Are we sitting comfortably?

pt_racingseat

Are we sitting comfortably?

In previous articles, I’ve covered the areas of vision and braking. Both vitally important to get right, because if you don’t, the corner can’t work efficiently. Once you’ve mastered those two, you can start to move on to the fun task of sending your motor round the bend as quickly as possible. In pretty much every situation, your target is to carry out each process in such a way so as to minimise any unnecessary inputs or variations into any of the controls, but you can only do that if you know what’s going on beneath you. In this article I’m going to look at the relationship between a driver and the car. We’ll look at how we can set ourselves up allowing us to recognise and use the barrage of signals the car is giving us and also how that will improve all aspects of our driving. We’ll shine some light on to two of the most often overlooked areas of performance in driving – seating position and steering technique. Getting these right, will help us translate what the car is saying to us and enable us to then tell the car exactly what we want it to do and when.

Spending some time getting these details right will pay dividends in the long run. Whether you’re a newbie to track driving and you’re yet to venture out of a pitlane or you’re a seasoned pro with countless track miles on the clock, you’ll be sure to find an advantage. If you’re starting out it’s crucial you get the foundations of your driving correct from the outset. If you’ve seen and done it all before, your margins in which you can gain will be smaller, but use your past experiences to relate to and fine tune your technique and you’ll be able to push harder and become more consistant.

My job is varied. I am fortunate enough to be paid to race GT and Sports cars. When I’m not doing that, I am sat in the passenger seat of something quick or digging through data on a laptop, guiding a driver round one of Europe’s finest tracks. And on the odd occasion, I sometimes get to do skids in front of cameras, filming for adverts, TV and promotional videos. Filming sounds fun and glamorous, and it is. At least for roughly 5 minutes every hour or so. You see, on set, film crews are forever searching for the best shot, complaining about light or breaking for tea – which I am more than happy about. On one of these filming jobs, there was a particularly large amount of down time. During one of the more boring periods of not doing anything, I offered to pick up from the airport a senior engineer of the manufacture who’s car’s we skidding around for the cameras. After picking him up, we got going with the usual pleasantries about his journey, how the flight was and what the weather was like where he’d come from… Within 5 minutes of meeting me for the first time and not discussing what I was doing on the film set, he said “you race cars don’t you?” Now, at that particular point in my career, I had only been racing cars for a few of season so I was surprised that a leading engineer from a major car manufacture had recognised me and knew who I was! It turns out he didn’t have a clue who I was. No, he’d just noted the tell-tale signs of how a racing driver sits behind the wheel. Close, upright, good bend in the arms, hands fixed at quarter to three at all times and head, constantly moving round the corners ahead of the car.

We’ve all heard the old adage that we “drive by the seat of our pants” which is in fact absolutely true (more on that later). But I’ve come up with a new and equally appropriate phrase- “drive through the palms of our hands”. Many drivers I see on trackdays and somewhat surprisingly a handful of race drivers too, “feed” the wheel. When we were learning to drive we were pretty much all taught the “BSM shuffle”. We were told that to keep control of the car we must never cross our hands on the wheel, so we should push and pull the steering wheel through our hands. People who teach that technique can’t ever give you a solid answer as to why that is. They tend to just explain that if you do cross your hands you’ll fail your driving test. That’s enough for anyone to not question the wise sage sat next to them and it’s taken as gospel that this is what we need to do. It is of course wrong. Wrong on both accounts. It’s wrong that you’ll lose control of the car and its’ also wrong that you’ll fail your test if you do you cross your hands. The reason why I mention this is because it’s really very important that you DO cross your hands. You have to, in order to be able to keep your hands fixed on the steering wheel while turning through a corner. Your hands along with your torso and feet form a tactile, physical connection with the car. And with just your feet and hands on the controls of the car, why on earth would you want to break part of that mainline of communication?! A few people suggest that if you were crossing your arms when the airbag goes off you’ll punch yourself in the face. I can see how that would happen, yes. But you generally know when you’re going to hit something with the front of your car, so you can always just move your hands. And anyway, one of the main reasons you’ll lose control of the car in the first place is because you have the incorrect steering technique, so if you’re steering properly, you’re much less likely to be in that situation. Prevention being better than cure and all….

We need our hands on the wheel at all times while cornering because the car is feeding information to us. Information that we need to be listening to. Information concerning grip, load and steering angle. These things are somewhat essential for our successful navigation of a bend. Now we know that, it seems to make perfect sense that we keep our hands on the wheel. However for some, trying to break years of ingrained muscle memory, on top of everything else they have to deal with is too hard. I say to those who struggle with this, “don’t give up!” You must master the incredibly simple task of not letting go of a steering wheel. I’ve coached clients on experience days who have struggled massively with exit lines, power application and a number of other corner related issues. Then, after just one lap of focusing entirely on keeping their hands fixed in the quarter to three position on the wheel, the transformation was huge. Their enjoyment level improved exponentially as did their pace and line. They were subsequently able to feel the car and understand what it was telling them. They had a connection.

If you want to see where a drivers hands should sit, just take a look at an F1 steering wheel. Well, the first thing you’ll notice is that it’s not a wheel at all. It’s pretty much two grips at a ‘quarter to three’ position with a TV screen in the middle, surrounded by a lot of dials and buttons. The reason being, the two grips either side are the only bits you need to hold. Any other parts of a wheel on the top or the bottom would be superfluous and just get in the way. By having and maintaining your hands at a quarter to three position your brain has a nice and easy reference as to where straight ahead is. Straight ahead is when your hands are level. Simple. This is important as it removes the need for any kind of thought process, no matter how small so as to determine the direction of the steering. It also means you are able to apply an equal and balanced load to the steering in both a pushing up and pulling down motion.

Once you do manage to get to grips with holding the wheel correctly, you’ll also find that it is pretty much self-policing. There isn’t a car out there that can do more than 30mph around a corner which requires more than a 180’ steering input. So, if you’re having to add more lock than 180’ –the point at which you would have to take your hands off the wheel to add more lock- and you’re over 30mph, the car will be losing grip at the front end and understeering anyway. To solve the understeer issue, you’ll be needing to take some steering lock off and slow down a bit anyway. See, self-policing! The tightest corners on any race track in the UK are the hairpins at Croft and Mallory Park. Both of these can be navigated around without the need to take your hands off. And to be honest, when you’re moving at less than 30mph, unless you’re on snow and ice, the car will be nowhere near a tyres grip limit anyway so, frankly, you can do whatever you want with your hands. BMS shuffle away to your heart’s content!

Our hands play a very important part in our balance as well. They are pretty good at knowing what to do in order to help us maintain it. Just think about what we do with our arms when we are walking on sheet ice, or if you were to walk along a balance beam. You’d have your arms held out, moving up and down, helping you to go where you want to go. That all sounds suspiciously like what we do when we are holding a steering wheel! They move about to help shift our weight but they also help our brain understand what is happening with regards to the movement and rotation of our body. Proprioception is the sense of the body’s position of where you are in space. Put your arms out to the side and wave them up and down. You know exactly where they are and what they are doing. Now close your eyes and wave them again. You know your arms are moving up and down because you can feel them, sure and you still know what they are doing but it’s a bit harder because you now need to have a little think just to double check exactly which way they are going. To do this, we actually create a mental image of them moving around. It might not seem much but having to think about something takes time. Time is what we have preciously little of in a car on track.

You may want to do this next one in the privacy of your own home but if you don’t have a dartboard to hand then you’ll have to go to the pub. Stand the regulation 2.369 metres from the board on the oche, shut your eyes and point at the bullseye with an outstretched index finger, open your eyes and check your aim. Do it a few times and see how close you get. I wager not very. Now, do it with your eyes open. If you manage to achieve anything other than a 100% hit rate you need to put the pint down and get your eyes checked. Can you see how this relationship of looking at a target and how your hands work in unison with your vision might just be useful for driving around corners? I hope so because it’s stunningly simple but ever so crucial. Imagine a target on the apex and exits of a corner, look at them before you get to them, your hands will follow on the wheel. If you manage to do this you stand a pretty good chance of hitting that bullseye.

One of the main reasons drivers have poor steering technique is because they have a poor sitting technique. When I first coach a new client, I ask them to get themselves into a comfortable driving position. Then, once they are sat in their usual place, I ask them to move the seat forwards into the correct positon. I’d say a good 80% of people sit too far back, with the remaining 19% sitting just about close enough and the final 1% getting it right first time. Occasionally the reply is that they have seen a photo of the great Fangio, arms out stretched, wrestling a post war GP car around a hay bale lined bend. If it was good enough for them…. That is certainly the perception of how drivers used to handle their cars, yet a quick image search on the web shows this not to be the case, with Fangio, Moss et al all seated relatively close to the wheel. They needed to because those cars were heavy and needed a lot of help and persuasion to get round those bumpy tracks. Sure, they didn’t sit as close as contemporary race drivers do now, but back when they were driving, the engineers had little time for the drivers comfort, human performance or indeed safety. Things are different now. Driver ergonomics play an important role in the design of race and road cars. Teams of engineers focus on seating the driver for safety but also physical efficiency.

Your legs are the easy bit. Very simply, if you have a clutch you must be able to push it to the floor without stretching. A good bend in the knee will ensure you have enough strength to control the pedal release with some finesse. Because the clutch is the pedal with the longest “throw” and assuming your legs are roughly the same length, both the break and the accelerator will be accessible to your right foot without a problem. Your heels should be in contact with the floor while they are on the pedals. In road cars that’s rarely an issue. In a number of race cars I’ve driven, there have been plates made up for the heel to sit on. A simple bit of aluminium bent through 90’ a few times is adequate.

Sitting too far away from the wheel causes us problems when we are trying to steer. It means that we are unlikely to be able to hold onto the wheel around the tightest corners where the full 180’ rotation of the wheel is required. For example, if we imagine that we are turning around a left bend, your right hand will be pushing up and your left will be pulling down. Due to the way the steering column has to fit through the bulkhead, the wheel is at an angle which slopes away from you, so the top of the wheel rim is further away from you than the bottom. This is less prominent on a full spec GT race car and almost non-existent on a single seater but on any road car it is very much the case. Your left hand will therefore be moving down and closer to you while your right is moving up and away. If you’re too far away from the wheel, your body realises that you’re losing efficiency in that right lever as it pushes up so it will re-set it’s self for better purchase by letting go and lowering itself to a better point. Your body needs to do this because an outstretched arm has nowhere near as much lifting ability in comparison to a bent arm. Prove it to yourself by lifting a heavy shopping bag up to work surface height with an arm bent at 90’ in the elbow and hold it there. Then repeat with a dead straight arm. So, we must have the seat in a position that allows us to have our hands fixed on the wheel at all times through the turning cycle.

In a race car we’re strapped so firmly into the seat with a 4 or 6 point harness that it hurts. If it doesn’t hurt your shoulders and waist, you need to do them up a little because the belts are too loose. I’m not talking about excruciating pain, but definitely a feeling of firm pressure with no room to be able to move around. By being so tightly wrapped in it means our shoulders are held against the back of the seat, again this allows valuable feedback from the car to be transferred to us. The more firm or fixed points of contact we have with the car, the more information we will be able to detect. Even if you don’t have a full harness, by being close enough, you’ll not be tempted to lean forwards and away from the seat.

Earlier I mentioned that we “driver by the seat of our pants”. And do you know what, it’s not just a catchy phrase. It’s based on fact. Back in the late 2000’s Williams F1 teamed up with QinetiQ – the British defence technology company- to look into the similarities of F1 drivers and fighter pilots. Lots of similarities are often drawn between the two and I’m pretty sure if there were ever a job swap day between the two, there would be no end of volunteers. The ability for both race drivers and pilots to filter the barrage of information being thrown at them, only taking what is relevant and then prioritising this in order to act is something that they both share.  But it doesn’t stop there. There are physiological comparisons too. A test was carried out to see who could best detect slight rotational movements or yaw. The test group of three F1 drivers, three top end fighter pilots – in my head they were Maverick, Iceman and Viper- and three ice hockey players –they tend to have better than average balance- were securely seated on a rig that would rotate right and left randomly. Each movement was subtle but when they felt it, they had to push a button. Their reaction times were also checked. In order to minimise the variables, they were blindfolded as well. There was only one F1 driver that did as well as the fighter pilot aces. With the skaters in the final three places the two remaining F1 drivers were head and shoulders beyond the other test subjects. The two leading F1 driver’s reaction times were faster than anything recorded previously and uniquely they managed to detect every movement.

QintetiQ concluded that the spine, from the coccyx to the 3rd lumbar vertebrae – basically your backside- played a vitally important role in receiving these slight movements of rotation or yaw then transmitting them up to the brain at over 4.5 billion bits of information every second. So yes, you do basically, on some level at least, drive by the seat of your pants! It’s the ability to be able to detect these subtle movements early on that allows a top driver to start to plan what he or she is going to do. If anyone has ever done any drifting, they’ll know that the margin of holding a slide and not is a wafer thin. If you were to watch some in-car footage of a drivers successful and failed attempts to hold the slide, you won’t really be able to spot the difference with the naked eye, but from inside the car you can feel it. On a track, we are trying to hold the car on the grip limit of the tyre all the way through a bend. This means when a car is being driven on the absolute limit, an incredibly slight slide is always being held. Those drivers with greater awareness of what’s going on with the yaw of the car therefor have a much bigger window of opportunity to make the inputs and get the car where they want.

Not everyone of course has these super human neurological pathways. But we can maximise what we have got and give ourselves the very best chance of getting it right by doing the basics. Get your seating position correct and work on that simple but effective steering technique. With these things in order you’ll have the best possible base from which to build upon. These are elements of driving that are often overlooked yet they can make a huge difference to not only how we feel in a car but also how we feel a car. Remember, driving is a relationship. You’re trying to make a big heavy object move fast and do things it doesn’t always want to do. So, sometimes you have to compromise, listen and work to a solution. It truly is the search for perfection through connection.

March 23, 2016 / Coaching Corner

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