One of the most important parts of racing is the element of traction. This is what keeps your car stuck to the road and prevents you from spinning off the track. But there are a lot of things that affect your level of grip, and one way to think about it is by using the traction circle.
The traction circle is a visual mathematical way of illustrating how much grip a particular car/tire has on the road, and how it can be used. It’s a simple way of visualizing how acceleration, braking, and turning affect how much grip your tires have, and the relationship between each of these.
Although this may sound complex, it’s really a fairly simple way to illustrate the importance of maintaining traction. However, before you can start maximizing the positive effect of your traction circle, you must first understand what traction is and what can have an effect on it.
What Is Traction?
Traction is the amount of grip that a car has and it’s a fundamental part of the everyday driving experience as well as racing. It’s not something that your car possesses, and instead is something that is generated by a few different factors working together. Loosely speaking, it’s what keeps your car on the road when you are going around a corner at speed, or when you’re trying to accelerate or slow down.
Grip (or traction) is a measure of how strongly one thing can hold onto another, and the grip of a car to the road surface is usually experienced through the tires. These will be made of rubber compounds, and they act as the medium through which friction can be generated, keeping the car stuck to the road surface. Tires are not the only things that affect traction however, as we will find out below.
Without traction, the car can go into a slide and you can end up off the track. This often comes in the form of oversteer, when the back end spins round much more than the amount by which the driver commands, and understeer, when the car turns less than the amount commanded by the driver. Both can prove to be disastrous in a racing situation and in day to day driving.
Traction is clearly important, but what affects the amount of it that you experience?
What Affects Traction?
The Road Surface
There are lots of things that affect the amount of traction you will be able to make use of when driving, and one of the most important factors is the road surface itself. If you are driving on a dry tarmac surface, you will experience a lot of grip, and you will find it easier to take corners at higher speeds than if it was wet or made of dirt, and it will be easier to slow the car down faster too, due to the enhanced grip.
Conversely, if you are driving on a dirt track, such as in rally racing, the tiny particles of dirt and mud that sit on the road surface create opportunities for the tires to slip, and this causes a reduction in traction. Similarly, if the track surface is wet, water will get under the tires, effectively reducing their surface area in contact with the track surface and decreasing the amount of grip they have.
The Type Of Tire
Aside from the road surface, the type of tire that your car is using will also affect the level of grip it experiences. Hard compound tires have less surface area interacting with the road surface, giving them less grip than soft compound tires, which have more rubber in contact with the track. However, soft tires will be less durable than hard tires, and so grip is not all that matters.
How You Drive
In terms of driving techniques, increasing your speed will have an effect on your level of traction, as we will explain further below when we discuss the traction circle. How much of the brake you apply and how much you turn the steering wheel will also affect how much traction you have, and going fast or braking strongly through tight corners leads to the biggest loss in traction.
The Weight Of The Vehicle
Finally, factors like the size, shape and weight of the car will also affect your traction. Heavier cars can offer more grip, but their heavier weight usually means their greater inertia means it takes longer for the car to accelerate and come to a stop. Conversely, lighter cars may experience less traction, so things like spoilers are added to increase the amount of downforce they can exert to gain more traction.
All of these factors are important, but considering the traction circle is a good way to visualize why these factors affect the way you drive your car.
KEY POINTS• Traction is a measure of how much grip a car has to the surface it’s driving on
• The amount of traction your car has dictates how fast you can accelerate, decelerate, and turn
• Lots of different things affect how much traction your car has
What Is The Traction Circle?
The traction circle is a way of thinking about how much traction a car has available in terms of mathematical equations and a simple circular diagram. The circle has a circumference that is effectively the traction limit of the car’s tires, and then the circle is split into four quadrants by a vertical and a horizontal line.
The horizontal line, the x-axis, represents the lateral – or cornering – grip of the car, while the vertical line, the y-axis represents the longitudinal – or accelerating/braking – grip of the car. The top half of the circle is utilized when the car is accelerating, and the bottom half when braking. The left side represents the car turning left, and the right half represents a right turn.
The diagram below illustrates the traction circle in a simplified way. The diagram on the left is the traction circle as it would be interpreted with the accelerating/braking traction being represented by the vertical line, and the cornering traction being represented by the horizontal line. The outer boundary of the circle (the circumference), is the traction limit of the car.
Lots Of Lateral, Not Much Longitudinal
In the middle diagram above, arrow C represents the car being pushed to its traction limit. Arrow A represents the amount of cornering grip being utilized, while Arrow B illustrates the amount of acceleration grip being used. Clearly, the car does not have very much in the way of accelerating grip when it is taking a sharp corner, which we will look at in more detail below.
Lots Of Braking, Not Much Turning
The third diagram (furthest right above) shows the same traction limit being reached, but this time in the “y” direction as the car is near the maximum level of braking traction. Unlike the middle diagram, the car is now forced to use much less cornering traction. Arrow A again is referring to the amount of cornering traction being used, and Arrow B represents the braking traction and C the total traction being used.
Note: These diagrams show a car being taken to its limits of traction - see the diagram at the end of this article for a breakdown of each stage of a typical driving maneuver illustrated using the traction circle.
What these diagrams illustrate is the fact that the traction experienced by a car is made up of a combination of the accelerating/braking traction and the cornering traction being used at that time. They also illustrate that, due to the fact that there exists a limit (in each case represented by arrow C touching the circle’s circumference), only certain combinations are possible.
More Speed Means Less Turning
It should seem fairly intuitive that the faster you go the harder it will be to make tight turns. The same thing applies for the brakes as well, as you will find if you are braking very hard into or during a tight corner and you try to turn the wheel, your wheels will not get enough traction in the lateral direction as they are already being pushed to their limits in the longitudinal direction.
This is represented in the third diagram, and no matter where you drag the point around the circumference of the circle, it will be made up of a balance of turning traction and accelerating/braking traction. You can find the theoretical force involved through Pythagoras’ equation, with the length of C2 being equal to the length of A2 plus B2, C equaling the square root of A2 plus B2.
But that’s enough math! How can you actually benefit from the traction circle as a driver?
How Can You Use The Traction Circle To Your Advantage?
The traction circle functions as a good way to illustrate the idea of the limits in both directions of traction. So, it can be used as a tool to reinforce some basic driving techniques, with the idea to try and never end up trying to use more traction in one direction than you have available.
Accelerating On The Straight
This might seem very vague, but it essentially means that if you are on a straight, for example diagram (1) below, and there are no immediate turns, you want all of your traction to be in the forward, or accelerating, direction. This will give you the most grip to allow you to get to top speed quickly, without using any of the lateral traction (i.e. no turning of the steering wheel).
Then, as you approach the corner, you want to find a bit more of a balance between both the x and y directions of traction. Then, when you apply the brake (2), the direction of traction will move towards the bottom of the circle, again limiting the amount by which you can turn the wheel. Easing off the brake allows you to apply a bit of right hand lock (3), and coming off the brake completely lets you turn sharper into the apex of the corner (4).
Finally, as you leave the corner, you begin to straighten up the wheel (5), freeing up traction that can be used to accelerate away. So, when you go into a corner, the traction circle may look something like the diagram above, with the single arrow representing the overall direction of traction as you enter, go through, and leave the corner.
The Ideal Scenario
In an ideal scenario, the arrows would be at the edges of the circle, at the limits of traction. This would mean you’d be making use of every bit of traction you have available, allowing you to go as fast as possible on the straights or through turns, or to slow down as fast as possible in the braking zones. Beyond this range, traction will be lost between the tires and the track surface.
The traction circle presents an interesting way to think about how grip is used by your car’s tires. Although it can be utilized in a strictly mathematical manner to calculate exact forces, it is best used as a tool to illustrate the mechanics behind proper cornering technique, and to show what happens at the limits of a vehicle’s traction capabilities.
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