As a part of an official trip with BMW to their headquarters in Munich, Germany, we recently visited their state-of-the-art Munich production plant, their splendid museum and the BMW Welt experience center – where you can experience every BMW Group product and service under one roof. Last, but definitely not the least, we spent one full day at the BMW Driving Academy, Maisach, near Munich. The driver training academy, also known as BMW Driving Experience, trains drivers to deal with every level of challenge on the road and at the racetrack.
BMW HQ in Munich, with the ‘Bowl’ building by its side, home to the company’s museum
BMW ‘Welt’ – Brand Experience Center
We spent one full day going through the theoretical and practice sessions of the academy’s basic driving program. Now, ‘basic’ as a word may sound somewhat conflicting with the inflated egos of auto journos, who think no end of their driving skills. However, even the most rudimentary level of training at the academy had elements which enriched our skills as a driver. We sincerely think that we should share our experience and learnings at the academy with you. Simple as the techniques may sound, they can really make a tremendous difference to a one’s’s skills to make him a safer and more confident driver.
It’s extremely important for a driver to sit properly in a car. Sitting too high, too low, too close or too far from the steering wheel doesn’t just have to do only with comfort. Based on your driving position, your body’s ability to respond to an emergency situation is also affected. There is a proper way to sit in a car while driving and it’s crucial in ensuring that your limbs can reach all the controls crucial in averting a potentially hazardous situation. Here’s what you need to keep in mind as you climb into the driver’s seat.
Your arms should not be stretched out, and you shouldn’t be lounging in the seat. You should sit upright with the steering wheel positioned comfortably close. Your arms should make an angle at the elbows to facilitate free movement of your hands at the steering wheel. Like the elbows, your knees should also form an angle while being positioned over the accelerator and brake pedal to facilitate a quick and powerful response from the legs in case of an emergency.
The seatback should be upright for proper support to back and upper shoulders. You should also set your headrest in such a manner that it is positioned right behind the back of your head to prevent any whiplash injuries in case of a rear collision. There should also be some space left between your head and the roof to prevent any head injuries in case the car inadvertently passes over a vicious bump. A gap of about four fingers is generally considered sufficient.
Adjust the seat height in such a manner that you get a good view of the car’s surroundings. It’s not advisable to sit too low, especially while driving in traffic conditions as chaotic as ours.
Most people hold and maneuver the steering incorrectly. You need to hold the steering from the points where the arms of a clock would be when it’s showing 9:15. It’s not right to hold the steering with one hand, or to hold it with both hands only from the top, or from the bottom. The steering wheel has to be held properly at 9:15 position to ensure the most confident movement and maneuverability.
For milder turns, where the steering wheel doesn’t turn full circle, your hand opposite the direction of the turn (Right hand for a left turn) should move the steering wheel, while the other hand should open up to let the steering wheel slide through.
For sharper turns where the steering wheel has to be turned more, both your hands should move together. For a left hand turn, the right hand should move to turn the wheel 180 degrees, and the left hand should momentarily release the steering and cross over to hold it again from point on steering wheel opposite to where your right hand is. This requires some practice, but can help you tremendously in having a better control on your car where quick steering movements are required.
To ensure that all the participants in the program had learnt the steering techniques properly, the trainers at the academy made the participants drive through a slalom course with a U-turn at the end. The two trainers kept a close watch on the participants and corrected them promptly as they spotted them doing something different from what was taught.
In emergency situations where you need to minimize the stopping distance, it’s absolutely paramount that you stomp hard on the brake, and apply as much pressure as possible. Braking systems in a car work on hydraulic pressure and it’s important to build that pressure to the maximum early on to ensure the most effective braking. Don’t try to modulate or feather the brakes in emergency situations, just stomp hard and apply as much pressure as possible in a sustained fashion. Stomp and stand on the brake pedal to reduce the braking distance to the minimum possible.
In case you think that braking hard alone wouldn’t be sufficient, you should also try to steer clear of the obstacle ahead. Cars with ABS would be able to steer under heavy braking. Those without the feature would not – if the wheels get locked, the car would just slide straight into the obstacle, irrespective of the steering angle. This should give you some sense about how important it is to have ABS as an option in your car while making a buying decision.
In a bid to demonstrate the importance of braking hard the trainer team at Maisach made the participants drive on a wet section of road at a certain speed, and placed a cone as an obstacle. As one would assume, it was not possible to stop the car before hitting the cone if you did not stomp hard and stand on the brakes.
Later, the participants were asked to enter the same section at a higher speed, with the cones put even closer and a narrow opening on the side as an escape route. For this exercise, the participants needed to brake hard, and steer clear of the hurdle at the same time. Usually, in emergency situations, the driver generally panics and fails to steer and brake at the same time. The exercise lets the driver go through the situation in a controlled environment, makes him understand closely as to what happens during such a scenario and thus equips him to deal with it better if ever it arises.
Understeer, generally associated with front wheel drive cars is a phenomenon where a car doesn’t traverse the desired line around a bend and runs wide. Thankfully, this is not a very difficult situation to overcome and you can bring the car back under your control by doing a few simple things. Most cars today are tuned in manner that they incline slightly more towards understeer than oversteer, as the latter is a much more difficult situation to handle.
In order to counter understeer, you need to follow these simple steps
1. Identify understeer: It’s important that you technically identify the state of understeer as soon as your car gets into that situation. You won’t be able to carry out the special measures needed to counter understeering until you identify it. So spotting the front wheels not obeying your command is vital.
2. Release the throttle: Now once you have identified understeer, the first thing you need to do is take that right foot off the throttle. The front wheels are already sliding, clamouring for traction, and adding more power to the equation won’t help. Ease the gas off, let some weight of the car get transferred to the front and give those front wheels a chance to claw some grip back
3. Open up the wheels: while this may sound counterproductive in the first look, this is the most important step in the process. Unlike what one may think, in order to turn the car around the bend, instead of trying to turn it in harder, you have to turn the steering wheel slightly outwards – which means if you were trying hard to turn left, you have to reduce the steering angle slightly by turning the steering wheel gently to the right, and let the front wheels open up. You see, your front wheels are already struggling to turn, and to expect them turn even more when they’re not coping with the situation at hand wouldn’t help much. So open the wheels up slightly, and enable them to roll, so you have a better chance to change direction successfully.
4. Avoid braking: The most natural reaction in this scenario would be to brake, and brake hard. But guess what, with your front wheels turned in, and not getting much traction, brakes are not going to help. You might end up sliding off the road into whatever awaits you there. Stay off the brakes.
5. Look where you want to go: Once you have released the throttle, and unwound the front wheels, you will suddenly realize that the car is turning a whole lot better. Once you have achieved that state, you need to direct the car where you want to be on the road. Just the way MotoGP riders have their sight perennially affixed on the points on the track where they want to place their bike. Keep looking for the safest exit point in the corner, and try steering the car to that point.
Oversteer, associated generally with rear wheel drive cars is a much more vicious situation to bring within control than understeer. In RWD oversteer, the power sent to the rear wheels of a car overpowers everything else and sends the car spinning. So what do you do when you realize that your car is oversteering, and it may actually end into a spin if you don’t control it? Here’s what you need to know.
1. Identify oversteer: just like understeer, identifying that your car is oversteering is one of the most important things. Until you identify the phenomena in good time, you won’t be able to take corrective measures in good time – so have a sense for identifying the scenario where you have used more gas than advisable around a corner and the rear is beginning to snap out
2. Release throttle: Get off the throttle immediately, or the next thing you would see is the world around you going in circles. No matter what, once you have identified oversteer, don’t press the accelerator pedal. Ease off the throttle and follow the next step, which is quite difficult.
3. Apply counter steering: Now this is the tricky part. Due to a lack of practice, most people would not be able to release throttle and apply a counter lock at the same time. And this is where the BMW Driving Academy is so crucial. On a wet skid pad, we were made to drive in circles over and over again, induce oversteer, and practice controlling it.
Applying counter steer would require you to turn the wheels from the direction of the turn in an opposite direction. And such an extended movement of the steering wheel would require you to be comfortable turning it by more than 360 degress rather quickly. It helps to practice to the second ‘crossing over’ steering technique mentioned earlier to be able to do this in good time.
4. Bring the car back in line: Once you have successfully counter steered the car out of an oversteer situation, you have overcome the major part of the problem. You car is not going to spin, but that’s not the end of the story. With counter lock on you may end up going off the road, so it’s important that you unwind the wheel again and bring the car back in line to follow the natural curve of the bend. Remember, we are talking about mitigating oversteer, not drifting here. Some very capable drivers may modulate steering and throttle to drift out of the corner, without having to unwind the steering wheel, but that’s not what we are talking about here.
While the scope of the training program at the BMW Driving Academy is much wider than the points discussed above, these are the things which can really make a difference in a critical situation. The techniques described above may look very simple to follow, but they are extremely effective in the real world when you are dealing with an emergency. Follow these simple rules and you’d be a safer, more confident driver for most situations you come across in everyday driving.
Here’s an image gallery representing the day spent by Indian bloggers at the BMW Driving Academy in Maisach, Munich