The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

16 June 2007

Go, speed racer

Drivers in general have something of a tendency to overrate their abilities. (I am an exception, not because I'm all that good, but because I am hypercritical of my on-road performance.) The Wall Street Journal is reporting that as more supercars are sold, more of them end up in the hands of people who can't drive them:

Auto makers are turning out a new breed of supremely fast sports cars that sell for upwards of $250,000 and share many characteristics of purebred racecars. But as more of them hit the road, often in the hands of inexperienced drivers, a growing number are ending up wrapped around trees, smashed into guardrails or otherwise totaled in accidents.

In the past 18 months, drivers across the world have cracked up at least six rare $1 million Ferrari Enzos — only 400 of which were built. In March, a California man rammed his $300,000 Lamborghini Murciélago into five parked cars; while in England, a 39-year-old driver caused an international stir among car enthusiasts by crashing a Bugatti Veyron — an extremely rare $1.5 million turbocharged missile with a top speed of 253 miles per hour.

Not that I have any objection to flooring it, mind you. But you need to know what happens when you're not accelerating in a straight line anymore:

Driving experts say most accidents in these cars happen when drivers take turns too fast for the road conditions or start turning prematurely and then snap off the accelerator to compensate. If the car's back end starts to fishtail, many inexperienced drivers will fail to steer in the direction of the sliding tail or will overcorrect by turning too severely in that direction. Both mistakes can cause a spin. "It's a symphony of inputs and adjustments to keep the car under control," says David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports Auto Test Division.

Most workaday vehicles won't get you into this sort of jam: for one thing, they don't go that fast, and for another, most of them tend to understeer at the limit, which scrubs off speed (and tire tread) as you fail to exceed the car's capacities. You get used to being bailed out by this, and then you start whizzing around in a car that doesn't do that, and pretty soon Dennis Haysbert is asking if you're in good hands:

According to the California Highway Patrol, the total number of accidents involving Aston Martins, Bentleys, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Lotuses and Maseratis rose to 141 last year, an 81% increase from 2002, while overall crashes declined statewide during that period. Porsche, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, which sell a wider range of models, saw a 22% increase during that time frame.

I noticed this week that the rules for One Lap of America now require entrants to have completed two different high-performance driving schools, and here's why:

As the on-track speeds have increased over the years of One Lap, we need to know that all competitors have the skills to safely deal with anything that might happen on the racetracks. Two drivers schools with instruction in a racing environment is considered the absolute minimum. Most racetracks have this instruction available, many at a reasonable cost.

Even if I'd just won the lotto, I wouldn't consider buying a Ferrari unless I'd completed at least one such course. But maybe that's just me.

(Via Autoblog.)

Posted at 11:28 AM to Driver's Seat

No, it's not just you. I've driven some newer 'vettes, and I really don't have the skills necessary to go past seventy or eighty percent. In a tight corner, too much power will break the rears loose - not something the average car can do (particularly a front driver!!). I've driven on enough gravel, mud, ice and snow to know what to do in slower situations, but at high speed on pavement, not so much.

Posted by: Jeffro at 4:55 PM on 16 June 2007

I know the textbook drill, but that's no substitute for experience, and, well, I own a front-driver. The nice little 40-mph curve where I-44 east merges into I-35 south, I can take at about 65; beyond that, I encounter roll angles straight out of HMS Pinafore. (On seriously rainy days, even 40 is tricky.)

Posted by: CGHill at 5:13 PM on 16 June 2007

I certainly agree with your assessment in that drivers in general have a tendency to overestimate their driving skill. As a former high-line European car salesman, the large increases in exotic car crashes doesn't surprise me at all as the people who buy exotic cars often have super-sized egos that are as big as the price tags of these exotics. These folks seem to think as though they are immortal. I've had several idiots like these run cars off the road during test drives and even had a few customers kill themselves in speed-related accidents. These experiences taught me that just because you are rich, it doesn't necessary mean you are smart. Perhaps these crashes are Darwin's or God's way of telling these folks they have too much!

Posted by: Curtiss at 1:13 AM on 20 June 2007