Better Car Handling – Will Stiffer Suspension Help You?

“Will stiffer springs and shocks improve my car handling? It seems to me that if my car doesn’t lean as much in corners then I should be able to go around corners faster. Am I right?”

Being a professional suspension engineer can be challenging at times! The answer to both these questions is maybe – which, admittedly, isn’t particularly helpful for you or this reader.

Recently, someone else asked me a similar question about “What is a good damper curve?” Well, it led me down a very deep rabbit hole (and resulting in this workshop.)

One consequence of changing your spring stiffness is that it alters the load distribution across your tyres when cornering. Adjusting the damper (shock) settings modifies the rate at which that load is applied.

This is crucial because your grip depends on getting your tyres into their “happy place,” and both the amount of load and the rate at which it is applied to your tyres significantly affect this. Your goal is to ensure that you load the tyres in a way that maximises their grip and makes you feel confident driving.

Assisting this reader in cornering faster largely depends on their starting point, which I’m not aware of. However, I can help guide them through the puzzle.

This article aims to help you understand what is happening, determine what the ideal outcome looks like, and provide a clear direction for improving your car handling.

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Addressing Car Handling Folklore

There is some intuitive appeal to the idea of stiffening up the car to prevent excessive roll in corners – no one wants a track car that rolls excessively and feels sluggish.

What you want is exceptional car handling that grips, turns, and accelerates effortlessly, right?

Well, I can’t determine if stiffer springs and shocks (or dampers) will achieve that in this specific case. However, thinking through the question in the following manner should help you:

Defining Your Current Car Handling Characteristics

Begin by clarifying what “better car handling” means to you. Don’t overcomplicate this.

Ask yourself: are you currently struggling with the car to make it do what you want? Or, does it follow your every command as if connected through telepathy?

If you are wrestling with your car, consider whether it feels slow and unresponsive when you turn, or if turning the steering wheel induces a reaction so frighteningly quick that you’d feel safer poking an alligator.

If your car is slow and unresponsive, then yes, increasing spring stiffness might help you. However, keep in mind…

Cornering Faster Is All About Grip

Grip is fundamentally about your tyres (tires!) – as they are the only components that make contact with the road.

Learn more about tyres here in my Tyre Tuning Essentials course – its free.

Indeed, up to a certain point, the harder you press your tyres into the ground, the more grip you achieve.

Your springs and dampers influence the load each tyre experiences, so this reader is examining the right aspects. But is their assumption correct?

During a corner, your spring stiffness affects how forcefully the outside tyre is pressed into the ground, which undoubtedly adds grip to that tyre.

Unfortunately, these springs also influence how much load is lifted from the inside tyre…

Ask What Is Happening To The INSIDE Tyre…?

Load coming off the inside tyre means less grip for the inside tyre.

It’s a pain that this happens because, as you corner faster, the inside tyre loses more grip than the outside tyre gains grip.

When you are looking at performance tuning of your suspension for limit handling, this becomes significant.

So when you’re thinking through suspension stiffness changes, don’t only think of the outside tyre gaining grip; think of the inside tyre losing grip too.

How To Balance Your Car Handling Compromises

Suspension setup is all about compromises. It makes it fun (or frustrating!)

One tip you might find useful is to consider things at their extremes. By examining situations with exceptionally stiff or soft springs, you can simplify the complexities involved. Take a listen to this podcast show for more detail on applying this idea.

In our car handling scenario, envision the outcomes with extremely stiff springs, followed by the results with exceptionally soft springs.

Although the load transfer remains constant, other factors such as body roll, the distribution of load from front to rear, and the rate at which the tyres are loaded will vary.

3 Considerations to Guide Your Suspension Decisions

Given this complexity, determining your “ideal” spring stiffness requires considering other metrics, transforming this reader’s car handling question into a multi-dimensional puzzle – and the reasoning behind the inevitable “it depends” answers so common in motorsports.

1. Driver Confidence

For example, one supplementary metric you might not immediately consider but is significant is driver confidence.

Drivers have different preferences: some are comfortable with car handling that exhibits significant body roll, while many find it off-putting. Similarly, some drivers favour a neutral car, whereas others prefer more oversteer or understeer.

While there is likely an ideal engineering setup for your car, if you as a driver are not confident, then you’ll be slower – thus defeating the whole underlying objective! So prioritise your feelings as a driver and make sure you are making good driver feedback notes.

2. Unhelpful Suspension Geometry Changes

With more body movement, your suspension articulates more, leading to increased possibilities of changes in wheel alignment and suspension geometry (such as caster). While not a problem per se, with more suspension movement, you have more to manage, and often the cause of issues becomes unclear…

Any suspension, no matter how poorly designed, can be made to work reasonably well if you just stop it from moving.

Colin Chapman

3. Engineering Metrics And Aero

Additional metrics to consider include tyre grip (i.e. peak vehicle accelerations) and body control (i.e. degrees of roll per g). If your car boasts numerous aerodynamic features that generate downforce, it’s generally preferable to minimise body movement, allowing these components to work more consistently.

As you identify the most crucial dimensions in your suspension setup, you can start designing experiments to help answer the question, “How stiff should my springs be for optimal car handling?”

The Driver Coaching Perspective: Maximising Car Handling Potential

By now in this article I’m sure you are getting the impression that there is not a simple answer here and not a solely engineering based answer either.

Before diving into suspension modifications, take a moment to consider the driver coaching perspective. Ask yourself: are you genuinely making the most of your current car setup? In many cases, the honest answer is no, and data can back up this assertion.

Think about what your favourite driver could achieve with your car and its existing handling balance. Would adapting to a different driving style produce faster results or enhance the car’s handling? Reflect on how you can better align your driving with your current setup.

While it’s possible that no improvements can be made, if there’s untapped potential in your driving, you may save yourself the trouble and expense of investing in new suspension and shocks. Remember, focusing on self-improvement as a driver is just as important as tweaking your vehicle.

Conclusion: A Comprehensive Approach for Optimal Car Handling

Answering the question, “Will stiffer springs and shocks improve my car handling?” isn’t straightforward.

The impact of changes to your suspension depends on various factors, including your vehicle’s starting point and your driving style.

To optimise car handling, consider the effects of suspension adjustments on the inside tyre during cornering, and how changing spring stiffnesses also changes your balance in car handling compromises.

I’d recommend your goal is to utilise these additional metrics to guide your decisions and ensure that your tyres are in their “happy place” for maximum grip.

Additionally, reflect on the driver coaching perspective and evaluate whether refining your driving skills could enhance car handling. You can use data to assess if you’re maximising your current car setup and consider if adapting your driving style could yield better results.

By thoroughly examining each aspect and developing a deep understanding of your vehicle’s suspension and handling, you’ll be well-prepared to make the right choices for enhancing your car’s performance on the track.

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