Speed Secrets: Nannies or No Nannies?
By Ross Bentley
April 18, 2017
One of the most-discussed topics around the track these days is whether a driver participating in HPDE or track day events should turn off their car's "nannies" - stability and traction control, and other such electronic aids meant to help drivers stay in control of their vehicles. So I reached out to a few contributors who have a great perspective on this topic and asked them for their thoughts.
David Ray is the founder of Hooked On Driving, and has been around the sport for decades, as a driver and coach. Literally thousands of drivers have gone through the HPDE events his company puts on at tracks around the country.
Paul Conquest's perspective is similar to David's in that he's been putting on HPDE events in Edmonton, Canada for years, as well as spending a lot of time participating in HPDE events all over North America.
Many of you know David Murry from his racing successes, but also from his putting on high-end driving events. Having spent a lot of time in modern sports cars, and coaching drivers in those vehicles, David's perspective is important.
Enjoy! - Rossruts – Do We Ever Turn Them Off?
The Traction Control Conundrum: Digital Systems Creating Analog Inputs – Do We Ever Turn Them Off?
As a driver at HPDE events who wants to improve your skills, learn your car, stay safe, but go fast, it’s appropriate to spend a moment pondering your car specifically. It may be a 1998 Volvo, a Porsche GT3, a Spec Miata, or a GTR! This article is aimed at the conundrum brought about by the cars now showing up with a host of technologies to both go fast, yet prevent the unwashed novice driver from getting in over their head. I’ll use a generic term “Traction Control Systems – TCS.”
As a driver arriving at the track for the first time, it’s appropriate that you do some homework on the “nannies” that came with your car. Generally, the more power and performance potential, the more electronic leashes have been installed to keep you safe. You should be able to have a good discussion with your driving coach about how to handle nannies. Do we just turn them off, and drive the car “au naturel?” Or do we rely on them to keep us out of the weeds? Here are some thoughts that can guide you on this important decision: ”To TCS Or NOT to TCS?”
When pondering what to do with that TCS button, what is the right answer? On one hand, you could immediately turn TCS off, as it masks and protects the occupants from feeling the true inputs done by the driver. On the other hand, with big power and K-walls abounding, we don’t want to be victim of that one stab of the throttle, radical pinch, or poorly-timed lift.
Think about this: Digital traction and brake control systems are being engineered to simulate analog inputs from the driver, overcoming a novice driver’s abrupt input instincts (digital)! So, are TCS systems our friends, saving our butts daily, or enemies, masking the driver input so we can relax and just hammer the car around the track?
The Nissan GTR is the ultimate example of the conundrum. I’ve done laps coaching in the right seat at spectacular speeds in this car, with the driver clenching and tossing it fearlessly – but also passing most of the cars on the track. And while he was “eyes up” and paying close attention, I saw from the passenger seat the frantic flashing of the TCS system activation at virtually every brake zone or turn-in/track out point we encountered. The TCS was saving our bacon, and the driver was getting away with whatever he tried – too fast at entry, early turn-in, pinching exits. It was all good, though, cuz the electronic nannies were making it so.
I believe, as drivers, we should focus on developing such smoothness that you start getting faster without engaging the systems. Yes, leave them on to save to our bacon, but note the flashing TCS warning light as it is protecting us. Like the ham-foot brake slam that engages ABS, this should be a no-no. Then, the reward as a driver picks up the pace and is consistently smooth, is NOT relying on TCS and ABS - and then we can begin turning them off. There are usually stages or levels of aggressiveness of these systems, so we can relax them one click at a time. Then, when a driver does NOT have a coach in the car, but has established themselves as “no drama” and predictable, they turn them off and get the feel for the car’s true potential.
The first generation of TCS systems (i.e., simple rear brake application or cylinder deactivation) were extremely invasive and these may need to be either partially or totally turned off to get to a decent pace. Not all systems are the same. So each car and each driver needs to be diagnosed individually. Some drivers (i.e. bucket-lister with the ZR1 or Hellcat) just need to be made safe for the day and all TCS systems are their friends in that situation. But the point here remains – we are analog beings with good instincts to drive well. Only in the case of hormonal- and adrenaline-driven instincts taking over should we really need these digital systems to kick in and simulate analog inputs to our favorite trusty steed. In fact, we really should work hard at this – as the cost of us learning to rely on the nannies could make us subservient to them.
To sum this up:
• Early TCS systems may prevent a new driver from getting going – so some partial deactivation may be appropriate early on.
• Current TCS systems should be left on with beginners.
• With systems on, the goal should be to develop a style that does NOT trigger the activation of the system. The flashing yellow light is a BAD THING!! Find that analog driving style to prevent the digital systems from kicking in.
• If you progress as a driver, and are going to do this as a hobby, gradual deactivation of the system should proceed. The goal here is that, with the driver picking up the pace AND risk level, systems should be in advanced modes to allow the pace, but remain available for the rescue.
• As the driver reaches 9/10ths, a judgment call is made. The driver is now an informed consumer who should make the decision. At some point, if they want to really feel their car perform, shutting the systems off may be considered. I’d add that the “time and place” should come in to play here…Watkins Glen with its Armco surrounding the track is not the place or time. A skid pad would be excellent if one is available at this stage, giving the driver the chance to toss the car a bit without nannies, in second gear.
• Lastly, the casual track day driver looking to have a fun day with buddies should probably settle in the advanced settings afforded by the system, but not turn them all the way off.
The lesson here? The advanced driver should be able to be fast WITHOUT engaging these digital systems, which try to teach us what we should be able to do on our own… Drive SMOOTH AND FAST.
- David Ray
Nannies or No Nannies?
A few weekends ago, I was driving a friend's BMW e36 M3 around a well-known SoCal track, following a much newer Cayman. Unable to pull the Cayman on the straights, I followed for several laps noticing that the rear of the Cayman magically corrected its position in exactly the same places each lap. This necessarily means the stability management was interceding in a quite noticeable and predictable manner.
Chatting to the driver afterward, I learned he had been track driving for about two years, had been to this particular track several times, and seemed quite confident in his abilities. I also learned the driver had no idea that the stability management was interceding, or where. And of course, this is the fundamental downside of nannies... they can mask mistakes so innocuously that the driver may not know how close they are to losing control. The truth is that Porsche System Management was saving this guy’s bacon a couple of times each lap and he was oblivious.
With this experience in mind, I’d like to respond to the original question with a qualifying question: “Who’s driving your car... you or the nannies?”
It is important to be honest with yourself. A few years ago, I coached a driver at a winter driving school on a frozen lake who eventually insisted on turning off stability management despite that several times each lap I would ask, “Did you feel that?” or “Did you notice the yellow light?” Unfortunately, we did not complete a lap before finding ourselves watching passing traffic from a new position - high-centered atop a snowbank. I can only imagine the consequences had this happened on dry pavement in turn 9 at Willow Springs.
If you are not absolutely certain how much the nannies are interceding, I suggest enlisting the help of a passenger who can ride for a few laps and shout out whenever the stability management light illuminates, even if only a flicker. Thorough knowledge of how often and where stability management is interceding is critical to understanding what might happen if you turn it off.
Once you know what the nannies are really up to, I would ask another question: “How can I adjust my driving to overcome this?” Even drivers with a team of engineers and deep pockets must learn to get the most out of the grip they have. If your 600 HP car is stepping out and cutting throttle at corner exit, perhaps try a later apex and straighter exit. Or squeeze the throttle instead of hammering it. If the back-end is making a significant correction under braking at corner entry, maybe you just need to keep a bit more weight on the rear of the car. Perhaps try an earlier and gentler brake release. Or maybe a less abrupt turn-in. And don’t be afraid to ask for some input from a more experienced driver or coach.
If you decide to turn off the nannies, remember that you are now flying without a parachute. If you are already overdriving the car somewhere on the track, turning off the nannies is going to quickly, and perhaps catastrophically, demonstrate the limit. So if you disable any nannies, turn down the intensity level of your driving until you learn the new limits you must work within.
In closing, this is what we tell the coaches in our program: “Do not turn any nannies off until the driver no longer needs them to be safe. If you do turn nannies off, approach the new limits in small and repeatable increments.”
- Paul Conquest
Stability Control - How Does it Work & Should I Turn it Off?
Stability Control - what it is and how does it work? Stability Control is a system on your car designed to keep understeer and oversteer to a minimum and keep control of your car. There are multiple sensors on the car such as steering angle, wheel speeds, g’s, and even yaw sensors, that give input to a computer that analyzes the cars state and makes input corrections to keep the car under control. For example, if the steering angle is turned into the corner more than the wheel speed front/rear ratio should be, along with the yaw sensor saying it’s not turning as much as the steering angle is (understeer), the car takes corrective action such as reducing engine timing, reducing throttle, and even applying brakes to the inside rear wheel to help the car turn. Then, opposite of understeer, if the steering angle is less than the sensors calculate it should be, the car gives inputs to correct that, such as reduced engine timing, reduced throttle, and even brake application to the outside front wheel – all to correct oversteer to keep from spinning.
Should I turn SC off? There is always a risk versus reward to almost everything and this is no different.
What is the risk? The biggest risk is crashing your car. This safety net that SC provides considerably reduces the odds that you will make a mistake that will result in spinning and crashing into a wall or competitor. SC does things such as applying brakes to only one wheel and to take corrective action to avoid spins and crashes that we, as drivers, can’t with the limited inputs we have.
What is the reward? Is it faster with SC off? That is the perception, but it really depends on the car and driver. Technology has come so far that these systems are far less intrusive than when they were first introduced years ago. Porsche, for instance, because it is a true sports car, works very hard at keeping the benefits of these systems without inhibiting performance. The benefits of turning the system off could be that slight lap time advantage, although very slight with current technology. Previously, cars would have SC active any time the car had a slight slip angle and would result in slowing it down. Today those parameters are much less inhibiting than before. The driver's input is critical as well. The smoother the driver is, the less the system will intervene. If a driver is rough and gets the car sideways, the SC will intervene and correct the slide and yes, slow it down some. That driver made a mistake that would have resulted in either spinning the car or slowing down anyway from the big slide. That big slide will cause a lot of counter steering, resulting in the outside front brake to be applied by SC and wearing the brake pads prematurely. If a driver is smooth and when they slide the car, they keep the slip angle close to what is optimum anyway, the SC won’t intervene. There also becomes an art to driving a car with SC on - not creating large slides causing a lot of counter steering and SC activating.
Summary: You have to be almost a pro racer with many years of experience to benefit from turning SC off. Even racers that run up front and win club races benefit from SC being on. We have had a number of crashes in the race series I work with just from turning off the SC, intentional or by accident and their laps times were not better with it off. Unless you feel the SC being activated and the car being slowed down when you are ready to go forward, I would suggest leaving it on. Use it as a tool to learn to drive smoother to keep it from being activated. That will make you a much better driver. If you decide to turn it off, pick a corner with very little consequence to experiment with the limits until you are comfortable with sliding the car without surprises. Always leave it on in the rain.
- David Murry