As we relaunch our ‘how to’ series, get to know DirtFish’s lead instructor Nate Tennis and learn how to perfect the handbrake turn.
Before I jump on in here and start with the tricks, I just wanted to say hello. I’m Nate.
I’m lead instructor at DirtFish Rally School – second best job in the world. My DirtFish colleague Ott Tänak beat me to the best job!
As well as teaching at the school, I compete regularly in stage rallies in the Seattle area in my Saab – or a borrowed Volvo, or anything I can get my hands on! I was born into a rally-mad family and I’m definitely continuing that tradition. I love this sport. I love to teach it, to see that recognition and realization on people’s faces when they get it right and they score a big win. Even if the win is simply understanding the benefits of left foot braking.
That moment is why we do this job.
And one of the biggest wins for people is when they pull off their first handbrake turn.
For far too many people around the world, the handbrake – or parking brake – is just that: a brake to apply when they park.
To those people… wow, there’s a whole world out there waiting for you.
Now, before I start, and this is the really serious bit – all of our tuition takes place on a closed venue with professional coaches alongside the drivers. What I’m telling you here is the theory. For some practice, head to drive.dirtfish.com and book a program.
On a rally stage, the handbrake turn is used most commonly on a very tight corner where traditional cornering methods aren’t possible. It can be used to break traction at the rear and to help rotate the car into a slide through a more open corner, but we’ll come to that later.
Did you ever ride a BMX? Or a mountain bike? Remember how you used to be able to flick the rear wheel out on the brakes? Same thinking.
Rally driving in general is about weight transfer and momentum. And keeping your hands calm. So often a person’s first shot at a handbrake involves waving their hands around like they’re making pizza. Watch somebody making a pizza crust and you’ll see the point.
To break things down, first we’ll simplify by avoiding the hassle of a downshift. Because it’s slow, slow down. Like really slow down, since it’s very easy to turn our pizza-building hands into donut-collecting hands (mmmmmm… donuts).
Systems in a car often vary, but generally it’s best to be off of the brake pedal before pulling the handbrake. Unless your car is FWD and/or an automatic, the next step is to push in the clutch. This allows the rear tires to lock without stalling the engine. Then, look where you want to go and turn in that direction. Then give that brake lever a good yank (don’t forget to keep the button pushed!).
After you’ve rotated like a champ and collected the admiration of all your bystanders (safely distanced by several miles, of course), release the brake lever. Then release the clutch (if manual), and give the throttle pedal some love. Keep in mind that the rear tires have broken traction, so the amount of throttle should be small, until the tires transition from a slide to acceleration. As we say at the school, Clutch, Turn, Pull.
When a downshift is required, the simplest approach is to stay in the higher gear before corner entry, and follow the same technique above. After rotation, while the clutch is still depressed, release the handbrake and select the correct gear. Then follow the same clutch, throttle, and glory collection as mentioned before. Clutch, Turn, Pull, Shift.
OK, OK, there’s a lot more involved, and the pundits have already removed most of their hair in a fit of rage and Fast & Furious references. Yes, obviously, there is a lot more, as with any driving technique. The situations presented will help determine the correct technique. For instance, it may be better to Clutch, Pull, Turn, it may be more advantageous to make the downshift first. Go for it! The two techniques above are how we teach at the school because they are simple and can be done at low speed on a loose surface. The situation that’s presented to you may require a different approach.
The main points when trying for the first time is to go slower than you think, keep your eyes looking where you want to go, and use simple, small movements. Save the flailing hands for making pizza, which I’ll gladly accept if you’re offering!