Driving a race car is all about balance. However, that ‘balance’ is different for all drivers. The main element of driving which race car drivers look to maintain a balance with is oversteer and understeer.
Neither oversteer nor understeer is necessarily better than the other, however it can be advantageous to have more of one depending on your driving style. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, but most drivers will have a preference as to which one suits their style and makes them faster.
If we look at the top drivers in the world, we can see that each driver has their own preference. They all know which style they prefer, and they can use that to make themselves faster. So let’s look at oversteer and understeer in more detail.
What Is Oversteer?
Drifting & Sliding
Oversteer is the typical flamboyant driving style that turns heads. You’ll see the car turning into corners quickly and often you will see a bit of a slide at the apex or exit of the corner. It looks and feels fast, but if the car is sliding around a lot you are actually losing time.
The easiest way to describe oversteer is when the rear of the car wants to overtake the front of the car. You will find that the front of the car has more grip and the rear starts sliding around. This can result in drifts and power slides, especially in faster corners.
It is essentially the car turning more than you want it to. In other words, the car will be extremely responsive, and you might even need to correct your steering in the middle of a corner. Imagine there is a wall around the edge of the track. If you lose control due to oversteer, the rear of the car will slide out and hit the wall first.
If you are watching onboard videos of cars that have too much oversteer you tend to see the driver constantly making corrections in corners (opposite lock, small adjustments mid-corner). This is because the car is unstable, and the rear is constantly moving around, especially when accelerating.
Advantages & Disadvantages Of Oversteer
Oversteer makes the car a lot more responsive. If you turn the steering wheel, the car will immediately point in the direction that you want it to go. This of course means you get faster corner entry speeds.
The drawback to this is that the rear of the car can become snappy and unstable. You might find that the car will be a lot more unsettled and unpredictable through corners, and you might struggle to accelerate as early as you would like when leaving the corner.
Another drawback of heavy oversteer is that it can be harsh on the tires. Oversteer takes a lot more energy out of the tires by asking them to work harder to find grip. This means they can overheat much quick and also wear out faster. This can be countered by having a smoother driving style, both with steering and accelerating and braking.
What Is Understeer?
For many drivers out there, understeer is the enemy. Understeer is when the rear of the car grips more than the front of the car. So, if you look at it practically, understeer means you have a slower turn in to the corner, and the car is less responsive.
If you have too much understeer on your car, it will feel like the car is lazy. When you turn the steering wheel, it feels like the car takes much longer to respond and turn into the apex of the corner.
Going back to our analogy with the wall we mentioned earlier, with understeer it would be the front of the car that hits it first, not the back like with oversteer. So, you go around the corner and the car just does not want to turn into the corner no matter how much you turn the steering wheel.
A car that understeers looks and feels much slower than a car that oversteers, but in reality, it could actually be faster because it is not sliding around as much. If you have too much understeer though, your cornering speeds will suffer.
A car with understeer will be more stable and predictable. However, they have slower cornering speeds despite that stability. To counter that, they are able to accelerate out of corners much earlier and much faster.
An F1 driver famous for his understeering is Fernando Alonso. He would turn his Renault F1 car into the corners very aggressively, forcing the front tires to slide slightly. This meant he could get the most grip out of them by making them break traction early, and although this was very specific to his car and the tires used at the time, it is a good example of understeer being advantageous.
Advantages & Disadvantages Of Understeer
A car leaning more towards understeer will be more stable, especially at the rear of the car. This makes it more predictable going through corners. It’s less prone to sliding and drifting through corners and as a result means the driver can accelerate earlier and faster out of corners.
Easier On The Tires
Understeer can also be much easier on the tires. Understeer naturally results in much smoother driving and less energy being put through the tires, which means less overheating and wear. Jenson Button was famous for how well he was able to look after his tires with his smooth driving style.
Summary of Oversteer vs Understeer
|More Responsive||Less Stable||More Stable||Less Responsive|
|Faster turn in||Harsh on Tires||Easy on Tires||Slower Turn in|
|Faster Corner Speeds||Rear loses grip||Better in Rain||Front loses grip|
The Importance Of Balance
As we can see it’s difficult to determine whether or not one is better than the other when it comes to oversteer and understeer. Some drivers can be quick with understeer and slow with oversteer and vice versa. The key to making one or the other work for you is to find the perfect balance.
Usually Not Optimal
A balanced car is neutral between oversteer and understeer, however it is very rare that a driver will be perfectly happy with a neutral car. Most drivers have a preference to slightly more oversteer or slightly more understeer.
Bearing in mind that the benefits and drawbacks are reduced when the car is balanced, you can set your car up to be more tail-happy (oversteer) and still take good care of your tires. Lewis Hamilton is the perfect example. Despite driving several tail-happy cars in his time, he is still able to make his tires last much longer than most other drivers.
Vettel & Ferrari
Recently we have seen Sebastian Vettel struggling at Ferrari. There have been many times where he has spun the car and ended up facing the wrong way. He prefers a stable rear end (understeer), which his current car is not designed for. As a result, we see him struggle to keep control of the car, whereas his teammate Charles Leclerc does not struggle with the same problem at all.
Similarly, we saw Jenson Button win the 2009 F1 World Championship with a car that had a very stable and planted rear end. He was able to turn into a corner, hit the apex and exit the corner with one smooth turn of the steering wheel.
This shows that all drivers have different preferences with regard to how their car behaves. The key is finding which style makes you faster. If you are slower than the rest of the field, adding more oversteer will not necessarily be beneficial if it doesn’t suit your driving style.
How To Find Your Driving Style
Not Easy To Do
Most drivers are able to find their own driving style within a year or two of racing. However, it can be difficult to truly understand which style you personally prefer, and which makes you faster. Between all of that, you might enjoy driving a car that is more stable and planted, but perhaps a livelier car makes you faster.
This can be confusing because a driver will know that they like to have their confidence in their car, meaning they prefer understeer. But they may be able to set faster lap times with a car more tending towards oversteer. At this point you need to find a happy medium between the two where you will feel confident that you can trust the car but won’t lose control through corners.
Most drivers will start from a neutral position and try both oversteer and understeer then compare their lap times. Once you have found which one gives you the faster lap times you can fine-tune your set up from there to find your sweet spot.
Most Prefer Oversteer
The majority of drivers prefer a little bit of oversteer to have that responsive turn in through corners. However, some drivers will actually be faster with understeer because they have a stable rear end on the car, and they know they can turn in without spinning out.
The best thing to do is to go for a test day at the track in order to try out both styles to understand which one suits your driving style best. Try out both extreme oversteer and extreme understeer. It’s a great way to get a feel for how the car behaves in each circumstance.
From there you need to go back to a neutral balance and set your car up for smaller increments of understeer and oversteer to see which makes you faster and which you are more comfortable driving with. This takes time, but it will give you a solid understanding of when your car understeers and when it oversteers.
Practice Is Essential
You might also find that, on some racetracks, oversteer will be faster and on others understeer will be faster. This is what practice sessions are there for. You need to adjust the balance of your car to see which will make you faster, and this will take some trial and error.
The debate between oversteer and understeer can become a complicated one. Some drivers hate the laziness of understeer and others hate the unpredictability of oversteer. Each driver has their own preference of which they believe is the better of the two.
The key is finding your own preference. It can be a difficult task as it involves a lot of testing and trying out different setups. However, once you know which one you prefer, you will understand how you need to set up your car to be as fast as possible.