Learning from the Meister
Editor’s note: Yoshiaki Ito’s role as Lexus’ “Drive Meister” is a high point in a career that’s kept him at the leading edge of vehicle technology. Through the 80s and 90s, he helped pioneer research into car performance, executed track-test training and driver evaluation, and carried out development work in Europe. From there, he spent many years in Lexus’ experimental division, where he helped develop no fewer than eight Lexus models. What does he drive? A Starfire Pearl CT 200h.
JAPAN, LATE WINTER 2011: The track is dry, and the air is cool and still. Clouds are bulking up against a winter-blue sky, but they don’t look threatening.
Perfect conditions, here at a secret Lexus test track or “proving ground,” for Drive Meister Yoshiaki Ito to give me a few driving lessons, and show me some of the CT 200h’s capabilities. (I’m also thrilled to be visiting a secret Lexus location, used to prevent spy shots of Lexus technologies in development—although today’s car is anything but a secret.)
Settled into the car, and with Ito at the wheel, we chat during a couple of laps on the main circuit. “You can register the CT 200h’s dynamic focus in many ways,” Ito says. “Even with its sound insulation, you can hear the engine responses. You can feel the road through the steering wheel and the well damped ride while changes in steering weight indicate levels of lateral acceleration.”
Awareness of lateral acceleration—which pushes the car sideways—is important, Ito says, because without it you lose the sense of being at one with the car. Seating design helps, too, he adds. “The highly supportive driver’s seat provides a better feel for lateral forces.”
Drivers can make their own adjustments, too, Ito says. “Some keep a greater distance between the steering wheel and the seat than we test drivers. Move the seat a little further forward and with a more upright seat angle, and you’ll get more precise steering and pedal control.”
We swing out of a banked curve and Ito takes the CT—switched from Normal mode to Sport—to a steady 60 mph. He then changes lanes, fast. Another 20 feet and he does it again. Then one more. In each case, the car darts left or right before locking back on to the straight.
“This,” he says, looking steadily ahead, “is a great strength of the performance dampers. It’s chassis technology that makes rapid lane changes easily controllable and precise. Do the same in some cars and the yaw effect means they’ll go beyond what you need and you have to correct your line. All Lexus models are strong in this way, but the CT’s performance dampers enhance the experience. The heavier steering and faster steering responses that come in with Sport mode increase the sense of control, too.”
In other words, yaw is a force that can affect a car’s stability at speed, and as we cruise around the next turn, Ito shows me how the performance dampers help adjust yaw to maintain overall stability.
Another factor that affects stability: a rough road. Here, again, the dampers come into their own. Ito heads for a stretch of raised paving with evenly spaced dips. At low speed there’s a fairly heavy, bump, bump, bump, but the Meister points out how the CT instantly neutralizes the shocks. “The performance dampers help keep the CT stable, preventing the impact from traveling through the car,” he says. Then it’s swiftly back to the track for a quick lesson in cornering.
As we approach the banking, Ito talks through three fundamentals: “The first, in every case, is reading ahead. Decide the optimum speed and point of entry into the corner and look out for hazards such as oncoming traffic and access points for other roads. The second is that as you approach, reduce speed, brake, and then begin the steering maneuver. And the third is that as you return the steering to the straight ahead position, progressively accelerate out of the corner.”
On the banked curve, Ito performs this task with confidence and the CT holds the line beautifully. I can’t see the performance dampers, but now I sure know what they’re doing.
Article written by Doug Knox