A modern and well-maintained vehicle, fitted with winter tyres, allows you to travel comfortably and with peace of mind. But in winter, this is not always enough: conditions may exist – where there is ice or hard compacted snow – in which you can partly or entirely lose traction: the consequences are a loss of acceleration, more difficult stopping, and difficulties in turning.
One of the most complicated situations is how to tackle bends, given that the tarmac is certainly not in its normal state. In the first instance, you need to consider the characteristics of the vehicle: there is a difference between driving round a bend with a car that understeers compared with one that oversteers.
There is just one rule in common: driving round a bend, in winter conditions, must be preceded by braking to a speed which is considered safe, shifting down into a lower gear and moving the steering wheel without sudden gestures. Obviously, in the case of a car equipped with automatic transmission, the need to shift down a gear does not apply, insofar as the electrical system will do it for you.
The heel and toe technique
Shifting down a gear is not difficult. However, on slippery ground, it is always preferable to depress the clutch – gently: that way we avoid blocking the drive shaft, which needs to remain active. If on the other hand we need to brake and change gear at the same time, it would be appropriate to use the technique known as heel and toe which is one of the basics of sports driving.
Whilst you brake with your right foot, you press down the clutch pedal with your left foot and prepare to shift down. When the gear is engaged (with the clutch pedal still depressed), you continue to press down on the brake - with the toe of your foot - and you give a quick dab on the accelerator with your heel, which allows the engine to increase its revs to the correct regime. As soon as the revs increase you release the clutch pedal, whilst still keeping your right foot on the brake.
The technique of the heel and toe – less difficult than you might think – allows you to shift down through the gears more softly, thus avoiding blocking the wheels and destabilising the car. This is why it remains an extremely valued ally for anyone who has to tackle a bend on treacherous ground, obviously by starting to reduce your speed in advance.
Instinct and reaction
It is obvious – however careful you may be, even if your vehicle is fitted with the right tyres – that you may lose control of your car even on a straight road. Consequently you will find that, even more frequently, you can encounter certain problems on bends. In theory, many people know that you never need to stamp hard on the brake pedal, when you notice (and you see) that the vehicle is skidding. And yet, when you actually find yourself in such a situation, instinct takes over quicker than thought and pushes you to act exactly in the opposite way: we just want the car to stop. However, the quality of the driver is in being able to distinguish between the above-mentioned instinct and the correct reaction, by finding the right type of behaviour when the car is no longer responsive. And the adjustments vary depending on whether you find yourself in a situation of understeer or oversteer.
Understeer and oversteer
In the case of understeer, the front wheels lose their grip on the ground and the car has a tendency to continue straight on instead of following the bend. In such an event, contrary to what instinct might suggest, there is no need to rotate the steering wheel even more, but rather let go of it, in order to recover your trajectory.
In the case of oversteer, it is actually the rear wheels which lose adherence, making the back of the vehicle skid. In this situation you need to counter-steer gently, by turning the wheel in the direction of the skid. During this manoeuvre, as indeed in an understeer situation, a quick press on the accelerator can momentarily help to distribute the centre of gravity across all the wheels. In this way your car will proceed in the desired direction. Leaving technique aside, the number one rule is always to act prudently, which is a winning strategy, in summer as in winter!