(Photo Credit: Suspension Secrets)
Your car’s alignment plays a major role in affecting how your car handles, how your tyre wears, and even your fuel consumption. Here’s a beginner’s guide to setting up your alignment to make it work for you.
In this guide, we will walk through the different elements that make up your car’s alignment and some recommended baseline settings you can use. Your car’s alignment isn’t actually done on the tyres and wheels themselves, it’s adjusted by manipulating the car’s suspension components which in turn affect how your wheels and tyres make contact with the road.
While there are many components you can fiddle with the fine-tune your setup, there are a three main degrees of adjustability that affect the bulk of your alignment-related handling characteristics. These are toe, camber, and caster.
The toe of your car refers to the angle at which your wheels on the same axle point either towards or away from each other (from a top down view). When the front of your tyres point towards each other, that’s positive toe or toe in. When they point away from each other, that’s negative toe or toe out. A setup with zero toe means that the wheels are parallel to each other.
Photo Credits: (Virtual Racing School)
Cars usually come from the factory with a little bit of toe in on the front wheels, this means that the car is more likely to track straight even with a bit of steering input, which is the safer option for most drivers. Adding a bit of front toe out will result in faster response on turn-in, although adding too much may result in steering that feels too ‘darty’ or ‘pointy’.
When the car reaches the middle of the corner though, as weight is transferred to the outside tyres, that effect is reversed. Front toe out induces more understeer and is less pliable to mid-corner direction change, while front toe in makes the car easier to rotate mid-corner to the point where it might cause oversteer in FWD cars. Due to these effects when putting in any amount of toe, a common baseline setup is slight front positive or negative toe depending on driver preference.
As with front toe, the rear toe also affects how your car handles. A car with negative rear toe will tend to want to rotate more easily into the corner which may help turn-in response but if overdone may induce oversteer on entry or exit if the driver’s inputs are rough. On the other hand, a setup with positive rear toe will make the rear wheels ‘follow’ the front ones more. While this means that the car will be stable under braking, positive rear toe may cause the car to understeer and ‘push’ on corner exit.
Any non-zero amount of toe will also cause drag when driving in a straight line as the wheels will be either moving towards or away from each other. While in small amounts, this may mean better performance in straight line braking and acceleration, too much toe (both in or out) may cause excessive tyre wear.
Camber refers to the angle at which the tops of your wheels point either inwards (negative camber) or outwards (positive camber). The amount of camber directly affects how much of your tyre is in contact with the road, so for example a car with zero camber has its tyres perfectly flat on the ground which means that the tyres have its maximum contact patch with the road when its traveling in a straight line.
Photo Credits: (Virtual Racing School)
However, due to suspension geometry and how physics work, when you enter a corner, your contact patch reduces, which means while your car will be plenty stable under acceleration and braking. Having zero camber will compromise your corner grip.
Therefore, as the outside wheels gain more positive camber the more your turn in, setting up your wheels such that they have negative camber at a standstill will mean that under corner load, the tyres will still be more vertical in the corners, which means a larger contact patch, and hence more grip.
However, too much negative camber will result in instability under braking and reduced traction under acceleration, as there is less contact patch when moving in a straight line. Excessive negative camber can also cause drastic and uneven tyre wear as the insides of the tyres will wear out much faster than the outside.
How much front negative camber you setup your car with depends on whether your car is FWD or RWD and how you drive. If you’re able to cope with a bit more instability under braking and throttle management on corner exit, you might be able to get away with running more negative camber to gain more cornering grip. In a FWD car, your front camber setup has a few more considerations. As the front tyres are required to deal with the energy of turning and being driven, more balance is required to make sure that the tyres don’t overheat, as that will reduce tyre performance in all aspects.
Rear camber works roughly along the same lines as in the front but with a few more considerations. Not enough rear camber will result in your car being prone to oversteer through the corner while too much camber may result in reduced traction on acceleration in RWD cars. Running more rear camber on a FWD car, however, may help to bring tyre temperatures into their operating window, as the rear tyres are not worked as hard. Of course, more rear camber comes at the expense of increased tyre wear as well.
Caster refers to the angle at which the bottom of the suspension is either in front of (positive caster) or behind (negative caster) the top of the suspension and is only applicable to the front wheels. Cars usually have positive caster and this tends to be the element least adjusted out of the three.
Photo Credits: (Rod Authority)
The caster of your car affects how much positive camber is gained when cornering, at the expense of effort required to turn the wheel. In general, the more positive camber you put in, the more grip and stability you’ll have, but your arms will get a real workout. Zero caster or negative caster will mean much lighter steering, but less overall front grip.
As with all setup tuning, compromise and balance is needed in order for all the different settings to work together in harmony to produce the grip and driving performance desired by the driver.
When it comes to setting up your own car, a good piece of advice would be to change only one setting at a time. Every car reacts to setup changes in a different way so by only adjusting one variable at a time, you’ll be able to accurately identify the differences in your car’s handling based on that change.
Once your car is dialled in to your driving style and ability level, you’ll feel more in tune with your car and make the most of its potential.
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