We have written a lot about race car set up on our website and broken it down into multiple sections for deep understanding and covered the vast majority of motorsports and applications. However, we have not yet covered the world of drift! This is because it is a motorsport that effectively defies the rules of motorsport and requires a very different base set up than all other motorsports out there. Therefore, we have compiled a whole drift car set up into this one article to keep it separate for drifters.
Before we begin we would let to settle a few myths about the sport of drifting.
1) Drift cars actually strive to generate as much grip as possible from the front and rear tyres to allow them to drive as fast as possible whilst still maintaining a drift. Obviously the more grip to overcome, the more power required.
2) Contrary to popular belief, drifting is a real motorsport, it has wheels, an engine and a driver and there is a winner and a loser by the end of it.
3) A lot of build, preparation and set up is now being used within drifting at a high level meaning that the top level drift cars are now purpose built, powerful motorsport machines.
For those that are not familiar with drifting, it is a motorsport in which the car must maintain constant and fluid oversteer between a series of corners on a circuit whilst hitting certain clipping zones on circuit and having as much proximity with the other car as possible. A good set up can go a long way in keeping the car sliding and providing a fluid, predictable transition.
The most obvious difference in set up between a drift car and a race car is the insane amount of negative camber on the front wheels. This is purposeful. Front camber on a drift car often ranges between negative 4 degrees and 7 degrees depending on the amount of camber gain on lock. This is due to when the car is on maximum steering angle, the lead wheel will gain positive camber as it is turned. As a drift car is always in a state of turning, with the front wheels on lock, the car needs to be set up to have zero camber on the lead wheel at ¾ the amount of lock available. This will aid front end traction on circuit and reduce understeer.
In the majority of drift cars, they are based upon an original road car and use suspension arms belonging to or derived from that car. Therefore, a lot of the original geometry from the standard design remains at the rear end, including camber gain. Due to the cars already being lower than standard often on coilovers, the position of the lower and upper arms are already at a point where camber gain has been significantly increased. Therefore it is common to see rear wheels on drift cars set to roughly 1 degree of positive camber statically. This is due to soft set ups being used to optimise rear end traction, resulting in a lot of squat on power and therefore producing large amounts of negative camber gain so that the tyre has maximum contact patch when on power.
One way to set the correct amount of positive camber is to remove the dampers after calculating how much squat will apply on power using the amount of anti-squat geometry in the car, the stiffness of the coil springs and the amount of force being applied from the acceleration. However, a much easier applicable way to get optimum camber at the rear wheel sin a drift car is to set camber to roughly positive 0.5 degrees and go testing. Then simply remove the wheels and see how the tread has worn. If the outside edge is not worn then increase positive camber, if the inside edge is not worn then increase negative camber until the tyre has a perfectly even wear across the width.
High amounts of caster are normally used in drifting to extract the benefits of a quick returning steering wheel as the car tries to self-centre. This is why when watching in-car footage of a drifter you often see the steering wheel spinning quickly through their hands when transitioning between corners. The wheel returns at such a high speed that it often steers past the neutral axis and begins steering in the opposite direction which is a very useful feature for the driver allowing them to provide steering input using the throttle and clutch, where the term “steer from the rear” comes from. Usual amounts of caster used are anywhere between 5 and 12 degrees of caster depending on the level of the set up.
Toe on the front wheels is down mostly to driver feel. Some drivers prefer a neutral set up with zero toe and others prefer a set up with some toe out, up to 1mm toe out per front wheel (2mm overall). At the rear the toe is often set to toe in. The amount of toe at the rear is set depending on how much grip is required from the car as this is where it is set. The more toe in, the more grip on throttle provided by the spinning rear tyres. This only works up to a point where too much toe in over 12mm per wheel (24mm overall) with a grippy compound tyre begins breaking drivetrain components and suspension arms etc due to the vast amount of grip and inward tractive force being provided which the components are not designed to compete with.
A usual set up will have between 0.5 and 2mm toe in per wheel at the rear. Only where high power levels are available and a serious competitive edge is required do the numbers creep towards 10mm toe in per rear wheel.
Anti-roll bars offer two main advantages to a racing car, the prevent the car rolling towards the outside if the circuit and they allow tuning of lateral load transfer rates through the front and rear axles, allowing the car to tune its levels of understeer and oversteer. In drifting the story is slightly different. Due to the car always counter-steering around the circuit and the power being applied in the opposite direction of steering lock, a drift car generates self-levelling forces reducing the amount of roll taking place in the car. More importantly, due to the car siding, it is generating minimal lateral acceleration due to all 4 tyres not gripping through the corner. Therefore, anti-roll bars are not fundamental to the performance of the car on circuit. However, they do still help with the tuning of the lateral load transfer rates and the front and rear axles.
Due to most drift cars being based upon road cars and therefore having the standard or slightly derived versions of roll bars on the cars, the front roll bar is very stiff and chunky. This is due to the manufacturers designing the cars to understeer as a first response to prevent the level of crashes when inexperienced drivers decide to buy their rear wheel drive car. Now in a motorsport designed around oversteering it is fair to say that having a component fixed to the car that is designed to produce understeer is a bad idea. Therefore, a good move to make is to remove the front anti-roll bar totally to provide much more front end grip to the car and allow the rear end to pivot around the front wheels with much more ease.
The rear anti-roll bar is an optional item depending on the level of power of the car and the amount of grip that is wanted. For set ups with lower power levels (below 500bhp) it is usually best to leave the rear anti-roll bar in place. This is due to it increasing the lateral load transfer rate through the rear axle, making it easier for the car to oversteer on circuit. It also creates faster transitions which can be of a benefit in a lower powered vehicle. For higher power cars that are searching for greater levels of traction, that it is best to remove the rear anti-roll bar as well. This softens the rear end when cornering (which is all the time in drifting) providing more traction at the tyres allowing the car to travel faster. It also slows down the transition, making it less snappy, which can be a benefit when you have hundreds of horsepower under your right foot and you need a slight moment to think between corners.
Ideally in a purpose built drift car, it would still have both front and rear anti-roll bars fitted. But in this case, the front anti-roll bar would be thinner and softer than the rear one, and both would have full adjustment to fine tune the balance of oversteer. However, in most cases standard or similar anti-roll bars are on the cars so the above options are the best routes to take.
Coil spring rates are often very soft in a competition drift car which is far from contrary belief. Drift cars are often known as really low, extremely stiff cars on cheap coilovers bouncing all over the road. However, in competition, the set ups are very soft to allow the tyres to grip and respond to throttle inputs effectively and absorb bumps in the circuit as oppose to bouncing the tyre contact patch off the ground. Atypical set up in drifting uses 10 to 12kg springs at the front wheels and 8 to 10kg springs at the rear wheels.
Roll centres can play a key part in fine tuning the setup of a drift car if both roll bars have been removed. In this situation, the roll centres can be moved to ideal positions where the front roll centre is slightly higher than the rear. This gives the front end slightly more stiffness allowing the rear to get optimum grip. If the balance doesn’t feel right then the mounting positions of the arms can be re-fabricated to shift the balance forward or rearward to fine tune the handling.
When a standard geometry car gets lowered it often greatly affects the roll centres moving them far from their designed position making it necessary to alter arm pick up points or ball joint/bearing centres. A good place to start is to first calculate your centre of gravity height and place your front roll centre at 30% height of COG from ground. Then set your rear roll centre to 15% height from COG from ground. These are good platforms to begin adjusting from so make sure to leave room for adjustment from these positions.
Bump steer in drift cars is a simple situation. Remove it entirely from the front wheels and rear wheels. However, the way to remove it totally is slightly different than that of a regular race car. Where on a regular race car the bump steer is measured with the wheels pointing directly forward, a drift car needs to have it done for the average amount of lock it would experience on circuit. In this situation the bump steer should be removed from the lead wheel and then repeated for the other side. This is due to drift cars spending all of their time on lock and rarely driving in a straight line.
Ackermann geometry within drifting has a varied response with which set up is correct. And the only correct answer is that the drivers preferred set up is the correct one. All types of Ackermann geometry are used within drifting from positive, zero and reverse. Positive Ackermann is the generally preferred set up as this is what road cars come with as standard. Therefore, many drifters have become used to driving like this and have adopted their driving style based upon this. Drifters coming from gaming backgrounds have started to prefer a reverse Ackermann set up where the wheels roll freely around the corner instead of dragging. And other drifters who have used lock kits often have zero Ackermann which is a set up they prefer. So the only real way to set your Ackermann is to make it adjustable and go and try out each style and see which you prefer best.
When building a car purpose built for drifting there are a few things to aim for that will make the car handle and drift much better. First of all the centre of gravity position is very important. It is best to get the COG as low as possible without going below the roll centres as this will have adverse effects on the handling of the car. With the COG as ow as possible it also needs to be as central as possible from side to side and front to rear to provide even normal force at all four tyres. One technique often used due to the large heavy engines used up front is to mount the fuel cell and the radiator in the back of the car to even the weight distribution out.
Next is to consider the amount of wheel travel possible whilst still having the car low to lower the centre of gravity height. Often when cars are lowered, it limits the amount of wheel travel remaining in bump due to the tyre being close to the top of the wheel arch. Therefore it is a good idea to cut away the wheel arch liner and put it back in higher up so that the wheel still has a good amount of travel available when out on circuit. There will be other modifications required to achieve this such as longer brake lines, suspension arm lengths etc but it will be worth it when out on circuit as it will allow the damper to be used to its full extent and make the of the stroke of the damper.
Finally, the aspect of having adjustable front geometry is often not possible in as standard road car apart from limited camber adjustment and toe adjustment; never mind the lack of steering angle. Therefore, a lock kit can be purchased and fitted from the companies such as Wisefab who are very popular within drifting due to their ease of installation and adjustment. They are a simple bolt on for your model of car and give the car wider front track width, improved roll centres, Ackermann adjustment, caster, camber, toe adjustment as well but more importantly they offer much more steering angle by altering the tie rod pick up point from the central axis of the wheel. There are also kits available for the rear suspension system which remove undesirables such as camber gain, bump steer and re-correct the roll centre positions which can help the car perform much better straight away after the build out on circuit.