Car Tyre Physics: How Car Tyres Behave Under Pressure

Published: 30th March 2010
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Car tyres obviously play a huge part in letting cars take corners. Few people consider how they do this in a scientific way but knowing about the forces at work is both interesting and educational. Why? Because understanding what's involved and the terminology that applies can help your driving.

In road tests - particularly in track tests - cars are referred to as having understeer or its opposite characteristic, oversteer. These terms are directly related to car tyres, but what do they mean? The short, smart answer is simple: understeer means you'll see what you're going to hit, oversteer means you won't. The less drastic explanation refers to the behaviour of car tyres when great demands are being on them. An understeering car's driver will feel the need to apply more steering input to make the car go round the corner. An oversteering car's driver will have to apply less steering input to successfully negotiate the corner. In drastic oversteer, he'd have to add counter steering, or opposite lock. Most cars understeer, for safety's sake.

What is the science behind understeer and oversteer? Once again, it's about car tyres; specifically, it's about their slip angles. What are slip angles? Something that is easily understood when they're explained to you.

Every car tyre has a contact patch, the area of its tread that's in contact with the road surface. Imagine the tyres of a car that's taking a corner. Each tyre will be following a path in the direction the driver is steering. Each contact patch will be following a path but it won't be the same path the tyre's carcass is following. This is because the tyre's carcass deforms in response to the forces acting on it - the lateral force imposed by the weight of the car, and any forces of braking or accelerating. So, the tread in the contact patch follows a tighter curve than that the wheel/tyre combination is following. The tyre tread's ability to deform locally also has a bearing on the slip angle. The slip angle is the difference between the two paths.

What, then, do slip angles do? In fact, they add grip, up to a point. Slip angles increase with increasing forces, speed included. As they increase, grip improves, until the car tyres begin to lose grip.

When car tyres begin to lose grip, one of three conditions results. When the slip angles of the front and rear tyres are the same, neutral steering occurs. If a car has 50/50 weight distribution and if its front and rear tyres offer identical levels of grip, it will have neutral handling. At the limits of grip, a four-wheel drift will occur; competition cars aim for these characteristics. A car in a four-wheel drift is cornering as fast as it can, nearly at the point of sliding off the track.

Should the car tyres at the front have a larger slip angle than the rear tyres have, understeer will result. As well as being more controllable, understeer can be used to scrub away excess speed on a racetrack. After the ultimate limit of grip, an understeering car will leave the track while going forwards; it can't corner tightly enough.

What happens if the rear tyres' slip angles are the greater? Under these circumstances, the grip of the rear tyres will be less than that of the front. The car's tail will slide towards the outside of the corner. In extremis, the car will spin.

In practice, many aspects affect understeer and oversteer. These include which wheels drive the car forward (front, rear or all, four), the weight of the car and how it's distributed, whether the car is accelerating, cruising or braking, and the speed and loads involved. However, this explanation gives an insight into your car tyres' dynamic performance.

About The Author

Louise Slee has been a fan of driving for over 25 years, with no penalty points to date! See her articles at http://www.merityre.co.uk/ where she cuts through the technical jargon and explains car tyres in simple laymans terms.

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