“Respect the water and understand your limits,” zen-like words of wisdoms from Ian Khong, Mazda’s Lead Jinba Ittai instructor at Malaysia’s first ever MazdaSports Academy. Yes, Jinba Ittai instructor is a real position within Mazda.
If you don’t already know, ‘jinba ittai’ is Japanese for ‘oneness between horse and rider.’ It is the spiritual compass that guides Mazda. In simple terms, Jinba Ittai speaks about building cars whose dynamic behavior is so natural to the driver, that it becomes an extension of the driver’s limbs.
The objective of MazdaSports Academy is not to turn participants into racing drivers, but to teach them to be safer drivers. Often this involve unlearning the many bad driving habits acquired over the many years of casual driving – wrong seating position and bad steering techniques are the biggest offenders.
You can’t appreciate Jinba Ittai or recover from a skid if you are not sitting and steering the car in the correct manner.
Initially, Mazda had allocated only 20 spots for the day course at MAEPS in Serdang. Clearly Mazda had underestimated the demand as all 20 slots were filled up in just 1 hour! It prompted Mazda to extend the course by another day, accommodating a total of 40 participants over the weekend.
Yours truly doesn’t drive a Mazda but Carlist.my was invited to participate in a CX-3 press car.
The first order of the day was, of course, learning the correct sitting position and steering wheel techniques. Adjust the driver’s seat and steering wheel’s until your stretched out wrist rests at the steering wheel’s 12 o’ clock position, with your shoulders firmly resting on the seatback.
Next, your elbows should be slightly bent when holding the steering wheel at the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions. You should be close enough so when your foot is firmly pressing the brake pedal as hard as you can, your legs are still bent at the knee. Note that your knees should remain bent even after applying maximum braking pressure. This is extremely important because a straight stretched out leg will, in the event of a crash, provide a direct path for the impact forces to hit your hips. A broken hip is far more difficult to treat than a broken leg.
Our lead instructor Ian also explained that Mazda pays more attention than many other manufacturers when it comes to sitting positions, going to the extent of studying the exact muscles used when we steer or shift a gear, before deciding on a driver-centric cabin layout.
Achieving perfect alignment between the steering wheel and control pedals is harder than you think because regular road cars need to suit a wide range of drivers. Limitations in packaging the many mechanical components behind the vehicle’s bulkhead often force manufacturers to adjust either the steering rack or the pedals to be slightly off-set.
Wrong steering technique is another common bad habit. While instructors from different advanced driving schools advocate slightly different techniques, they all agree that the standard driving school’s push-pull method is only suitable for big-rimmed steering wheels of non-power assisted cars from the ‘50s. Modern cars respond better with the hand-over-hand technique, which require drivers to keep the hands at the steering wheel’s 3 and 9 o’ clock positions, firmly holding it through a turn, before crossing one hand over the other for tighter turns.
With the theory sessions done, we headed to the makeshift safety cone-lined course at an empty car park. The practical exercise was done under the guidance of advanced driving instructors Jason Ngion and Jay Choong.
The first driving exercise involves familiarizing ourselves with anti-lock brakes (ABS). Modern cars with ABS and Brake Assist have very good braking performance but many drivers are not braking hard enough in emergency situations. You have to literally stand on the pedal, push as hard as you can, because your life depends on it. Driving instructors often say “If you can break the brake pedal, you can take the car home for free.”
When ABS is activated, a slight pulsing sensation can be felt but this is exactly how ABS is designed to work and it is very important that drivers continue braking as hard as they can while steering away from danger. ABS doesn’t reduce braking distance. It merely stops the tyres from locking under hard braking, allowing you to steer your vehicle away from the danger, which you won’t be able to if the tyres are locked.
Next is an exercise in making a sudden emergency lane change without braking, simulating obstacle avoidance in situations where the driver has no time to brake. The immediate take away is that many of us don’t steer fast enough with sufficient angles. Even if we manage to avoid the initial obstacle, we often failed to provide sufficient corrective steering angle to point the car back straight.
This is due to two common mistakes – wrong steering technique and vision. The former has already been explained while the latter may sound counter-intuitive. To avoid an obstacle one has to look away from the obstacle and towards the escape route.
Our brain’s hand-eye coordination is wired in such a way that we automatically steer towards what our eyes are focused on. If your eyes are focused on that tree, you are going to hit that tree. Instead, look to the direction where the car should be steered towards. It’s easier said than done but that’s why practices like this is important.
The last training session involves skid control on a wet surface. Driving straight into a large pool of standing water before yanking the steering wheel to the left, participants were shown how quickly things can go very wrong when it’s wet, even at just 60 km/h.
“How fast do you see people drive by when it’s raining heavily? This is just at 60 km/h,” said Ian, who reminded participants to always respect the water when driving.
Participants were taught the theory of aquaplaning and its relation to tyre size. The wider your tyres are, the higher the risk of aquaplaning, a condition when the volume of water on the road’s surface exceeds the tyres’ ability to disperse the water, causing it to float like a balloon. In such situations, electronic traction and stability controls won’t make a difference anymore because the tyre are no longer in contact with the ground.
Participants were taught to avoid such situations by practicing good judgement on speed versus braking distance, to read the road conditions by looking much further than the immediate vehicle in front. When approaching standing water, one should reduce speed by lifting off the throttle and keeping a firm grip on the steering wheel rather than suddenly stabbing on the brake pedal.
As this is a safe and controlled environment, participants were encouraged to slowly increase their speed until their vehicle goes into a spin, just to familiarize themselves with a skid and to understand the limits of their tyre’s traction. Contrary to popular opinion, many crashes that occur along wet corners don’t happen because the vehicle has skidded, but after it. As some participants noted, a skidding car can suddenly change direction once the front wheels regain its grip, throwing the car from an understeer into an oversteer situation. Countersteering during the initial stage of the skid is easy, but correcting the steering angle once the tyres regain their grip is harder.
The last activity saw the participants putting their lessons to good use by challenging themselves to a time trial. Right from the moment the first car was flagged off, it was very obvious that we were in a company of enthusiast drivers who were keen to improve themselves, as everyone posted respectable times. They definitely went home as better drivers than they were before the start of their lessons.
This inaugural event by MazdaSports Academy was open only to smaller models like the Mazda 2, Mazda 3 and CX-3. A separate session catering to larger models (which require a slightly different course setup) like the CX-5 and rear-wheel drive models like the MX-5 are in the plans.
In the future, we can expect to Bermaz Motor to organize more activities and launch more products under the MazdaSport brand. It currently offers accessories packages for the Mazda 2 and Mazda 3, under the M+ and MS names, and more recently, driving experience programmes.