Published: February 3, 2013; updated: October 9, 2013
In this installment of Driving Technique we will talk about unwinding the steering wheel. This is a basic technique typically taught at novice level and expected of drivers moving from novice to intermediate level. While in principle it is basic, mastering it is not as simple as it might seem.
"Unwinding steering" is the process of transitioning from maximum steering angle, usually attained close to the apex of a turn, to no steering angle on the following straightaway. Another term for it is "straightening the car".
Most ordinary street drivers operate in discrete sections: straight, turn, straight. Transitions from going straight to turning are instantaneous; they go in a straight line until the point at which they start turning, then turn the steering wheel, wait until the car is facing the desired direction, and finally let go of the steering wheel to allow the car to straighten itself out. This works acceptably well at low speeds (relative to grip levels) commonly encountered in street driving, but high performance track driving calls for more finesse.
When driving close to the limit of your car's capabilities you do not want to make any abrupt changes to the car. This goes for both turning into a corner and straightening the car when exiting a corner. Unwinding refers to the controlled process of straightening the car at corner exit.
As soon as the car passes the apex, begin turning the steering wheel in the direction opposite to that of the turn. Gradually turn the steering wheel until it is straight by the time the car reaches the outside of the track (this is the track out point).
The procedure sounds simple enough, yet it takes practice to actually be able to execute it correctly.
For novice drivers, the usual issues are:
- Overspeeding into a corner - if this happens, unwinding is impossible because the car requires continuing steering input past the apex to stay on pavement. Your instructor should tell you to enter the turn slower if this happens.
- Insufficient confidence - the car will fit into the track with less steering angle, but the driver (you) do not believe it will. Your instructor should be telling you to unwind because they know that you can. You need to realize that it is in fact possible to make the turn with less steering angle and uwnind in small steps.
As an intermediate driver you should already have a conceptual understanding of unwinding the steering wheel and should be actually doing it in most corners.
You should now concentrate on unwinding in all corners, and doing this as early as possible.
Some tracks may have tighter corners where a tight line is called for with no unwinding. However, even in those corners the steering angle should be reduced slightly past the apex to allow the car to accelerate. Remember that at maximum steering angle there is no grip left for forward acceleration.
To an outside observer it may not look like you are unwinding the steering at all, but even a few degrees make a difference at the limit.
Similarly, you should begin unwinding steering as early as possible to begin accelerating as early as possible.
Another reason for unwinding in all corners is you get used to straightening the car exiting every single corner. As you become a better driver, and go through the corners faster and closer to the limit of grip, this becomes more important. If you are already unwinding steering, you can trivially unwind more to compensate for unintentional power oversteer, be that through overly abmitious throttle application or the rear tires overheating. If you are not used to unwinding steering you are more likely to spin the car in such scenarios.
Even advanced level drivers do not always unwind steering correctly. The two common issues are holding constant steering angle through an entire turn and not leading with steering rather than throttle at track out.