Recovery Focus – 2 Ways to Avoid A Crash


The VW Group showing its diversity

I’ve been driving now for around 13 years. I’ve done most of my car mileage in Fords. I learnt to drive in one, my first car was one and my dad has had 3 over the years. And then of course there’s my current car. At the time of writing the Ford Fiesta and Focus were the top three best selling cars in the UK. It’s not hard to see why this is the case. Ford are familiar, they are reasonably reliable and there will never be any trouble finding a dealer. Arguably since the first Mondeo was launched, way back in 1993, they have been among the best in their class to drive. They’re easy to drive. as long as you remain within the limit of grip, which is easy for most people. For most, there is no need for a recovery focus.

What if you go beyond? You might even stray over the limit of grip, and start skidding. How do you recover from that? I’ve long said that the driving test (at least when I did it) didn’t focus enough on how to recover tricky situations. It explained the theory, but not the practical. In theory I hold the lap record round Monaco, or at least that’s what my PlayStation told me on Gran Turismo 5. However in reality, the F1 drivers need not worry. So what can we practically do? There are two main ways in which a car loses grip. The front wheels may slip, which results in understeer, or the back wheels will slip, which results in oversteer. Let’s explore both.

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Understeer means the car isn’t turning enough, relative to the driver’s input. The car is literally under-steering, or ploughing straight on in a corner. This is common in front wheel drive cars, such as the Focus. The front wheels in my car have the job of steering the car, obviously. They have to do around two thirds of the braking, or more if it’s an emergency stop. And on top of this, they need to come to terms with 130 bhp. Some FWD cars come with twice that figure. Presumably they also come with an interesting appetite for front tyres.

All tyres only have a limited amount of grip. Some of this can be used in acceleration, some used up in turning and some in braking. If too much is used up in one department, that means there’s not much left for the other areas. The tyres lose their grip either by the wheels spinning too much, or by them locking up under braking or down-shifting and them not spinning at all.

Running wide in a corner. Good job there are no trees…..

So if we go into a corner too fast, the front tyres may use all their grip trying to get us through the turn. If it’s still not enough, they may start to lose grip, and the car starts drifting wide. The solution to this is to ease off the accelerator pedal, and let some of the weight naturally lean towards the front wheels. The extra weight will press the wheels on to the road surface and provide more grip, meaning that we can get round the corner. Braking is more difficult to recommend because if we brake too hard, we could cause wheels to lock up and worsen the situation.

In general, understeer is easier to control than oversteer (for a car anyway). So most makers of every day cars will set their cars up to understeer, at least initially. Even some of the sports car makers do this, presumably realising that account balance and driving ability are not always proportional.

Speaking of sportier cars, a lot of them tend to be rear wheel drive. This means that they can oversteer, either on purpose or by accident. Oversteer means that the car is steering too much, relative to the driver’s input. The car is turning too much into a corner (literally over-steering) and we are at risk of spinning unless we act fast! Oversteer is more difficult to control than understeer, and we have less time to alleviate the problem! The rear wheels lose grip, by spinning or locking up. The result can either be a lot of fun (if you’re skilled) or a large repair bill (if you previously thought you were).

Therefore if a sports car has a lot of power and spins its back wheels during a corner, we could potentially be in trouble. The trick here is to apply some steering (lock) in the opposite direction to the corner. This is where the ‘opposite lock’ saying comes from and it is used by skilled drivers to either correct a slide or to balance and maintain the slide using the cars power. Power sliding takes quite a lot of practice, space, and rear tyres. It is a similar story with drifting. Both require excellent car control, which I used to think I had.

Lambo taking the corner a bit too well, and threatening to spin if we don’t steer right

Since we’re all about saving money here my first piece of advice is to avoid this where possible. I will admits it’s a lot of fun, but let’s focus on oversteer recovery. If we start to steer in to opposite direction to the corner without applying more accelerator, the car will correct itself. It’s important not to steer too much in the opposite direction or the car will jackknife the other way. Most of the time, a simple flick of opposite lock is enough, even on a damp track, in a 500bhp Merc C63.

My Focus doesn’t really do oversteer, unless I grab some emergency handbrake in the snow. It doesn’t understeer hugely unless I’m really asking for trouble. Even then, it’s progressive and calm, like we should try to be when applying these corrective actions. The methods mentioned above have kept me out of the trees and the fields. Hopefully they will do the same for you. Even if they don’t, there is much technology on cars these days to keep us on the road and in the right direction. Feel free to join the family and comment. Thanks for reading!

What are your thoughts?