We've driven on track. We've done wheel to wheel. We tried our hand on the autocross. But we haven't actually tried out rallying, at least not in a long time. As part of the generation who grew up with Colin McRae Rally, we've always been curious what it's like to really sling dirt.
Thankfully, that opportunity came up at the Rally Immersion Driving Project or RIDP.
Yes, we're driving off-road but rally driving is a totally different animal. Unlike going on trails where you take a a slower, more calculated approach going off the beaten path, rally driving means going fast over loose surfaces. And while driving around a paved track means you can easily see the racing line, the uneven terrain in rallying, as well as the changing road conditions, means you can’t always rely on a racing line. It sounds daunting, but fun, at the same time. Besides, we like a challenge every now and then.
At our disposal during the RIDP were relatively bone-stock Isuzu vehicles, a black mu-X and a gray D-Max. I said ‘relatively’ since the units we drove have Black Rhino aftermarket wheels, and Nitto all-terrain tires. Other than that, both are powered by a 3.0-liter turbo-diesel engine that’s good for 163 PS and 380 Nm of torque (pre-BluePower engines).
So what did we learn from a day of driving around a rally course and getting dirt all over ourselves? Here are six things that we learned from RIDP.
1.Never treat a corner the same as it was before
Like I mentioned before, one of the benefits of going around a paved track is its familiarity. After several laps, guiding the car around a circuit suddenly feels like muscle memory. No longer do you have to think of every move you make once you’re in the zone and and memorized how to attack each corner.
In rally driving however, that is not the case. Since you’re times going over loose dirt / gravel, the topography can change because of the tires kicking up debris. What could have been smooth and flat, may have already become rough and jagged. And if Mother Nature decides to let the rain fall, the muddy terrain means there would be less traction for the tires to hold on to.
Being able to learn and adjust your driving style in ever-changing terrains tips the rally in your favor as you’ll be able to easily adapt to what’s coming; whatever that may be.
2.Know your vehicle’s abilities, limitations
It’s one thing to familiarize yourself with your vehicle (i.e. knowing its controls and how much power it produces). But it’s another thing to actually know how your vehicle interacts with the environment, as well as learning its abilities and weaknesses. Does it have a high center of gravity? Does it have enough ground clearance to clear debris or jumps? Where does most of the weight transfer go to during braking or turning? How much steering input do you need and is it fast enough for making quick maneuvers?
It also matters to know if your car is front-wheel drive (FWD), rear-wheel drive (RWD), or all-wheel drive (AWD). All of these will determine how you’ll have to handle your vehicle in a rally course once you’re out on the field.
In our case, the D-Max had a very light rear end since the bed was empty. This allowed to us to slide on some of the turns. It’s a bit more fun but one needs to. As for the mu-X, it felt more planted thanks to heavier rear end. While it may not be as tail-happy as the D-Max, the mu-X is more forgiving.
3.Understanding Understeer & Oversteer
You’ve probably heard drivers talk about these terms. In a nutshell, understeer is when the car loses its ability to turn sharply. This results in the driver not being able to turn the car fully, increasing the risks of crashing head-on towards a barrier or debris. Oversteer, on the other hand, is the exact opposite as the rear wheels lose traction mid-turn, resulting in the back of the car sliding out.
So you already know the difference between the two but what do you do in order to recover from understeer or oversteer? With the former, put your foot off the brakes, reduce throttle, as well as reduce steering input to regain traction. Next, straighten the steering wheel and gently apply throttle once more as you exit out of the corner.
As for the latter, it depends whether if you have a FWD or RWD car. For FWD, point the steering wheel towards the direction you want to go to, and then apply more throttle to let the front wheels pull you straight. On RWD cars, you have to counter steer, reduce throttle, and then ‘feather’ the throttle and adjust steering input until the car straightens out.
Understeer should be avoided at all costs as it will more than likely result in a crash. Oversteer, on the other hand, can be used to one’s advantage as sliding around a corner can be faster, not to mention fun (if you know what you’re doing).
To make things simpler, understeer is you looking at the shrubery you're about to hit and oversteer is going backwards into the tree if you're not able to catch it.
4.All about that weight transfer
‘Slow in, fast out’; this tried-and-tested technique has always been taught by professional drivers when exiting out of a turn. Following this technique, it teaches the driver that braking early before a turn and then accelerating out of it is the best way to exit a corner. The same principle can be applied in rally driving (although some take a different approach depending on their level of skill). More importantly, however, this allows the driver to transfer the weight of the vehicle to the front in order for the front wheels to turn.
Failing to follow this technique may result in understeer as the front tires will lack the necessary grip to make the vehicle turn. Another routine that other rally drivers do is the ‘late apex’. Basically, this method means braking at the last moment just before a turn, and then exiting out with about 90% power early on. This strategy takes a bit of practice as most beginners (including myself) resorted more to the slow in, fast out procedure. But no matter the case, it still involves weight transfer towards the front wheels for easier maneuvering.
5.Don’t mash the throttle / brake pedal
As much as it would have been fun to actually mash the accelerator pedal in rally driving, that is something you’d want to avoid (unless you know a thing or two about controlling oversteer or a slide) . Due to the uneven terrain, your tires will not easily gain traction as you exit out of a corner, raising the possibility of the car spinning out. Worse, the car oversteers and you find yourself hitting a tree or barrier. The better approach would be to modulate throttle application (i.e. feathering it) as you can make slight adjustments to power delivery while exiting a turn.
Aside from not burying your foot on the accelerator, never fully step on the brakes as well. Since the tires are not touching tarmac, slamming on the brakes will only make the vehicle slide forward or sideways. This is further expounded when driving on muddy terrain since the tires have limited grip in slippery road conditions. Learn to modulate your braking during these conditions in order to avoid slipping and sliding.
6.Never let go of the steering wheel
Much like driving in off road, always keep your hands on the steering wheel. While you might be tempted to let go of the wheel as you exit a turn to catch a break, rocks or other debris might change the direction of the vehicle. If you’re not aware, the vehicle might go off-course and hit a bystander or another vehicle in the vicinity. Plus, having both of your hands on the wheel means you can make quick adjustments instead of compensating for freeing up one of your hands.
It's all about adapting
I have always viewed rally drivers as being cut from a different cloth. Don’t get me wrong, drivers in endurance racing, as well as in Formula 1 are great in their own right. But after being able to try out what they do in a more controlled environment actually made me appreciate more the things they do. To be honest, this is my first time getting to drive on a dirt track at speed since I mostly do off-roading in other driving events.
After learning some of the techniques and methods that rally drivers do, I have to say that not only did I had fun, but it was actually quite addicting as well. And who knew that both the Isuzu D-Max and mu-X make for great vehicles on dirt? Despite being geared towards hauling and carrying, these almost bone-stock 4x4s can easily take on a dirt track with a change of tires, as well as having the right skill.
Should an opportunity present itself once more to go rally driving, I’d go in a heartbeat in order to enjoy it, as well as improve my skills off-tarmac.