your foot on the brake pedal. Try to find an opportunity to try this a few times in that vacant parking lot or deserted road to see what it’s like.
As you practice it, and if you have to actually do it in a crisis situation, just keep telling yourself: “Stomp, stay, steer.” Stomp on the brake pedal, stay on the brake pedal, and steer around the problem. Easier said than done, but with a little practice you should be prepared for problems down the road.
Steering Around Problems
Slamming on your brakes may not always be the best solution to a crisis situation. In particular, a variety of different events can occur on the highway that require a different response. You won’t brake, with or without turning; instead you’re going to steer around the problem.
The most typical situation is one where the car in front of you suddenly changes lanes to avoid that old tire casing or deep pothole that you didn’t see until they moved out of the way. Or as you’re driving along, something gets loose from the truck ahead and falls into your lane. Either way, at highway speed you aren’t going to have enough distance to stop before running into the junk.
Instead, what you need to do instead is to rapidly change lanes, most often without even taking slowing down. Even at highway speeds, a MINI (and most other cars, as a matter of fact) are stable enough to make a quick lane change without seriously losing equilibrium.
All you need to do is check quickly on both sides of you to pick the lane into which you’re going to turn, then give the wheel a definite and strong turn in that direction and then back again to straighten yourself out in the new lane. Incidentally, always being sure that you space on one side of you or the other is an important defensive driving technique, so you can execute this maneuver.
Keeping some escape space on at least one side of you is also the reason why you want to avoid getting stuck in the middle of a clump of cars when highway driving. By simply backing off a little, you can usually disengage yourself from these pods of accidents waiting to happen and get yourself a nice safe little empty bubble in which to drive.
This technique of accident-avoidance will require a little practice before you will be confident of your ability to pull it off, which is why nearly all basic safe driving skills courses teach it, using multiple lanes and stop lights. to allow you the chance to improve your reaction time and practice your high speed lane-change skills.