We learn how to take corners with a skid at Abu Dhabi's Yas Drift School
It might look like wanton tyre destruction, but drifting is one of the best, albeit most extreme, ways to master car control. Andy Mills checks out Yas Drift School to see if we’ve got what it takes.
In a car-crazy country like the UAE it’s no surprise that the sport of drifting has gained popularity. While Japan is often cited as its birthplace, where drivers would head to twisty mountain roads in rear-wheel drive AE86 Corollas and travel along them as sideways as possible, others might argue it began with European rally drivers, where the ‘Scandinavian flick’ became a tool of the trade to get sideways through corners.
Over the past decade though, drifting has become a motorsport in its own right with competitions like the D1 Championship attracting big sponsors and fanatical supporters across Japan, USA and Europe.
Ultimately it’s a fantastic spectacle, so Time Out thought it would be rude not to try and master the art at Yas Marina Circuit’s Learn to Drift driving school.
Meeting instructor Abbas Al Alawi at the Vehicle Dynamics Area in the depths of the circuit complex, he seems as excited to get behind the wheel as I am. A racing driver by trade, he knows a thing or two about getting a car to do some manic things and gives a full briefing on what to expect.
The key, he tells me, is the first reaction when the car starts to lose the back end. How you balance the steering inputs and the amount of throttle is the difference between drifting and spinning out of control. He’s also quick to point out the benefit of learning this kind of driving. ‘If you hit a patch of oil or water and the car loses control, knowing how to steer out of it could be the difference between crashing or not. The skills we teach here can really help people stay safe on the road,’ says Abbas.
The lesson consists of three parts; a kickplate, doughnuts and figure-of-eights. At each point, Abbas gives a passenger a ride or sits in while they drive, before letting them in the rear-wheel drive, 200 horsepower Toyota GT86 on their own, giving encouragement and tips via a walkie talkie in the car.
The kickplate is a dampened patch of particularly slippery road surface that I get to drive along, snaking the back end at relatively slow speeds to get a feel for how the car handles. The name becomes apparent on later runs where, as I drive into the skiddy bit, a plate slips left or right under my back wheels, kicking the rear end out. Not knowing which way it will send you means you have to react with your steering quickly or end up in a spin.
Once I’ve shown I’m not altogether useless, it’s onto doughnuts; driving on a damp surface again but in a continuous circle.
The idea is to get the back of the car to slip, apply opposite lock on the steering wheel and remembering to keep the engine revs steady to complete a full circular lap with the car sideways. It’s a fair bit to take in and while the wet surface makes initiating a drift easier, it’s unforgiving if you make the smallest error.
I spin a lot and the car stalls often, meaning I have to start it up again and disengage all of the electronic traction control systems before trying again. It’s hot work too, with lots of arm movement as we grab at the steering wheel, but the sensation on the few properly executed doughnuts I manage is immense.
Abbas reckons I’m ready to attempt a figure-of-eight, which is basically linking two doughnuts but with a tricky transition in between. It’s great fun trying it, and the figure-of-eight pattern means you drift both clockwise and anti-clockwise, but it’s the hardest part to get right. I’m sure I managed at least one good run. Abbas politely agrees.
At the end I ask how he’d rate my drifting prowess and a seven out of ten seems fair. It probably means I’m not quite ready to enter a drift competition any time soon, but it’s been a hugely enjoyable foray into steering from the rear, with lots of time behind the wheel. And the best thing is, I can always head back and try to perfect my drifting skills in another Learn to Drift lesson or even take on their more advanced Drift King course. Although maybe we’re getting ahead of myself. Yas Learn to Drift lessons cost Dhs1,000. To book, contact Yas Drift School, Yas Island, www.yasmarinacircuit.com (800 927).
Ask a drift champ
Mark ‘Buff’ Luney is a former European Drift Champion and currently competes in a 700 horsepower Supra, having switched from a turbo-powered Nissan 350Z. If he can’t drive it sideways then nobody can.
What’s the most important thing to remember when learning how to drift? Throttle and steering balance are the key. Ultimately it’s about car control so while it looks pretty violent, to drift needs a certain amount of delicacy.
What’s the scariest part of learning? It’s just the totally out-of-control panic of trying to remember to use the pedals at the same time while also steering into the drift. It takes some effort.
Can you drift an automatic car? You can, but it’s a lot easier with a manual gearbox as you can short shift up or down a gear to initiate the drift. If you’re using an auto it needs to be the type with a button to stop it from upshifting when you don’t want it to.
What’s been your scariest moment drifting? Going sideways at 120mph off the track at Brands Hatch in the UK and not being able to do a thing to stop. That is definitely in my top scariest moments.
More high-octane fun
Audi Driving Experience Boost your driving skills and confidence in Audi Q7s, TTs and R8s with professional training. From Dhs950. Audi Suite, Dubai Autodrome, Motor City (050 283 4053).
Dubai Kartdrome Hurtle around the 1.2km outdoor circuit with arrive and drive sessions throughout the day. Dhs100 for a 15-minute session, plus Dhs10 for membership. Dubai Autodrome, Motor City (04 467 8700).
Explorer Tours Learn how to hold your own when driving a 4x4 through the desert with beginner and advanced courses in Hatta. From Dhs1,000. www.explorertours.ae (04 286 1991).