Learning the art of sideways


How do you go from driving with the traction control firmly on, to drifting while looking through the side window? Chris heads to Oulton Park to find out.

Last year, I bought a BMW M3. It's the first rear-wheel drive car I've owned, and so I thought it would be useful to get some experience of what happens when it starts moving sideways. I decided on the 'Introduction to Drifting' day at Oulton Park, since it's less instructional and more a chance to get out and play in a relatively safe environment. Plus, I'd seen the videos other drivers had put on YouTube when they did it, and it looked cool!

Suffice to say I was rather papping myself at the prospect before I arrived, as the last time I did anything like this was in a 911 at the Porsche Experience, and I was utterly rubbish. When I arrived, I saw the other people had turned up in 200SXs, a fully stickered up drift car, several 3 series, a very cool 190E with bumpers already removed, and many MX-5s with varying degrees of modifications. Hardly the introduction I was hoping for.

We were given an introductory briefing, then went out for a couple of sighting laps of the two courses. My anxiety levels began to rise when I saw the edge of the course was littered with potholes, bundles of tyres (more on those later), and undulating grass which formed ponds in some places and unforgiving banks in others. The lack of grip on the wet grass was highlighted when a Porsche 993 had an excursion and came to rest pointing nose up on a grass bank.

The day was full with 27 cars in attendance. The running was split over two stages, one tighter and a real challenge to link it all together, and the other a slightly faster, more flowing course with longer bends that (theoretically) you could really adjust the car through and feel what your inputs were doing. After each lap, you joined the queue to run again, so engines and tyres had a chance to cool in between runs.

Oulton Park drift stage 1
Oulton Park drift stage 2

My first lap was appalling. I was stabbing at the throttle and yanking at the steering like a scared monkey, with very little actual drifting going on as a result. In frustration, while on the back section of stage 2 I buried the throttle and gave the steering a tug, and promptly spun and stalled. I restarted the engine and carried on back to the start, forgetting that turning the engine off and on had re-engaged the ESP, which promptly scuppered my attempts at drifting around the remaining corners.

Fortunately, as the day went on, I got more relaxed and a little better. I also had half an hour of tuition which was useful, both in improving my skills and seeing what the instructor could do in my car. A lot, as it turned out.

The break while you queue to rejoin the course after each lap really allowed you to maintain concentration for a long time, and as a result, from starting about 9:15am, I did my last lap at 5pm! When the course was at its busiest, I actually had the radio on while I was waiting and then forgot to turn it off on a couple of laps, so I now have video of me drifting while listening to Radio 4's Moneybox Live...

The courses undulate and have a mix of slower and quicker sections, and it felt like I was drifting the easier bits but then just bimbling through the faster/riskier sections. It also highlighted just how much grip the M3 has. When I started, I was trying to get the back end moving with the throttle and some steering lock on, but that just made it rocket forward and grip. After a number of laps and the tuition, I found I had much more confidence in the car, and in driving in greasy conditions with ESP off.

As the sun was out and the rain stayed away, the bowser went out periodically wetting the two courses. This made it slippier as they use water from the lake with all the gunk therein. It also makes your car fantastically filthy!

I'd certainly recommend it to others. It hasn't made me a drift nut, but it's good fun and a real challenge. The sense of progression you get and the satisfaction that goes with it is very rewarding. The organisers say that the low grip surface doesn't wear the car at all, but in my experience that wasn't quite true. My rear tyres were definitely showing more wear than before, and the amount of high revs/low gear driving took a toll on the service indicator, which dropped 250 miles in about 45 miles of driving! That said, I checked the oil before hand to prevent surge and kept plenty of fuel in the tank and the M3 seems to have coped OK.

Well, almost OK. One slide went a bit OTT, and ended up with me slowly nerfing a tyre barrier. I had a look around the car and all seemed well, but fellow Drive Cult-er and Oulton Park local Jack Wood had stopped in to watch, and spotted that something had come off the car, and part of the wheel liner was missing. It turns out that the wheel liner holds the end of the bumper in place, and one plastic clip had sheared in the bump so the rest came off, but in one piece. I waited until the lunch break then did the walk of shame to pick it up from trackside. Still, it was a minor bump compared to the bloke who crawled onto the track in his E36 to collect the front bumper and mountings that had been taken off...

Since this trip, I've been thinking about going back to do the course again. It's sufficiently challenging that a novice can't master all the turns and cambers in one trip. There's also enough jepoardy through pot holes, tyre stacks and barriers that it forces a level of caution and encourages you to build up speed and angle slowly, rather than going all-out straight away and then pulling back. The next stage for me is taking this experience and improved technique into a higher-speed environment. If you have any suggestions, please let me know!