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Ownership Why Stiff Suspensions Have Less Grip

11:38  05 october  2017
11:38  05 october  2017 Source:   roadandtrack.com

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A suspension has two main jobs: to keep the tires in contact with the road (maintain grip ), and to provide comfort to the passengers. So why would a soft spring allow for more grip than a stiff spring?

Why Stiff Suspensions Have Less Grip . Discussion in 'Community Lounge' started by moinmoin, Aug 1, 2017.

  Why Stiff Suspensions Have Less Grip © Getty

One of the most common aftermarket upgrades in the automotive world is a set of coilovers, yet it’s also one of the most misunderstood. While there are certainly very real benefits to lowering a ride, or stiffening a suspension, these benefits are not as clear cut as they may seem. Simply raising the spring rate can rapidly deteriorate not only a vehicle’s comfort, but its handling and grip as well.

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To understand why, first let’s discuss the whole purpose of springs. A suspension has two main jobs: to keep the tires in contact with the road (maintain grip), and to provide comfort to the passengers. If a dip appears in the road, the spring presses the tire down into the dip to maintain traction. If a bump appears in the road, the spring allows the tire to move upward, without the vehicle body moving much, again to maintain grip. So why would a soft spring allow for more grip than a stiff spring?

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The simplest way to understand this is to imagine a car with no suspension at all. With no suspension, hitting a bump at speed will result in the vehicle losing contact with the ground. A vehicle with no suspension is essentially equivalent to a vehicle with an infinitely high spring rate. As you decrease the spring rate, the suspension is able to conform better to road irregularities, and thus grip improves. Of course, there is a sweet spot where all of this is optimal, but many aftermarket suspension set ups dramatically spike spring rates over stock specs, and in turn can decrease grip.

While too stiff of a suspension may mean going airborne when hitting a bump, it can also mean not contacting the road quick enough if there’s a drop in the road. Imagine we have a car with a super stiff spring on the front left tire, and a super soft spring on the front right tire, heading towards a 20 millimeter indent ahead where the road drops. Which tire will come into contact with the road first? You might think the higher spring rate would react faster, but in reality, the lower spring rate will contact the ground first, and thus allows for more grip. Again, going back to imagining a spring with an infinitely high rate (a fixed suspension), you’d simply rely on gravity for the car to drop down into the divot. With a lower spring rate, the force pressing the tire down remains higher longer relative to the amount of travel it has, so it contacts the ground much sooner.

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A softer suspension will offer more mechanical grip as it will do a better job of keeping the tires on the ground vs a stiff suspension when it comes to depressions, bumps, and surface irregularities in the road. But then why do race cars have such stiff suspensions ?

A softer suspension will offer more mechanical grip as it will do a better job of keeping the tires on the ground vs a stiff suspension when it comes to depressions, bumps, and surface irregularities in the road. But then why do race cars have such stiff suspensions ?

Why Stiff Suspensions Have Less Grip© Hearst Communications, Inc. All rights reserved Why Stiff Suspensions Have Less Grip

At this point, it may not seem clear why hitting bumps and dropping into dips in the road is completely relevant for grip. Surely roads and racetracks with smooth surfaces allow for stiff springs to excel, right? Looking at the microscopic level, it’s easier to see this isn’t quite true. While at macro scale road irregularities may not be all that frequent, at the microscopic level the road surface is constantly changing. The tire and springs vibrate while adjusting to these small changes in surface conditions, which are made even more apparent when traveling at higher speeds. Ultimately, softer springs will adapt to road irregularities far quicker than stiffer springs, without causing a loss of contact with the road, and thus provide more mechanical grip.

So if relatively soft springs are important for mechanical grip, why do race cars have such high spring rates? It’s not that race cars don’t desire soft springs (they do!), it’s that the compromise isn’t worth it because factors like aerodynamics won’t allow it. Using Formula 1 as an example, the cars are capable of creating more downforce than the weight of the vehicles themselves. What would happen if you placed another car on top of your own car? The bottom car would sink low, eventually bottoming out if enough weight is added. To prevent this, the cars have to have super stiff springs, so that downforce doesn’t cause the car to bottom out. Furthermore, the aerodynamics of a Formula 1 car are highly dependent on ride height. For the car to operate most efficiently it needs to be at a set height. Stiff springs prevent it from lowering or raising much, keeping the aerodynamics efficient. Finally, race cars tend to drive on... you guessed it, race tracks. Generally, these are smooth surfaces that allow for stiffer setups. Of course, there are benefits to reducing body lean and roll, but the biggest driving factor for stiff setups on race cars often comes down to aerodynamics.

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Introduction to suspension . Why do cars have suspension ? If the springs are very ‘soft’ (i.e. have relatively low spring rates) the body rises little , but if the springs are very stiff the body rises quite a bit, depending on the severity of the bump.

Why do race cars run stiff suspensions then? Stiff suspension reduces body roll in corners which permits more rapid direction changes. The front should grip the same while the rear will grip less .

Two examples in the production car world are the Dodge Viper and the Dodge Challenger Demon. If you look at the various aerodynamic packages offered on the Dodge Viper, you’ll notice that as the downforce increases they also significantly increase the vehicle’s spring rates. The spring rate must compensate for aerodynamics. The Dodge Challenger Demon, on the other hand, developed as a drag car, has significantly reduced spring rates versus the Dodge Challenger Hellcat. One of the benefits of this reduction is an increase mechanical grip, which is vitally important for a drag car.

Luckily, you don’t have to rely purely on analogies to understand why softer springs allow for more mechanical grip, as it can be proven mathematically as well. The video below demonstrates, if you’re so inclined.

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