Why “Driver Feel” Doesn’t Mean What You Think

As a driver, there’s a major disconnect between what we traditionally think of as “driver feel” and reality. You don’t actually feel forces acting on the car – your driver feel comes from perceiving accelerations. But even more precisely, the driver feel you react to stems from changes in acceleration that deviate from your expectations.

Mastering these nuances of driver feel is key to building your confidence and maximising your car’s potential. It’s a counterintuitive concept that took me a while to fully grasp. But understanding it has been key for me to properly interpret driver feedback and tune the handling balance to their preferences.

Let me explain.

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The Misconception About Driver Feel

You’ve likely described your driver feel using phrases like “The rear end feels planted” or “I’m getting understeer.”

The assumption is that you directly pick up on forces, say through the seat.

But this typical understanding of driver feel is inaccurate.

Think about flying as a passenger.

Despite cruising at 580 mph, you don’t feel forces required for that speed – you only notice accelerations from take-off, turbulence or bumps.

This might seem subtle but knowing this can help you realign your expectations of what your contribution is as a driver.

Driver Feel Is Acceleration…And Changes

In a race car, it’s the same story when it comes to your driver feel.

You don’t actually feel cornering forces – just the resulting accelerations.

Under braking, acceleration/deceleration sensations are obvious. But even in a steady corner, your driver feel comes from the lateral acceleration vector, not the total lateral load.

This lateral acceleration differs front-to-rear based on weight transfer, geometry, tyres, etc.

You interpret this front/rear acceleration difference as recognisable driver feel sensations like oversteer or understeer [link].

However, what I believe you truly react to are changes in acceleration deviating from your expectations.

Sit with that a minute.

What I’m suggesting is that your frustrations, or even discomfort, stem from any unpredicted change, from being caught completely off-guard to the car simply not responding precisely to your inputs.

Driver And Car In Harmony

A driver typically feels happiest when the car behaves as an extension of your body – when accelerations and changes harmonise with your anticipations.

This harmony doesn’t necessarily mean less violence in the car (!), but perfect synchronisation of feedback loops.

Your mental state and ability to predict upcoming situations hugely impact your driver confidence.

Elite rally drivers, some of the best on the planet, can only react within 0.2 seconds.

Your car state can change a lot, and travel a long distance, in that time.

Sadly, you are likely to be slower than these elite drivers – so your predictive capacity massively influences your ability and confidence in the car’s response.

That is why visualisation techniques are so effective for drivers. Not (only!) to remind themselves which way the corners go but to practise what they want the car to feel like around the lap.

Here is an example of visualisation, and an audio recording, of a driver (me!) working on these self coaching techniques.

If you are always relying on driving only on instinct, you’ll soon make mistakes.

For example, say you turn the wheel and feel no immediate response. What do you do?

In the moment, most would keep adding steering lock – by which point the front tyres catch up.

The result is either your entry line is too tight (common in fast corners), you saturate the front tyres grip (and come in complaining of understeer), or, you saturate the rear tyres (and coming complaining of oversteer).

And driving was meant to be fun!

The good news is that drivers who have awareness of these tendencies allow themselves to quickly recalibrate their techniques.

Aligning Mental Model and Driver Feel

You have an internal mental model of how you expect the car to behave in each scenario.

When your driver feel deviates from that model, confidence gets shaken.

So optimising driver feel means aligning actual accelerations and changes with your subjective expectations and familiarity.

Details like seating position, your visibility and general ergonomic comfort critically shape how accelerations transmit through your body.

So often these “comfort” aspects are dismissed “It’s a race car, dude, get on with it…” etc.

But, if that is you, I’d urge you to reconsider how important ergonomics are. Why make this harder than it already is?

You need to monitor the syncing of both the cars response and your driver feel sensations.

Sometimes reshaping your mental model is actually more valuable than setup changes.

A good example of when to be aware of this is early in your track day or race weekend. Road driving and track driving are very different so give yourself time to make that transition.

Key Takeaways For Driver Feel:

  • Driver feel comes from perceiving accelerations, not static forces
  • Your oversteer/understeer feel derives from front/rear acceleration differences
  • But you react most to acceleration changes diverging from expectations
  • Harmony exists when the car behaves in sync with your predictions
  • Improve your mental models of what to expect with tools like visualisation

Reflect On Your Driver Feel

Think about times you were surprised by behavior that didn’t match driver feel. Was the car genuinely doing something unpredictable? Or was your mental model and perception incorrect?

How can you enhance your sensitivity to focus on real accelerations and changes for improved driver feel? This unlocks greater confidence especially in your feedback.

Reflect when you lost connectedness and “fell behind” the car’s motions. Did you accurately pick up acceleration factors influencing driver feel? Or did your frame of reference need resetting?

In my experience, the very best drivers are not only the intuitive. They also have extremely good expectations – and an ability to adapt, refine and tune those expectations, quickly.

Sometimes it’s not the car… it’s you (sorry!)

And sometimes it is the car. So what do you want from it?

Add all this to your driver feedback.

Not doing driver feedback or don’t know where to start with it? Try this article next.

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