The white Porsche 911 angles into the turn. It’s a quick corner, top end of third gear, but instead of gently coaxing it into the apex, managing its mass and keeping the loaded tyres within the circle of adhesion where longitudinal and lateral forces haggle eternally for grip, the driver sharply lifts and then flattens the throttle. Instantly the car is sideways.
It wants to spin, but the driver catches the fast-moving tail with the steering. But no attempt at recovery is made. Instead the foot stays down, the tail stays out, now towing a ball of super-heated, atomised rubber particles. Yet it still finds the apex and still finds the exit before snapping straight and howling away up the straight beyond. A few minutes later its driver brakes the car to a halt in the pit lane, lowers the window and says to anyone listening: “That is what I call handling.”
And I suspect neither you nor I would have much truck with that. But just because it’s true doesn’t mean that’s the whole truth or, as I shall seek to show, even very much of it. What follows is my attempt to describe what handling actually is – and for the most part it has very little to do with the terrible twins of oversteer and understeer – and what qualities need to be engineered into a car in order to provide it.
At its heart, handling is not measured by a car’s ability to powerslide until its tyres melt but by something far more simple and precious: the ability of a car to execute the instructions of its driver.
If that sounds like a statement of the obvious, then you are one up on those chassis engineers the world over whose efforts fail in this simplest regard. To see what I mean, take your car to a quiet roundabout, apply what you judge to be the requisite steering lock to negotiate it and don’t move your hands. Normal road speed is fine. Does it go where you thought you’d pointed it? If so, can you continue to lap said constant-radius roundabout without moving the steering wheel? If the answer to either question is ‘no’ then your car is not going where you want it to. It is not executing your instructions.
You’d be amazed by how many cars cannot perform this apparently simplest of tasks. When I first started doing this job more than 30 years ago, I was tutored in precisely this phenomenon by none other than former Formula 1 driver, Jim Clark team-mate and Autocar columnist John Miles; I was staggered by how imprecise and inaccurate most normal road cars were. Over the years that followed cars did get a lot better as chassis structures gained rigidity, suspension became more sophisticated and tyre sidewalls flexed less, but in this modern era of electric steering systems, where traditional ‘feel’ has been largely eradicated, combined with variable-ratio racks that give varying outputs to the same input according not only to steering angle but also and often to road speed, knowing exactly where you’re pointing a tonne-and-a-bit of fast-moving metal is in fact becoming harder once again.