WRR University: Drive Like A Grandmaster

By Mark Drennan

August 31, 2016

Winding Road Team TFB was at Virginia International Raceway recently for a Global MX-5 Cup race weekend. As you might expect with a 35 car field, I saw many examples, both on track and in our team video reviews, of driving that offered room for improvement (my own included!). Much of this comes from not planning. Instead, you should strive to be like a chess Grandmaster and think several moves ahead. Here's how.  

One of the most common errors I see is the low percentage move. Of course, any move that doesn't work out can be viewed as "low percentage", but I mean something more specific. There are certain low percentage moves that: 

  •  Could be predicted in advance as unlikely to work
  •  If they do work, only serve to complete a pass a few corners earlier than it could have been done with better chances
  •  Are likely to expose you to being passed by the car(s) behind you on the rare occasion that they do work 

If you add up the above, you have passing attempts that generally don't work or only work to the degree that a pass was completed, but with your car getting passed or being further behind the next group of cars you want to pass.  

I'll call this approach the Carpe Diem passing style. The driver tries to seize the day by attempting a pass at the first opportunity, no matter the percentage or downstream consequences. If you are passing from 2nd place to 1st place at the end of a race, this might make sense. Seize the day because there is no tomorrow and there are no cars further downstream to catch. But otherwise, you may get crunched, you may punt someone and get penalized or you may create a gap to the next cars that puts you outside the drafting window. All of those things happened with Carpe Diem passes at VIR. 

Besides the poor results, what is bad about this passing style is that it is predictably bad and thus can be avoided. Which leads me to the alternative. When you go to a track, particularly an unfamiliar one, you should spend some time looking at the layout and thinking through how a pass would happen and what the consequences would be. When you find good passing points, also connect those in your mind to the bad ones. If you've memorized where a good passing spot is a few corners later, then you can delay your passing attempt where it won't work and spend some time setting up a pass where it probably will. I'll call this the "live to fight another day/corner" passing style.   

Road America offers a classic scenario for "live to fight another day" thinking. You just about never can pull off a pass in the Carousel (T8). Ditto with the Kink (T10). But if you manage your following distance in the Carousel and time your exit throttle as you head to the Kink, you will have speed on the run to Canada Corner (T12) to complete a classic straight line overtake before T12 and thus throw no speed away. My Winding Road Team TFB teammate Tom Martin roughly demonstrates in this video from 2:00 to 2:30:


As another example, at VIR I saw many failed Carpe Diem style passing attempts between T4a/b and T5a/b, a short series of linked, switch-back turns that proceed the fast uphill esses of T7-T9.  Most of these failed attempts start in T4a where the inside/overtaking car fails to clear their opponent before corner exit, ending up side-by-side approaching 4b.  Now, both cars are in a low percentage situation and highly likely to have contact and/or lose significant momentum, exposing both cars to being passed by the cars behind them before the esses, or even worse ending up side-by-side going into the fast uphill esses.  Hmm, it's like deja vu all over again!  


This is where the “live to fight another day/corner” approach is better than the Carpe Diem approach. Instead of being the low-percentage hero (aka "highly likely zero") trying to go side-by-side through switch-back corners, swallow your pride and simply lift a bit to slot back in line without sacrificing too much momentum. Then, like the patient driver you are, set up the easy draft pass down the back straight.

You have a lot of down time at a typical race weekend. Between practice sessions, get out the track map and think through where you might be faster and if that leads immediately to a pass or sets up a higher percentage pass, with better exit speed, a few corners later.