While the skills for balancing a car are commonly taught in drivers' schools, the rationale behind them is not usually adequately explained. That rationale comes from simple physics. Understanding the physics of driving not only helps one be a better driver, but increases one's enjoyment of driving as well. If you know the deep reasons why you ought to do certain things you will remember the things better and move faster toward complete internalization of the skills.
Balancing a car is controlling weight transfer using throttle, brakes, and steering. This article explains the physics of weight transfer. You will often hear instructors and drivers say that applying the brakes shifts weight to the front of a car and can induce oversteer. Likewise, accelerating shifts weight to the rear, inducing understeer, and cornering shifts weight to the opposite side, unloading the inside tires. But why does weight shift during these maneuvers? How can weight shift when everything is in the car bolted in and strapped down? Briefly, the reason is that inertia acts through the center of gravity (CG) of the car, which is above the ground, but adhesive forces act at ground level through the tire contact patches. The effects of weight transfer are proportional to the height of the CG off the ground. A flatter car, one with a lower CG, handles better and quicker because weight transfer is not so drastic as it is in a high car.
The rest of this article explains how inertia and adhesive forces give rise to weight transfer through Newton's laws. The article begins with the elements and works up to some simple equations that you can use to calculate weight transfer in any car knowing only the wheelbase, the height of the CG, the static weight distribution, and the track, or distance between the tires across the car. These numbers are reported in shop manuals and most journalistic reviews of cars.
Most people remember Newton's laws from school physics. These are fundamental laws that apply to all large things in the universe, such as cars. In the context of our racing application, they are: The first law: a car in straight-line motion at a constant speed will keep such motion until acted on by an external force. The only reason a car in neutral will not coast forever is that friction, an external force, gradually slows the car down. Friction comes from the tires on the ground and the air flowing over the car. The tendency of a car to keep moving the way it is moving is the inertia of the car, and this tendency is concentrated at the CG point.
The second law: When a force is applied to a car, the change in motion is proportional to the force divided by the mass of the car. This law is expressed by the famous equation F=ma, where F is a force, m is the mass of the car, and a is the acceleration, or change in motion, of the car. A larger force causes quicker changes in motion, and a heavier car reacts more slowly to forces. Newton's second law explains why quick cars are powerful and lightweight. The more F and the less m you have, the more a you can get.
The third law: Every force on a car by another object, such as the ground, is matched by an equal and opposite force on the object by the car. When you apply the brakes, you cause the tires to push forward against the ground, and the ground pushes back. As long as the tires stay on the car, the ground pushing on them slows the car down.
Let us continue analyzing braking. Weight transfer during accelerating and cornering are mere variations on the theme. We won't consider subtleties such as suspension and tire deflection yet. These effects are very important, but secondary
For a complete look at Sempre Ferrari, you may want to check out the rest of the articles from Volume 2, Issue 7 - August 1995