If ever there was a test of clutch control, it’s the hill start. With gravity working against you, your task is to get a smooth getaway every time you set off on an incline. That means no rolling back, potentially hitting the car behind or running over any pedestrian who has dared to cross the road behind you.
Practice, practice, practice…
Hill starts aren’t difficult to do, but they do take a lot of practice as you’ve got to get to grips with where the clutch starts to bite and how many revs you need from the engine so it doesn’t stall.
And while your feet are doing their thing you’ve also got to release the handbrake slowly enough so you don’t roll back – but you’ve also got to release it fast enough so the engine doesn’t stall.
If you’re asked to perform a hill start your examiner will be expecting you to set off on a gradient (it won’t be too steep) in such a way that it’s smooth and controlled. You can’t roll back, you’ll need to do the standard mirror-signal-manoeuvre routine and you’ll also need to do your standard over-the-shoulder checks before moving off.
How it’s done
With the handbrake on, start by selecting first gear and bring the clutch to its biting point. Because you’re fighting gravity you’ll need to use a few more revs than usual, so the engine doesn’t stall – but don’t overdo it or you’ll be shooting off up the hill at a breakneck speed unless you slip the clutch like crazy.
Once you’ve found the biting point, check your mirrors and ensure there are no pedestrians about to cross the road immediately behind. Next, check over your right shoulder and put on your indicator if necessary.
If it’s safe to move off, release the handbrake and let the clutch bite a little more – enough to get the car rolling forward, but not enough to cause the car to jerk. Let the revs rise a bit as the car moves off, letting the clutch come right up as the car gathers speed.
Compared with setting off on the flat, you might need to change up from first a little later if the engine isn’t to struggle against the gradient. You’ll also need to change gear quickly and smoothly, if you’re not to grind to a halt because the car has lost all of its momentum. Once you’ve set off, make sure you’ve cancelled your indicator, if you set it going.
New cars come with all sorts of tech to make life easier. Two of these are Hill Start Assist, which ensures you don’t roll back on a hill and the other is the electronic handbrake.
With Hill Start Assist, all you need to do is take your foot off the brake on a hill and the car will hold you in place while you find the clutch biting point and set off. It doesn’t hold you forever though – around three seconds is normal, after which you’ll start rolling back. The electronic parking brake is a button which applies your handbrake for you; the same button allows you to release the brake.
Most cars with this feature will automatically release the handbrake for you, once the clutch biting point has been reached and you’re on the verge of setting off. But not all do – and it’s possible to stall an engine by trying to set off with the handbrake still applied.
The downhill start
Sometimes you have to set off down a hill rather than up one, but in this instance you’ve gravity on your side. However, you don’t want to set off down the hill at high speed which is why you need to keep your foot on the brake while you find the clutch biting point.
As with an uphill start, you’ll have to make the usual safety checks before setting off. Bearing this in mind, engage first gear (or maybe second if the hill is fairly steep), then with the clutch pedal right down, apply the foot brake. Having ensured that all around is safe to set off, release the handbrake and find the clutch biting point.
As you release the handbrake your car will begin to move, so fully release the clutch and shift your right foot to the accelerator. Change up when necessary, but don’t get carried away or you’ll just end up with your foot constantly on the brake as you drive down the hill.