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Grip. Handling. Many might regard the two as largely the same thing. I’m happy to acknowledge that they are certainly linked together in some way. But I’ll also claim that in some situations they are actually more like polar opposites.

I’ve been sitting on this almost religious prophesy for a while now. Considering the different aspects of it. Even trying them out myself in the real world. An article about roundabouts which Søren wrote almost a year and a half ago spurred me on. The time has come for me to become a missionary man and share this epiphany…

In terms of getting through a roundabout, somewhat simplified, grip has something to do with how much speed you can carry through the roundabout, while handling has more to do with howyou get through the roundabout. When we’re talking motorsport, the first would naturally take priority, and this is also what most people tend to focus on. But life on public roads isn’t motorsport! For instance, there are no roundabouts on race tracks. So my whole point today is that it’s actually the later which is the more important: Handling. Phenomenal handling is frankly much more entertaining than loads of grip. Even more so for those of us who drive classics.

The Lotus Elan is of course widely regarded as possessing among the very best handling characteristics in the world.

As an example, I used to own a Triumph 2.5PI from 1969. It had fuel injection, 132 horsepower and naturally rear-wheel-drive. It also had relatively narrow tyres with not a whole lot of adhesion. Especially in damp conditions it could be driven sideways like nothing else, and I was never afraid of playing around with its lack of grip either. The steering was relatively low geared and the steering wheel fairly large, so there was real potential for having to swivel that big steering wheel both much and fast if things got out of hand. But they never did: The big saloon had a very reasonable front/rear axle weight distribution and very predictable handling characteristics which were fundamentally safe, neutral and fully on your side. But it also possessed a fabulous engine with plenty of power to overcome the low levels of grip which could be found for those rear wheels. Frankly, it was awfully satisfying drifting ever so slightly sideways out of roundabouts. And light crossings for that matter.

Its successor had much, much more grip – but it wasn’t near as entertaining to drive on the limit.

I also owned a Triumph GT6 of the same vintage. It was equipped with much better tyres and therefore also had more grip, but it didn’t handle near as well. Also here, the engine power was more than sufficient for the rear to loose traction. But on a couple of occasions it came as a surprise to me. And this wasn’t even a car which I pushed out of the corners near as much – especially not after those few surprises it gave me.

The difference between the two cars was (among other things) in grip and handling. I’m convinced that the GT6 was the quicker car in theory, but in practical terms I would probably cover ground faster in the PI saloon, as it was more predictable and I therefore felt more confident pushing it a little.

Too much grip or too little handling?

But then that’s not really the point I’m trying to make, because life on various public roads isn’t really about outright speed as it would be on a race circuit. Rather, the point is that the whole driving experience was simply more entertaining from behind the steering wheel of the big saloon. You could allow yourself to play a little – to feel as if you were Rauno Altonen, when you once again exited a corner with the tail softly sliding wide. Holding the drift with a perfectly coordinated flick of the wrist while controlling the angle with your right foot.

Some may feel that there are too many differences between those two cars to justify a comparison. If so, I’ve luckily got another example up my sleeve which is almost scientifically perfect: My old Triumph Spitfire from 1963. I’ve raced it in the ’65-class of Historic Motorsports on the mandatory Dunlop Racing tyres which are of course diagonals. But later I also tried racing the Spitfire in the ’71-class which allows modern Yokohama tyres. So in this case the comparison is straightforward and totally objective.

You can’t possibly mention the Triumph Spitfire and handling without also acknowledging this very classic – and quite unwanted – situation. A Spitfire should always be set up with sufficient amounts of negative camber on the rear axle.

With the Spitfire engine being breathed upon, it’s delivered between 85 and 100 horsepower in its various states of trim. Certainly enough to break traction on those Dunlop Racing tyres, and even more so in the wet where it could be quite lively (this is where experience has taught me that I now need to mention that a Spitfire with a few well-chosen suspension tweaks handles a lot better than most believe). But even in the dry, I’ve always enjoyed racing on Dunlop Racing tyres. Grip might be compromised, but the levels of tactile feedback are enormous as you “dance” with the car on the very limit of traction.

The last corner of the Danish Frijsenborg Hillclimb – on narrow tyres and in perfect harmony.

All of that came to an end when I swapped to the Yokohamas which were both wider, lower profile, softer compound and altogether more modern. As a side note, I felt that the 185/60 profile looked horrible on my 1963 car. If historic Motorsport is about reliving the past and keeping things authentic, then those Yokohamas certainly failed miserably. But then again, I didn’t swap for the looks, but only to be faster. After all, thiswasin fact motorsport, when I joined the ’71-class for a season of historic hillclimbing.

Only very few people can do this with a BMW M1.

And as for grip levels, that new and modern rubber was astonishing! At first I was truly blown away by all that traction, leaving the Spitfire virtually immune to loosing traction and sliding. Needless to say, I could suddenly carry much more speed through the corners. And then – I had an off! All the way into a ditch too. A very humiliating demonstration of how the car had suddenly become faster than I was. Or at the very least, that I clearly hadn’t adapted to the new handling characteristics.

But plenty of people can do this with a BMW M3.

Since then, I’ve had the Spitfire on proper racetracks too while still wearing the modern rubber, and it’s clearly much faster. But these were trackdays, where lap times aren’t particularly important as it’s notmotorsport, but merely a bit of playtime. And as for playing, it’s just not near as fun with all of that grip. The grip ends up getting in the way of handling, and the car becomes less forgiving and less adjustable mid-corner. The narrower and harder Dunlop Racing tyres are much more confidence inspiring.

Which leads me to the title of this article: Grip is good – Handling is better.

ViaRETRO-bonusinformation: Just in case there are still a few who aren’t totally happy with the difference between grip and handling, I found this explanatory video from Top Gear – from way back when the program was actually about cars. It includes both Alfa, Porsche, BMW, Lotus, Citroën, oh and a Morris. It’s all very informative and thought provoking as Tiff Needell drifts the basic Morris Minor through corner after corner, having much more fun than he has in the Lotus Elan:

How do you feel about grip and handling? Which is the most important to you? And of all the cars you have owned (or even just driven), which had the best grip? Which had the best handling? And which gave you the greatest degree of driver satisfaction?


2 Responses

  1. YrHmblHst

    Understand what youre saying ; may we add another term into the discussion also? ‘Predictability’. Your personal Triumph examples are perfect.
    As for me, I would give the examples of a Porsche 911 and a Corvette, or Lotus Elan +2S130. By most measures, my 911 SC had lotsa grip and handled very well. [ i dont necessarily agree – I say it handled funny, but thats me…] However, the 911 wasnt particularly ‘predictable ; it would suddenly let loose at inopportune moments, and occasionally at a not very rapid pace – the closest i came to looping it couldnt have been at over 30 mph…on flat ground. Maybe I just never ‘got into it’ enough, or kept it long enough/used it at a higher rate than mere commuting enough, but the 911 never seemed planted or predictable.
    The Lotus on the other hand, was completely predictable and the best handling car I have ever owned or driven. Its grip may have not been the best on 185 section [as I remember] street tyres, but my…it was a joy to drive, even just running to the grocery store.
    Methinks it, like most things, comes down to a matter of priorities. If absolute lowest lap times at the track are your whole raison d’etre, then maybe grip is the most important, along with plenty of handling. But for plain entertaining motoring on the road, handling is the thing; in fact, you dont want TOO much grip then anyway. My old Corvette had plenty of both when I got it done, and the rate of progress required for it to be nearly as much fun as many ‘lesser’ cars was so high that an off could be very serious, and the blue meanies wouldve taken a very dim view of my recreation should they have been encountered [or could have caught me].

  2. Dave Leadbetter

    It’s interesting that all the photos illustrating this article (bar one) are of rear wheel drive cars, and all talk of gently adjusting your line on the power is only possible with correct wheel drive. That’s not to say that all RWDs are intrinsically brilliant; they most certainly are not (see swing axles above), but I would venture that only cars that have at least some proportion of the drive going to the rear have a chance of truly working in harmony with the driver. Front wheel drive can absolutely never offer the fluidity of a good RWD chassis. In the world of Dave, that is an unshakable fact. Limited grip on a good rear drive is fun and also normally gives you options to sort it out mid-corner, whereas limited grip on a front wheel drive just leads you to understeer into the ditch. I know what I prefer.


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