The Three Most Common Race Driving Misconceptions
By Ross Bentley
December 31, 2014
I'm constantly amazed by the opinions that people in motorsport have, many of which are just plain wrong, or at least a bit off-base. That's why I was so glad that Mazda factory driver, and coach, Tom Long, tackled the topic of misconceptions (a topic that I've often thought about writing about). While what Tom writes about may go against what you've heard others say, I can assure you that he nails it. - Ross
I’m fortunate to have raced and coached for some time now, and I see how easy it is to occasionally fall into bad habits. We can develop these habits from years of solo driving without ever receiving more input or coaching, eventually plateauing and not continuing to develop as a driver. Sometimes, we simply have bad habits because of a misconception we have in the first place. Here are three of the biggest misconceptions that I come across when I’m coaching:
Misconception 1: “You should always complete all of your braking in a straight line before turning in.”
You’ve heard this preached at high-performance driving events and lapping days. It is a great way for beginners to learn how to effectively get the car slowed and, most importantly, be safe before adding any additional input into the car. Well, of course, one input at a time is the safest way to navigate the car, but is it the most efficient? The short answer is not always, especially for more advanced drivers who are continually trying to refine their craft, or maybe the racer trying to find another few tenths.
Slow corners favor trail braking because of the weight transfer from the rear of the car to the nose during the turning process – it actually helps the car turn. Some examples of this from my home track of Virginia International Raceway are Turns 4, 11, and 16. Turns 2, 3, 5 and 11 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and Turns 3, 5, 8, 12 and 14 at Road America are other examples.
When first learning to drive on track, the common approach is to get all of the braking done in a straight line. This is to keep within the car’s limits (for you Speed Secrets readers, that’s the “friction circle”), and to keep you “safe.” Blending braking and cornering requires a balancing act to stay within those limits, and it takes time to develop the skill, feel and comfort to drive that way.
Having said all of that, there is a related misconception that is the polar opposite of straight-line braking, and that is “You should always trail brake.” Let’s think about this a bit more in-depth: it has to be false, right? Especially when it comes to fast corners. Think about Turn 1 at Road Atlanta, Turn 10 South Bend at VIR, Turn 6 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, or The Kink at Road America. These corners demand proper balance in the car to go quickly, because it sure doesn’t feel good if the car’s unstable while you’re rocketing through there on a quick lap! So that means fast corners are best approached with an early and light brake, simply because the car will be better balanced and happier at those speeds when the weight balance in the car is more central- or rear-biased.
In summary, when thinking about how to approach a particular corner, determine if it’s fast or slow: slow, you’ll want that weight over the nose to help the car steer on those front tires; fast, you’ll want that rear to feel nicely stable and planted, with the weight more rearward. So you can’t afford to brake too late for a quick corner, as the trailing brake will keep too much weight over the front and not enough on the rear.
Misconception 2: “Starting to squeeze on the throttle early will make you fast.”
A common habit that is formed from another favorite misconception of mine is the idea that you should always be on one pedal or the other; no coasting. This is simply just not true. A great racer once said that you shouldn't start to apply throttle until you are ready to apply 100% throttle. This, in most cases, is true! It’s not the driver who gets on the throttle first that wins; it’s the driver who gets to 100% throttle first who will be quickest down that next straightaway.
Most cars, especially the quicker ones with high horsepower or high downforce, require a surprising amount of time “off throttle.” Think about it: if you have gobs of power, how could you ever expect to put that power to the ground while still at your maximum steering input through the apex, or just before unwinding your hands? That high horsepower would be best served propelling you down the next straightaway rather than fighting you through the corner. The same goes for most open wheel and downforce cars – the corner segment time is better served by carrying in a higher mph and utilizing the advantage of that downforce as long as possible, rather than over-slowing the entry (which you may not even be aware you’re doing) to try to get back to early throttle. Why not just keep and preserve the momentum you already have that allows you to roll more speed through the apex? This makes the need to get back to throttle less significant, since you’re already going quicker. Your corner segment time will prove this theory correct.
You could also be creating handling issues with this early-throttle strategy. For instance, let’s say your car understeers from apex to exit when you get on the throttle early. A simple, unaggressive 10-30% throttle can cause the front to become lighter as weight is transferred rearward, creating a lack of grip on your steering tires. This understeer causes you to wait for the front end to gain grip before you can point in the direction you want to go and commit to 100% throttle. Meanwhile, your competitor was more patient, waited what felt like an eternity – maybe a half second – to get the car pointed before going to full power. Remember to “aim, then fire.”
Misconception 3: “The most important corner on a track is the one leading onto the longest straight.”
While this will sometimes be true, depending on the track, it’s not always true. In fact, I believe that the most important corners on a track are the fastest ones. Data proves this true for many drivers. The sector from the Uphill Esses through Turn 10 at VIR, for instance, is worth at least the same, if not more, time than any other area on the circuit. It doesn’t matter what kind of car you’re driving: time after time, the data I’ve reviewed shows that more time can be gained through those high-speed corners than any other sector of the track. You’ll find the same theme at other tracks that have high-speed corners which are critical to fast lap times.
Sure, at VIR, a great exit out of the famed Oak Tree Turn (12) or Road Atlanta Turn 7 is imperative for that long uphill back straightaway, but by midway down the straight, most of the speed you gained at corner exit starts to become nominal, as drag takes over and you see diminishing returns on top speed. This is especially true if you’re driving a lower horsepower car, where momentum through and out of the corners is more valuable than top speed. But, while these corners that lead onto a long straight can be a little tricky to get just right, they’re not scary fast like the Esses at VIR or Turn 1 at Road Atlanta. It’s these fast corners that make or break a good lap time.
So the next time you’re struggling to be a better driver, maybe take a look at your beliefs and habits – are they based on misconceptions? You might find that extra 10th of a second (or more!) just by examining them alone, and making a change for the better.
- Tom Long