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Oversteer and understeer - What's the difference between these two balance problems?

Published by Christine

This article was originally written for BellaOnline, but is republished here for posterity.

Quite often, and usually when trying to excuse poor performance, drivers will talk about oversteer and understeer. I always knew it was something to do with turning into the corners and it meant they were struggling with the car, but I was never entirely sure what it was.

After doing some research, this is what I found.

Understeer is a lack of grip. It means that the driver will be barrelling towards a corner, turn the steering wheel and feel very little response from the car. Because of this, drivers have to make adjustments to their driving styles, such as turning into the corner much earlier than they would usually, and braking sooner than they would like. All of that adds up to a slower car and a grumpy driver. Minor alterations can be made during a pit stop to try and minimise the understeer, such as increased front wing, or more suspension. Sometimes even small tyre pressure adjustments can ease the situation. Ultimately, though, it is something that will need to be looked at before the next race.

Oversteer is naturally the opposite of the above. It is when the front of the car has more grip than the back. When a driver tries to turn into a corner, he will feel like the car is trying to spin because the back wheels will lack grip. Quite a few drivers opt to have a little bit of oversteer – just a small amount – so that they can really feel a response from the car as they go into the corners. Of course, the more they have, the more risk it carries that they will actually go into a spin and lose control. Fixing oversteer is also the opposite of understeer – lightening downforce or suspension to make the grip more even throughout the car. But again, it’s something that the driver will want to be solved before he gets on track, let alone starts a race.

The two problems pretty much cancel each other out, which is why I thought it was odd that at the end of the Bahrain GP, Fernando Alonso was complaining that he suffered: “Both oversteer and understeer.”

Surely that kind of phenomena would mean that actually his car was okay, because the lack of grip of one would counterbalance the excess grip of the other condition.

When a car is doing everything right – and let’s face it, that hardly ever happens – the driver will be happy. If a car is suffering from neither over nor understeer, the grip will mean that all four tyres are equal and corners can be taken much faster and with the confidence that you aren’t going to lose control. This means racing is much more exciting and this is what we like to see.