Most of us will go for years without ever experiencing the stomach-churning nightmare of our car skidding on a public road – and this can be something of a mixed blessing.
While none of us want to test our mettle trying to control a couple of tonnes of steel and glass on a slippery road at speed, that same lack of experience and accumulated muscle memory means that if we do trigger a skid we’re probably going to struggle to control it…
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The solution, as with some many of life’s unpleasant problems, is practise and perseverance.
I’ve done an awful lot of skidpan work in my career but after not having practised for a couple of years I was rusty and slow, something that came to light on a recent car launch when we got to play with some very fast cars on Silverstone circuit.
I’ll spare my blushes by not going into detail but it wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t fast. It was safe, but only because I was in one-way traffic and surrounded by drivers considerably more skilled than I...
So I jumped at Volvo’s invitation to drive the new XC90 on a skidpan with some professional tuition thrown in. Lorne, my instructor, made it look very easy on the demonstration runs; whether in the front-wheel-drive MINI or the rear-wheel-drive Toyota GT86, his movements were precise and controlled and almost invariably successful.
The cars skated around the state-of-the-art skidpan as if suspended by puppet strings and almost no angle of slide was too extreme for him to bring safely back into line.
Which was not the case when I first tried.
How to drive through flooded roads
I slipped and spun and generally made myself look pretty amateurish, which isn’t a great look when you’re supposed to be a professional.
Despite a history that has included successfully drifting some high-powered racing cars around a track I was reacting too slowly – and then over-reacting when I did finally get round to applying some steering lock.
Lorne waited patiently for me to coach myself through the problem before stepping in with a few suggestions as to how I might like to approach the next skid.
The trouble, I felt, was the million-pound skidpan. Comprised of thousands of gallons of recycled water on a polished concrete surface, it was, in my opinion, utterly undrivable.
It was so slippery, and the cambers so variable, that I struggled to get the car rolling forward in a straight line, much less arching gracefully around in a controlled slide.
Even walking on it was an act of self-harm.
Stay safe driving in wet weather
Learning to skid safely
Of course, I’m being a tiny bit dramatic; after half-an-hour or so it all started to come together. I was reacting faster but more gently, and the slides became more eagerly anticipated opportunities to show off rather than red-faced examples of my chimpanzee-like inability to co-ordinate my feet and my hands.
“Quick hands save the day” and “never give up” became my mantra, and I soon found that I could recover slides of monumental proportions given enough space and time.
By the end of the session I was slipping and sliding like a champ.
True, I wouldn’t have wanted a drifting competition against Lorne but I was smooth and controlled and initiating, and then catching, slides at will; what had seemed like an impossible task was now a fun experience built on a rock-solid safety system of knowledge and muscle memory.
I’ll need to keep topping it up over the years but for now I’m a much safer driver than I was, thanks to an hour of my time and some first-class coaching. I can also look forward to the winter with a sense of equanimity and confidence rather than trepidation and fear.
Winter driving tips
Interestingly, the Volvo XC90 spent most of its time on the skidpan trying to stop me doing anything foolish in the first place. The Electronic Stability Control (ESC) system cut power, braked wheels and diverted torque to the rear to try and stop the car skidding in the first place.
It was a brilliant demonstration of how sophisticated ESC is but slightly frustrating when you’re trying, and failing, to provoke something that engineers have spent tens of thousands of hours trying to prevent.
The solution was to turn the ESC to Sport mode. This doesn’t switch it off but does allow the driver to indulge in the sort of antics that the XC90 would rather he didn’t.
Interestingly, some skids caused the seatbelts to tighten in anticipation of a crash that never quite happened. Once you’ve experienced it then it isn’t a problem but it was quite off-putting at first, which might be a very good reason for undertaking this sort of driver training in your own car, so you understand exactly what to expect of it in an emergency.
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