In this fast paced life that we lead, in order to get what we want, everyone is after a shortcut here or there. The growth of the ‘self checkout’ in big stores, from supermarkets to DIY warehouses is a good example. You will potentially save yourself a good 34 seconds on your shopping trip, maybe more! We can scan our own stuff, as opposed to handing the cans of beans or bags of screws to someone else to scan through for us. Those 34 seconds will no doubt come in handy later in the day. And of course it’s with those screws, which you scanned yourself, that you’ll be able to save both time AND money by fixing the shelves that fell down last week. Win win! You know the ones? The shelves you put up… 3 weeks ago. This has got to be a much better way of doing things right? It removes and unnecessary person from the process. I mean sure, you could get a carpenter in to fix them properly, but that would mean investing money into something you can already do. In fairness, he’ll no doubt do a great job and most likely will make them a lot stronger than they ever were before and potentially they could even last for as long as the house is standing. Of course it’s not that the tradesman is better than you, no, it’s simply because he’s been doing it a long time and he’s got all the tools …. But hey, they are only shelves, what’s the worst that could happen? Those trophies you won at the local indoor karting centre aren’t that heavy. Obviously if they didn’t let all those kids that weigh as much as a packet of crisps compete in your races, you’d have some bigger trophies. But even if they do fall off, they probably won’t do too much damage… So why should driving a car on track be any different? You can drive. No trackday operator will let you behind the wheel on their track if you haven’t presented your licence when you sign on at the start of the day, so we must be good to go? Track driving is simply driving your car how you normally would, but faster. Right?
No. It’s not. It’s not even close. Nothing about road driving can prepare you for the intensity that is involved in a truly quick lap around a circuit. The techniques used when braking, cornering and accelerating on a circuit are so far removed from what you do on a road it’s like starting from scratch. Anyone that claims to have their car ‘on the limit’ while driving on the road is either a)lying b)unaware as to what ‘the limit’ actually is or c) not lying, is on the limit and should have their licence taken off them as they are a danger to everyone else. Very simply we do three things to a car on track. Brake. Turn. Accelerate. When we brake on a track, we brake hard. Hard as in 99.9% of what the tyres can cope with. When we corner, we corner right up to the point at which the car is about to slide out of control. When we accelerate, we are burying the throttle pedal through the bulkhead and we don’t lift off until we hit the brakes again at 99.9%. These are the extremes of track driving .It’s all relative of course but however you do it, driving a performance car on a race track is not exactly cheap, therefore it certainly isn’t unreasonable for us to want to go as quickly as possible in the shortest amount of time, seemingly getting maximum bang for your buck. Unfortunately, taking this approach to going fast, on a race track, with other people around, has far too many unpleasant outcomes, most of which I have been witness to at any number of track days. Few if any have been related to car failures. Meaning, it was driver error.
We need the right tools to do the job properly, just like the carpenter that put up your shelves. There are some basic tools that we all need to have in our box. These are the ones that are used by me, my colleges, my competitors, F1 drivers, Touring car drivers, NASCAR drivers, Moto GP and Superbike riders even. There are a few but we’ll focus on probably the most important one for the moment. Vision.
Vision is the key. Out of the three main senses we use when piloting a car, it’s pretty important. You can drive quickly if you can’t hear anything. Play a racing sim on silent, it’s not hard. You can drive very quickly and win, even if you don’t have the universally accepted amount of arms or legs, just look at the inspiring Mission Motorsport team for clear proof of this. But, you can’t drive if you can’t see.
When we drive on the road, we will most likely be looking 50 to 100 meters ahead. This is comfortable at 30mph. At that pace, it will take you about 7 seconds to travel 100 meters, so if something were to happen, you have enough time to work out a solution. However, when travelling at 100mph on a track, it takes roughly 2 seconds to travel 100 meters. Not exactly a lot of time to react, compute the information, come to a solution that is, on balance the best one, then plan and carry out the solution in a technically accurate and efficient manner. Why not give yourself a little bit more time? We could slow down? Obviously we won’t slow down. So what can you do to help? The only thing you can do is to look further ahead. The genius is in the simplicity. So why don’t we all do that naturally? The answer is that driving is not natural. We aren’t made to drive cars, but we’ve designed cars so we can drive them. Our brains are comfortable with moving at low speeds, like 30mph. We do it a lot when we drive every day, we’ve got used to it. We don’t generally do 100mph. It’s not normal; it’s outside of what we are comfortable with, so when we do drive quickly, we revert back to what feels right. Seeing what’s directly in front of us gives us the confidence to carry on. But, by looking at such a short range, we are utterly blind to the fact that we actually can’t see where we are going.
How tight is that corner? Look at where the corner finishes. That will give you quite a big clue. But what if you can’t see where it ends? That is also quite a big clue.
If you can’t see how tight the bend is, how do you know what speed to take it at? This raises some obvious questions; when do you brake? How hard do you brake? What gear? When do you start to bleed off the brakes? When can you start to turn? When can you balance the throttle? …. You can see where I’m going with this…. You don’t know anything about the corner. At 100 meters of vision, you’re relying on your reactions and also trying to remember what the track looked like from the A4 piece of paper with an outline of the circuit that you picked up at signing on. A pro driver uses neither printed maps or reactions. You will see a pro use a track map to help explain finite details of the cars’ setup to his engineer and race team, allowing everyone to be talking about the same bend, but he won’t have paid anything more than a passing glance at a track map, just enough to see the sequences of corners. What kind of detail can an inkjet printed black line on a piece of paper really tell you about the character of a bend, it’s surface changes, curbs, cambers etc?? It’s not going to be much. And who drew that track map anyway? How accurate is it? You don’t learn a track by looking at a bit of paper.
So, that leaves us with reactions.
According to a few internet reaction tests, although perfectly acceptable, mine aren’t that impressive. Though it appears I’m not alone; studies have proved that race drivers have distinctly average reaction times. I have never ever wanted to use my reactions when driving a car (in hindsight this turns out to have been a wise decision, according to the internet). If I have to rely on my reactions, I’ve done something wrong. I’ve made a mistake. I’ve gone past controlled, planned and efficient driving, I’m the other side of the line, and my attention now is 100% focused on not crashing. I am no longer concentrating on speed, lines and technique. If you constantly rely on your reactions when out on track, it will only be a matter of time before the airbags react, namely to a signal from a G-sensor in your car telling them to inflate because the car has hit something immobile and it’s stopped. (Caterham drivers, you can ignore that last bit about airbags).
We need to look further ahead. Further than you think. At times, we need to look to where the track disappears, other times a little closer. It all depends on how fast we are moving. A good rule of thumb is to give yourself four to five seconds gap, from where you are now, to where you are looking.
So how can we use our new found long vision?
It’s important to have reference points. Cones aren’t great but they are an easy starter for 10. However if you rely 100% on cones, cones that have been placed on the track by someone jumping out of a road car first thing in the morning, trying not to spill coffee from their travel mug, and you’re using these cones as your braking, turning and clipping points, then you are effectively ‘driving’ in the same way as a child joins dots together and calls it a picture. From my personal experience, it’s next to impossible to accurately re-create a perfect racing line with cones. Anyway, every car is different and will require a slightly different line, plus, they aren’t adjusted for track conditions either, so no allowance is made for wet or dry conditions. Added to that, it’s easy to get target fixation with a cone. You end up staring at the clipping point cone as you drive past it, utterly unaware of what’s coming up next. Therefore, our reference points will include things such as changes of tarmac, curbs, marshal posts… anything that doesn’t move, easily. If you build up a map of the track in your mind using these things, then you will learn a track much more quickly. By looking further ahead, you will be able to make more sense of these reference points as you have more time to look at them, so you’ll know where you are on the track.
When I am coaching in car, I always take time to see what’s happening with my drivers head. Is it moving? In the majority of cases, in the initial laps at least, the answer is no. Not a bit. The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, we are at tracks like Silverstone, Snetterton and Donington. Not Sant Pod. Silvserstone, Snetterton and Donington all have bends in them, Santa Pod doesn’t. (please note, looking straight ahead is a great technique at Santa Pod). So, if we haven’t moved our head, how on earth can we see the exit of corners like Village, The Loop, Montreal, Agostini or the Melbourne Hairpin are? You can’t. So move your head. Secondly, in a broad sense, your balance is controlled by moving your head to where you want to go. So, point your whole head, eyes and all, at your intended target be that the clipping point or exit. You will be shocked at how effective it is.
The problem with all of this is that it’s not that easy. It’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t feel right. It’s out of your comfort zone. These are pretty unpleasant feelings to have when you are in your own pride and joy, trying to drive it as fast as possible around a track you don’t know. But trust me, this will be the single biggest improvement to your driving that you could possibly make. The more you make yourself do it, the easier it will be. I, to this day, after driving things quickly for 20 years still work on improving my vision. It’s that important.