#ThrowbackThursday: An intro to drifting (2017)

The author gives this drifting thing a whirl in his long-term Mazda MX-5.
The author gives this drifting thing a whirl in his long-term Mazda MX-5.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Join us as we look back at some of our memorable motoring experiences from years gone past. This week, Brenwin Naidu recounts a crash course in drifting from one of the best in the business.

Everyone remembers the third instalment of the Fast & Furious franchise. In my humble opinion, Tokyo Drift was the best of the lot — it was believable, among other things. Well, slightly more believable, in relation to the more far-fetched plots that succeeded it.

The premise, on the off-chance that you never saw the film, centres around a wayward young American who finds himself embroiled in an uneasy situation with a rather unfriendly “Drift King”.

His only path to glory is to learn how to drift (obviously) and beat his nemesis in a heated battle through a winding mountain pass. Of course, ardent fans will point out that I missed a lot in this condensed summary. But that was the crux of the story: an uninitiated novice who must learn to go sideways expertly to save his life.

The stakes were not so high on the skidpan at Zwartkops Raceway, as we sought to compile a short tutorial on how to slide like a master. Or maybe they were: would my floundering put a dent in my delusions of competence, thus revealing deficiencies as a motoring journalist?

Against a helmsman like Clinton Weston, there is no way to compare.

Weston heads up the Mercedes-Benz Dynamic Driving Academy. A South African motorsport legend, he has a well-stocked trophy cabinet. And he was a presenter on the SABC3 programme Car Torque.

So we had the perfect trainer and an enthusiastic student. What about the tools?

Author Brenwin Naidu (left) with Mercedes-Benz Dynamic Driving Academy head Clinton Weston.
Author Brenwin Naidu (left) with Mercedes-Benz Dynamic Driving Academy head Clinton Weston.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Rear-wheel drive is fundamental. Yes, yes, you can induce oversteer in a four-wheel drive or front-wheel drive car. But let us stick to the basic principles here. For our introduction, we would use our long-term Mazda MX-5 roadster.

The cheerful little Japanese two-seater has provided Sunday Times Motoring staffers with many miles of mirth. A peppy, normally-aspirated engine, six-speed manual transmission, mechanical handbrake and sprightly demeanour – the car delivers on all those tenets of an engaging driving experience.

And then, once I had successfully honed my skills, the monstrous Mercedes-AMG E63S 4MATIC+ would facilitate the next level of our short training course. I hear you ask, “What happened to rear-wheel drive only?” Hello specialised drift mode: it transfers 100% of power to the rear axle and disengages virtually all the electronic aids aimed at keeping you on the straight and narrow.

The dainty MX-5 is like playing fetch with a Jack Russell: it can be lively, busy and fun.

Stupidly, I thought the more powerful car would be harder to manage. The dainty MX-5 is like playing fetch with a Jack Russell: it can be lively, busy and fun. Traction control disengaged, we set off, snatched second gear, driving around the circular cone course at a pedestrian pace, then heavy with the accelerator to get the back out.

Weston intoned: “This is an art that needs to be felt, anticipate the car as it goes, counter with the steering and modulate the pedal just enough to maintain a controlled slide.”

I ended up facing the wrong way too many times. Blame my slow reflexes and gung-ho attitude. Six or 10 similar spins ensued. Until, eventually, success. I managed a genuine half-circle of sideways before my focus lapsed and I knocked out one of the orange cones. But Weston was pleased. I was getting the hang of this drifting thing!

With limited time and a drying skidpan, we had to make haste.

With the basics covered, Naidu got behind the wheel of the Mercedes-AMG E63S 4MATIC+.
With the basics covered, Naidu got behind the wheel of the Mercedes-AMG E63S 4MATIC+.
Image: Waldo Swiegers

With some fundamentals learned in the Mazda, we hopped into the beastly Mercedes-AMG. Drift mode engaged. The resulting dance was, dare I say, leisurely. A longer wheelbase meant more time to act before the rear overtook the front - which I never allowed, because I had just become a drifting expert, of course.

And the vast power on tap meant that getting the tail out took less effort. A good 30 minutes had elapsed and by the end, I was managing more than semi-circle drifts. I had achieved my target of one full lap.

The takeaway from this? With the right instruction, anyone can learn the finer points of car control.

Lastly, if you are going try and emulate Drift King antics, please, please do it in a controlled, safe environment – and ideally with the guidance of a more seasoned hand.

A special thanks to Zwartkops Raceway for the use of their facility, and to the Mercedes-Benz Dynamic Driving Academy and Clinton Weston for the patient tutelage. Contact 012 384 2298 for more information on its courses - or Google them.


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