Speed Secrets: Driving The Setup

By Guest Contributor

August 13, 2013

By Johannes van Overbeek
Passing through 4th gear, the shift lights are indicating I'd better shift to 5th gear quickly. With 5th gear engaged I tell my right foot to stay on the floor through the left hand kink that is looming ahead. As I turn-in the rear gets light which is quickly followed by counter-steering and telling myself, "We need to make that better."
Setting up a car for the track is a bit of a black art. It's a collaborative effort between engineer(s) and driver(s). The better job the team (team defined as engineer, driver, mechanic) does at setting up a car, the better your chances are of having a good race. Get it wrong and you'll be mid-pack, or worse, you'll spend your time behind the wheel frightened. I've been there and it's not fun.
Whether I'm driving a vintage Ferrari, a Porsche Cup Car or my ALMS Patron P2 car, I try to approach the setup process the same way. The first step is to get comfortable in the car on the track I'm driving. If you're two seconds off of the car's pace you shouldn't make changes. There are drivers who do and it's a fool's errand. Once you're up to speed the key is to ask yourself, "What's the car keeping me from doing that translates to lap time?" If you can't be flat on the gas all the way around the track then there are areas to work on. In the example above, I couldn't be flat through a fast kink.
The next step is prioritizing the changes to make. I've been around drivers who've complained about a car's shock dampening on a straightaway. So long as the wheels aren't off the ground and you can stay flat on the gas, you're barking up the wrong tree. On the other hand, if you're faced with power-down oversteer leading onto the longest straightaway, I would attack that problem first. The kink I referenced above was in the middle of the longest straight, so it's the highest priority of the session.
Another ingredient of setting up a car is knowing when you don't know and being honest about it with your team, even if your entire team consists only of your significant other. Some problems are obvious and others are more subtle. Some drivers (and engineers) act like they get paid by the number of setup changes and not the result. There are times when you just don't know what to do. Sometimes you need to think about it. If the situation presents itself, have a co-driver, trusted friend or rent-a-pro to help you break through. Or, don't do anything and keep driving it until it crystallizes in your mind about what's really going on. Make changes with your head, not your heart.
After lowering the rear of the Porsche and adding a taller wicker/gurney, going flat through the quick 5th gear sweeper was possible and the stopwatch stopped 1/2 a second earlier with each lap: result. Racing is a sport of maximizing every aspect you have control over. Maximizing every aspect, in my experience, requires lots of learning and putting yourself in vulnerable situations. If you have your own version of a kink that should be flat, but isn't, perhaps you need to re-think your approach to the car's setup.
Exerpted from Ross Bentley’s Speed Secrets Weekly. For more tips and additional articles on the art and science of racing, click here to subscribe.
Also be sure to check out Ross Bentley's book, Ultimate Speed Secrets: The Complete Guide to High-Performance and Race Driving.
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