A guide to 4X4 driving for sports car owners
Offroad driving has attractions for sportscar drivers…if they dare!
MOST PEOPLE WHO are into off-road driving have at least a passing interest, maybe more, in high-performance road vehicles. And many sports car drivers could think of worse things to do than be involved in the 4WD scene. Indeed, plenty of car makers these days tend to think sports car owners would be into fast-moving off-roaders, like the Range Rover Sport SVR, Porsche Cayenne, BMX X-M cars and more.
Of course, there are some exceptions – some sportscar people are almost allergic to dust and dirt, and there’s good old offroader types who care not for the thrills of speed in a relatively delicate performance car. And by ‘sportscar’ owners I mean those who drive their cars hard on tracks for fun and work at their craft, not Sunday afternoon cruisers.
So let’s say you’re a reasonably experienced track-driving sportscar owner, and wish to dip a tentative foot into the the world of 4WD. There’s really one rule to remember. And that is that out of everything you know, some skills will be very useful and transfer across, and others definitely do not and you’ll need to unlearn them. The trick is working out which is which, and that starts with a basic appreciation of the two types of vehicles.
Sports cars and 4X4s are pretty much diametrically opposed from a design point of view. Almost everything that makes a good sportscar is bad for offroading, and vice-versa.
Off-roaders need tall, strong, narrow tyres with chunky tread. Sports cars need wide, shorter tyres with thin high-speed tread. Off-roaders need lots of under-body clearance and long-travel, flexible suspension. Sports cars need to be as low as possible, often with minimal suspension travel. Off-roaders need strong, torquey engines with low-down grunt. Sports cars just need power. Weight is important for offroaders (not that you’d know it from the way they’re kitted out), but critical for sportscars.
An example of the difference is tyre pressures, which are reduced well below street levels for off-roading. It’s exactly the opposite for sports car driving, at least with stock tyres. Off-roaders throw in lots of heavy recovery gear before they drive, whereas sports car drivers remove everything they can before they enter a track.
Even the dress is different. Sportscar drivers wear thin shoes for maximum pedal feel, and light, loose-fitting clothing so they have minimal restrictions in the cockpit.
Welcome to off-roading. Ditch those race shoes, and get some strong boots. Yes, you’ll lose some pedal feel, but with offroading you’ll be spending a lot of time out of the car and in mud, rocks, water, hills, snow… you name it, so you’ll need layers of clothing, gloves and strong shoes.
Next up is the driving position. The typical sportscar driving position is set so your feet can easily reach the pedals, and you can lay your wrist over the top of the steering wheel while your shoulders are pressed firmly into the back of the seat, and the seat is set as low as possible. That’s actually pretty much the same for offroading, except you’ll raise the seat as high as it can go for visibility forwards, and move it a touch closer to the steering wheel, again for visibility but also so you can still easily reach everything while at severe angles.
Now we come to steering, always an emotive topic. Sports car drivers will be fixed on fixed steering – a firm grasp at 3 and 9 o’clock on opposite spokes, turning the steering wheel without shifting hand position on the wheel. If more lock than around quarter of a turn is needed, you’d typically keep the upper hand on its spoke, leave the lower hand at 6 and slide the upper hand down to around 7 or 5, and if you need more than that it’s probably skid recovery time!
Welcome back to off roading, and by off roading I mean low-range work usually below 20km/h. And that sports car steering technique just isn’t going to cut it. A quarter of a turn in a 4X4 at low speed is nothing, and you can’t go one-handed even for a moment across ruts and rocks. Also – and this would not happen in a sports car – you will need to use other controls mid-turn such as radios, differential locks, gearshifts and the like. You might even stop the car entirely. The concept of a corner doesn’t really exist in offroading as it does in sports car driving.
So for off-road work what works best is the good old shuffle-steer, using 3-9 as a base, but shuffling the wheel. Using two hands gives you the strength needed to keep the wheel straight over any obstacle, and your hands are always in the right place to divert away from the wheel, do something and then return. Steering a heavy 4X4 off-road, with tyres at low pressure also requires more strength than the delicate touch of a light sportscar at speed on a track.
But, that’s not to say that the sportscar driver’s steering technique has no place. Far from it. There are occasions in off-roading where the fixed-input sports technique is superior to shuffling, and those are situations where you need lots of steering lock, and quickly, or little steering lock at speed. For example, dirt roads, correcting slides in snow or mud, most sand driving, and anything on the blacktop. It’s just that once you’re down low and slow, shuffle is superior. You would however use the same grip of light but firm, no death knuckles.
Whilst we’re on the subject of car control the sports car driver will have been taught look up, look ahead. It’s great advice, for high speed work. With off-roading, not so much. Sure, you need to look ahead to see what the track is like, but in some cases it will be minutes, perhaps hours before you advance as far as you can see, not seconds as in performance driving. So you suddenly need to be paying much, much closer attention to what’s a few metres in front of your nose, under the car, and even behind it, building up a mental 3D model of where the car is relative to the immediate terrain, while planning the next steps along the track. Not easy.
So far it seems that everything sports car drivers know about cars and driving is wrong for off-roading. But there are significant skills that do translate.
Sports car drivers know how to corner, how to maximise exit speed by selecting the correct line and applying a bit of ‘slow in, fast out’. That skill comes into its own in many situations, such as exiting a soft beach through a tight turn uphill, or ascending a muddy track where you need to keep the momentum flowing. Inexperienced drivers may plough straight on in the sand, trying to carry too much speed into the corner and losing it out the exit.
Then there’s many a time when some deft car control work is needed to correct or align a car with your desired path, something sportscar owners should find relatively easy. And while in offroading you’re not always looking two or three corners ahead as you’ll be there in seconds, there are many times when a good look ahead is just what’s needed to help position the vehicle.
Off-roaders also need to be in touch with the car, finding the delicate limit of traction when turning, braking or accelerating, and these are skills that should come naturally to sports car drivers. The speeds are much slower, but the principle is the same. Despite the image, offroading is no more spinning of steering wheel, binary throttle and mashing of brakes than sports car driving. There’s many control techniques in common, too. Sports car drivers would get the car set up before a corner, in the correct gear, at the correct speed. So too in off-roading, where you’d select the correct gear and speed before an obstacle (not necessarily a corner) be that a hill or deep mud, as opposed to trying to change gear or consider things once you’re part-way through.
Another similarity between off-roading and sports driving is simply driving beyond the road driver’s comfort zone. In a sports car on a track you need to be calm and rely on your skills as you brake from 200km/h into a corner, and smoothly deal with any corrections required to keep on track. In a 4WD on an off-road track it’s the same as you ease the vehicle down a steep hill, or through deep water, or up a rocky, rutted track. Confidence, but not over-confidence in cars and driving is important for any form of vehicle control situation.
There are some specific techniques that carry over from sports car driving, and some that don’t. Left-foot braking is a useful skill for just about any sort of driving, and it has its place on the racetrack and also off-roading. Heel and toe however, is not applicable to off-roading as the pedals aren’t set up for it, your shoes will be wrong and you just don’t need the technique anyway. Some off-road techniques will be alien to sportcar drivers, such as starting manual vehicles while in gear and accelerating while braking with the left foot, and sports cars have very little torque off idle so need revs to go anywhere, in complete contrast to offroaders.
The differences and similarities between sportscar and off-road driving extend beyond the act of driving itself. Sports car driving is something you do at the same time as other people, but not really with them as a team. In off-roading, there’s a lot of teamwork from sharing gear to spotting cars (giving directions from outside) to recovery to joint navigation and convoy work, so there’s more cooperation than competition.
One similarity is watching other cars. Sports car drivers can tell a lot about a track by the way others are driving it, making allowances for the type of car and the driver’s ability. In the same way, off-road drivers can tell a lot about a track, making the same allowances.
The effect on the car differs between off-roading and sports car driving. You’ll get a 4X4 far dirtier far more often that a sports car, and while you can clean it few experienced off-roaders obsessively polish their vehicle after every trip and keep them in concours d’elegance condition, unlike many sports car owners. Wear and tear on the vehicle is different – after a good track day you may need to change your brake fluid, check tyre wear and replace brake pads and many sportscar owners ‘life’ such components based on numbers of track days. Off-roading, in that respect, is much easier on the car as you don’t tend to consider how many offroad trips components of the car can handle. But as with sports car driving, maintenance bills will be higher than if you’d just been boring and driven on the freeways and in the suburbs. And both types of driving can see owners spend vast amounts of money on accessories for performance or looks… and some of that money is occasionally worthwhile.
Wear and tear is one thing, but the next stage is vehicle damage. Off-roaders are more likely to damage their vehicle than sports car drivers. However…if the sportscar driver does do any damage then it is likely to be major, whereas most off-road damage is minor. For example, scratched 4X4 bodywork is par for the course, a slight dent here and there to be expected in really tough conditions, and certainly scratched underpinnings, marked alloy wheels and scuffed tyres. Dust, mud, water take their toll on the paintwork too over time. This doesn’t mean the vehicle is unsightly or unsafe, but it isn’t going to present in mint condition. At least insurance, if chosen correctly, covers off-road use. In the case of the sportscar at a motorsports event any damage whilst at speed is quite likely to be serious, and unlike a 4WD there’s no barwork for protection, and nor will there be any insurance claim to follow.
Ultimately, off-roading and sportscar driving are very different, yet sufficiently alike so that people who enjoy one are likely to enjoy the other. For many, the pleasure is doubled by the chance to utilise abilities already acquired, while learning new skills and exploring a new world of automotive performance.
In the meantime, why own a 4WD?
Let me explain with photos: