April 23, 2021

The Physics Behind the Drift

Drifting is cool right? Making clouds, the squeal of the tyres, the adrenaline rush, basically all of it is badass. What’s wild is how much science and *gulp* math that goes into it.  Like every true art form or sport, it’s the perfect mashup of science and technique.
Hope you’re ready to get your nerd on, because we are about to get super technical.

Inertia: Inner, what? No inertia, it’s the force that is exerted onto an object in motion that encourages it the continuance of motion. Like when you slam the breaks and you feel the pressure of your body on the seat belt (Safety first kids).  It’s that same force, but more of it.
According to Newton’s Law of Inertia when an object is in motion it wants to stay in motion going the same direction. For instance, when you start a turn, and you feel resistance, that is the inertia working on your car. Without inertia, there would be no drift. Ever.

Friction: To transform a turn into a drift a driver needs to overcome another force. Friction. Friction is caused by the tyre’s connection with the asphalt. This is why it is important to get a good grippy tyre to maintain control, but not overly grip to make initiating a drift difficult.
In order to overcome the friction between the tyres and the road a driver needs to go into a turn with enough speed and their wheel turned a sharp angle. Then they just need to shock the tyres enough to disrupt the grip, by either applying the handbrake or clutch kicking, to start drifting around a bend.

Centripetal Force: One of the main forces that affect your car as you drift around a bend is centripetal force. Remember as a kid swinging a bucket of water in a circle, and how the water always stayed in the bucket? That is centripetal force, and it is the force that affects things moving in a circular motion.
Just as this force affected the water in your bucket, it also affects the way the rear end of your car moves as you jilt it around a bend. Think of the front of your car as the pinnacle of the circle, the rear of the car moves along it, consistently at the rate determined by the centripetal force being generated. The formula for this is, Fc = m x v2/r where:

Fc =centripetal force
m = mass
 v = velocity
 r = radius

How do I Use This? The truth is we know that drivers aren’t calculating Fc = m x v2/r to determine the force that is affecting the rear of their car as they drift around a bend. However, knowing that these forces exist and how they affect your car, does make you a better drifter overall. As you understand how these forces work, you develop a feel for it, and you can instinctively calculate the rate of speed, braking, and angle of your wheel at a moment’s notice.

When talking about the sport of drifting many refer to it as an art, but now we know, it’s a science.  Not that art isn’t cool, but science is cool AF and so is drifting.