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911 – Widow Maker?

I have spent a huge amount of time in 911s, more than in any other type of car, covering thousands of miles on road and track, driving and coaching. I have lost count of the people who have informed me that ‘trouble with these is they spin all the time.’ Generally if they are new to 911s they then proceed to demonstrate biblical understeer while the rear stays resolutely glued to the road. The newer cars are a little tamer but they still largely behave in the same way.

Not understanding what makes them work, and then unintentionally playing to the weaknesses of a rear engined layout, are usually at the root of this. They like to be driven in a particular way and to do that you need to understand how they think. Once you have discovered how to unlock the handling of a 911, there is no other car that comes close to the reward you get back.

Having the engine in the back actually creates huge amounts of traction, especially under throttle, whereas the lack of weight in the front means the opposite at the front. To make a 911 work you have to understand and harness weight transfer to balance the car on entry. You need to move the grip around to your advantage.

I have sat with thousands of drivers over the last thirty years and the two most common things I see regardless of what car it is are; jumping off the brakes and jumping on to the throttle. If you do that in most cars it isn’t great. If you do it in a rear engined car it really won’t like it and will feel awful. Do it in an old rear engined car and you are going off the road.

Let’s have a look at a typical 911 loss of control.

Driver approaches corner whilst braking. As the turn point approaches, our driver has been told to NEVER brake in corners so they are keen to get off that brake pedal and therefore do so quickly, just before turning the wheel. This means that the front of the already light car has now gone even lighter and won’t be that interested in helping our driver change direction. Once our driver has got the nose pointed though, they now want to start accelerating because they have been told to ALWAYS accelerate through corners.

Again not a very good idea in anything but to a 911 that is like doing a wheelie. The front wheels have more or less given up with the idea of gripping and have set off across the road. Our alarmed driver will at this point add more steering to counteract the path the car is taking so that there is now significantly more steering lock applied; which is actually making the situation worse. The next course of action is to lift off the power.

Our driver has now suddenly transferred weight on to the front axle giving it a load of extra grip having stolen it form the rear, but remember where the wheels are pointing. The result will easily be enough to unstick the back tyres and they will start to slide. At this point the pendulum comes in to effect.

If you don’t arrest that slide NOW you never will. If you get some opposite lock on but are slow to get it back off again, the rear end will reach the end of its arc and return back the other way with vengeance. Our driver is now heading for the hedge and an insurance claim. The myth of 911 handling firmly perpetuated.

Older cars were trickier because like any older car, the chassis wasn’t as sophisticated as they are now, there is no electronic trickery to help and the steering is slower and heavier.

So what should you do?

As I mentioned before, it is a matter of manipulating the weight, grip and forces in order to make the car layout work. That is absolutely the case with every car we drive, it is just a bit more obvious with a 911.
When you brake, you transfer weight from on to the front axle and squash the front tyres in to the road. The aim then is to very slowly release the brakes so that the weight doesn’t shoot backwards again.

Once you have reduced the brake pressure significantly you can then overlap the braking and turning phases. Sufficient weight has settled back to the already heavy rear, but plenty has remained at the front. This, as I am sure many of you know, is called trail braking and it is one of the keys to unlocking a 911. It requires good feel, patience and timing but, done well it all but eliminates the inherent understeer.

The next stage is to be patient with the power. A tiny amount of throttle and you will feel the weight transfer to the back but you need to be delicate, even a small increase in speed at this point and the nose will want to push wide more dramatically than you imagined. Your cue is as the front wheels are straightening you can feed the power in.

If your timing is right you can now get very hard on to the power as the staggering amount of traction that only 911s have, mean that in the dry you are very unlikely to get any wheelspin, just a lot of acceleration.

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