Drift racing: Why it's getting Britain's petrolheads hot under the hood

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The Independent Online

There is something utterly masochistic about choosing to slide at 90 degrees while driving round a corner at 60mph. This occurs to me as the G-force slams my head into the side of the reinforced roll-cage for the fifth time in as many seconds.

I'm at Goodwood for a day of drift racing, a saloon-car motorsport in which drivers slide or drift around bends. In other forms of motor racing this was a technique sometimes used to block an opponent's racing line and stop them overtaking; in drift racing, it's the whole point. In fact, the term "racing" is misleading - in competition, a panel of judges marks drivers not only for speed (usually between 80 and 100mph), but also for angle of attack, execution and style, so the winner is not necessarily the fastest.

Drift racing started in the Sixties. The poor tyre technology then available to rally drivers meant they had to rely on finding the right angle of drift when entering corners to maintain momentum, a technique that came to be known as the "powerslide". It's easier said than done.

But motor racing cars have improved, and cars can race far faster if they remain stable. These days, the smaller the angle of drift, the more stable and the faster the car. The low traction in rally driving provided by dirt and snow tracks means cornering still relies on oversteer. More to the point, it looks cool.

In competition however, drifting is far more than just a flashy crowd-pleaser. Skilled drivers use a range of techniques: a braking drift requires a subtle blend of brake and throttle; a feint drift starts with a waggle of the steering wheel; a long-slide drift begins by pulling the handbrake; and a shift lock involves dropping down a gear to drag the rear wheels and begin the slide.

Drifting has been an underground activity in Japan for 10 years, attracting boy racers who try to outdo one another in long, smoky slides with their engines at full throttle. The idea soon caught the attention of Japan's leading motor show, the Tokyo Auto Salon, and organisers formalised the sport to launch the D1 Professional Drift Series. It soon spread to America, where enthusiasts began to play with the weight-to-power ratios of their rear-wheel-drive vehicles so that the mere hint of a bump threw the car into a spin. All this, apparently, in the name of fun!

Back at Goodwood, the circuit almost perfectly resembles an oval Scalextric set. My instructor for the day is Kiki Nana, the managing director of OPT Drift Club, the official body for the UK's growing number of drift racers. He shows me to our first car, a souped-up BMW M3 which, with all the optional extras, is worth about £50,000. The leather seats, Nana explains, will make it impossible for my body to stay in one position during the drift. "Don't worry," he says, "we have two other Japanese models for you to play with - there were three, but one went into the tyre wall this morning and is finished". Comforting. But how tough can it be? I have been racing before, and besides, I have spent hours - all right, days - perfecting the handling of all manner of cars and conditions on my PlayStation driving simulator.

The first thing you notice about drifting for real is that going in a straight line isn't just bad form, but will stop you winning any competitions. Big-money racers, such as the self-styled drift king Keiichi Tsuchiya, originally earned their stripes competing in Japanese touring car championships, NASCAR races and even the Le Mans 24-hour race. Today, they exhibit their vast armoury of braking and sliding techniques in specialist drifting competitions.

Racing in the BMW is somewhat unsettling. As a passenger, the sheer lack of feel for the track is scary, and the executive leather seats and unusual balance of the car mean that cornering is more a matter of luck than judgement. Nana has no intention of letting me "finish" his vehicle, so we swap German for Japanese.

The second car is the equivalent of a hyperactive, steroid-dependent bodybuilder. The ultra-powerful, 300-plus brake horsepower engine of the road-legal Nissan 200SX is tuned to within an inch of its life and so, quite possibly, are my nerves. The car feels safer and more stable than the BMW though; corners are easier to judge and the steering is more responsive. Accelerating and braking into the bend is easy as long as you can judge when to initiate the move; it's knowing when to get out of the drift which is the test of nerve. Getting it right comes down to milliseconds, and if you get it wrong it means braking into an uncontrollable spin and another close encounter with the tyre wall. It's an adrenalin-fuelled few seconds that feels fantastic.

"There are many different styles to drifting," says Nana. "It depends on the type of corner as to what sort of drift technique you use. Normally it's much easier to drift a car if it's rear-wheel drive with a reasonable amount of horsepower."

If you fancy a crack at drifting, think again; without the upgrades, flipping your little runaround is a foregone conclusion, and the minimum adjustments cost about £30,000. However, if you can keep your nerve and your car in one piece, drifting is a sweet science.

FURTHER INFORMATION

For more information on drift racing:

www.optionmotorsport.com

www.driftracing.co.uk

Scalextric have released Powerslide (£79.99), a drift racing set: www.scalextric.com

EA games Need for Speed 2 (£29.99) has a drift-racing mode.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift will hit UK cinemas 21 July

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