Four Examples of How Memorization Can Work Against You On The Track
By Ross Bentley
August 26, 2014
When I'm coaching, I stay away from that word as much as I can (it can sometimes sound threatening, as in "Why did you do that?!"). But as a tool to further one's understanding, it's the ultimate question. I love Peter Carroll's article this week because it gets to the "why" - a true understanding of why one does what they do. - Ross
One problem I keep coming across in my coaching and driver education is "memorization." By this I mean memorization as a replacement for understanding. I see a lot of drivers who have problems because they have been taught specifically to do something, but cannot explain why they are doing it. They've only memorized a technique. Or similarly, they are trying to imitate something they have observed, but without understanding why it's being done. In driving, the "why" is just as important as the "what."
Here are some examples of memorization working against you.
"Go deep into a corner and brake hard." Many driving schools put great emphasis on this, but it's actually quite hard to do. It often leads to over-slowing the car. Braking softly over a longer distance is much easier to do. And it's much less likely to over-slow the car. You have time to sense what the car is feeling. When everything feels right, gently ease off the brakes.
Standing a car on its nose can really destabilize the car. And if there was ever a place you wanted your car stable, it's entering a corner, fast. If you don't brake as hard, the car will be more stable. And if it's more stable, you will be able to carry more speed into the corner.
You may observe professionals braking very late into corners. But is that really what's going on? They're going fast. So you assume they must be slowing down a lot. But are they really braking all that hard? Did you notice how far they're trail braking? Where do their brake lights go off?
Braking later and trail braking can look a lot like braking hard and late. But it's not the same thing. Trail braking means carrying some braking into the corner. It's about keeping some weight transferred forward to help the car turn in. And since you are carrying some braking into the corner, you don't need to brake as much on the straight. Naturally, you can start your braking later. Could it be the pros are really braking late, but not very hard, as they trail brake into the corner?
Memorizing the "traditional driving line." Some schools teach driving lines that have been "handed down from generation to generation." Nobody ever questions them. They have been collectively memorized.
A good example is the Esses at Mosport (corners 8-9-10). For years, many local instructors have taught a line of connected late apexes. It's even illustrated in a prominent school's track guide. The problem is that this line is quite difficult to do. And it's impossible to do fast. In a street car, the snap when the car unloads is so violent, you could lose the car into the wall.
Instead, I coach drivers to sense what the car is doing. I make comments like: "Visualize an 'S'. Look through the corner. Keep your hands moving. Keep the weight transfer going. Feel the side loading on the car. Ask the car to do as little work as possible. What's the minimum amount of steering input that will get you through the corner?" This produces a beautifully smooth "S" motion, with weight transfer that resembles a slow-swinging pendulum. It's both fast and safe. My instruction focuses on sensory input that requires analysis. It needs to be understood and not memorized.
A student told me that he was taught to wiggle the steering wheel to maximize grip as he neared the limit of the car. Apparently, the premise was that as you approach the cornering limit, you wiggle the wheel a bit so you can safely dance on either side of the limit - sort of like ABS, I suppose. But this is a great example of memorization getting in the way of understanding.
As an alternate explanation, I offered that if you sense the car losing grip, you open the wheel momentarily to regain some grip. So, if you dance along the limit throughout the corner, you might observe a wiggling steering wheel. But each of those wiggles is in response to a grip loss event. Grip loss is the driver. Not the wiggling technique.
Memorizing "non-intuitive passing rules." Some clubs try to simplify things for the students by making easy-to-remember rules like "all passing is done on the right." Or they might explain the passing rules corner by corner. "In zone one, we pass on the right. In zone two, we pass on the left. In zone three, if you start your pass early you pass on the right. But if you start later, you pass on the left. In the transition zone, the lead car moves to the right before giving a pass on the left." Could it be any simpler?
By reducing it to memorization, you are no longer teaching the skills drivers need to execute a safe pass in a general sense. What happens when they go to a new track? Memorized rules are not portable. What happens when a guest comes from another club and they resort to what they have been taught? How much brain power does it take to execute these rules?
Passing is one of the most dangerous aspects of driving on a track. And to execute passes safely at speed, the decisions must be made subconsciously. If decisions are going to be subconscious, they had better be based on a sound understanding of general principles. In the case of passing, the general principal is "the car being passed stays on-line and the passing car goes off-line." And in the case of a school, a hand signal is usually required. This general rule works on any track in the world. And if both drivers understand this, they will intuitively know what the other is going to do.
This general rule applies just as much to beginners as to racing at Le Mans. To be safe, both drivers need to be predictable. When drivers violate this general rule, bad things can happen. I recall a few years ago at Le Mans when the race-leading Audi was almost taken out of the race by the BMW Art Car. The BMW went off-line before the Porsche Curves to allow the Audi to pass on-line. The Audi was already committed, hit the BMW, and spun off into the gravel. Nobody was hurt. But the race-leading car was sent to the garages.
So if passing etiquette is so critically important, why would we ask people to memorize inconsistent rules? Case in point: at a recent school, I had a student who was in a slower car that was often passed. The club's passing rules said that he had to pull off-line to let cars pass on the right. But what happened when there were no cars in sight? He was a good consistent driver. He repeatedly pulled off-line and drove down the left side of the straight. Same thing happened with a racing school. In the graduation race, many of the students pulled off-line in the driving school passing zones. It's subconscious. What's going to happen in a real race when they accidentally revert to this as they are lapped by a front running car? Bad things can happen.
My point in this is not so much to debunk any specific myths or practices. I aim only to illustrate that for high performance driving, memorization is not the best means to learn. Driving is more like solving a 3D geometry problem. It requires intuition and feel. Multiplication tables are not going to get you there. Just because you've been told something, or observed something, doesn't make it right. You need to understand the reasoning behind it, too, to make it work.
If you are being coached as a driver, don't just take your instructor's word for it. Make sure you understand why they want you to do something. It's not enough to accept "turn at the cone". Why there? "Well, if you turn in 'there,' the car's trajectory will put you 'here.' From there, you will be able to get on the gas earlier. You will exit the corner faster, and that speed will multiply all the way down the straight."
If you are the coach, please make sure your student understands the "why" of what you are telling them. They may say they understand. But test them on it to make sure. Don't just give directions. Ask them questions that help them solve the problems for themselves: e.g. "Too hot, too hot," versus "Did you feel how the car squished into that corner? That's the car scrubbing speed. Next time around, I want you to be aware of that squishing feeling. It's the car slowing you down."
In racing, understanding is better than memorization.
- Peter Carroll