The core challenge for any racing driver is to master a fast lap then repeat it time and again. In September’s edition of Revolution, Will Gray spoke to some expert instructors and data engineers, for tips on how to improve your pace and consistency.
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Ask any racing instructor the key to a fastest lap and they will tell you there is no answer. That may not be what you want to hear when trying to unravel the secrets of the racing line and how to master it, but the number of variables that exist means that goal is never the same twice.
There are some fundamental principles to going fast in a racing car. Concentration, self-belief, and desire are all part of the mix, but they cannot be taught, they are only acquired through practise and time out on track. Technique, however, can be taught – and there are plenty of tips to be had on that.
Back to Basics
Good cornering technique involves perfecting three key elements: braking in a straight line before the corner, turning in and hitting the apex in the right place and getting on the power as soon as possible on the exit. Getting this right, however, is far more complex.
Brake hard: Most racing instructors will agree that braking is the most important element of all. The key is to stop hard and sharp, but as Ronan Pearson, a British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) driver and driving instructor at Knockhill, will attest, that is extremely alien to anyone who is used to driving a road car, where standard practice is to gently squeeze the brakes.
“So many times, people will brake as though they have got eggs in the boot,” reveals Pearson. “Actually, you want to be hard on the brakes and pitching the car forwards before you enter the corner, feeling like you are moving forward in that seat, feeling the load through the car. That is one of the biggest opportunities for time gains.”
The reason for that is two-fold. Firstly, it is best to brake for the shortest time possible – and not brake not too soon – then carry the momentum through the corner. Secondly, by moving the weight focus forward, it gives you maximum turn-in grip. It is a technique that Pearson often explains with a half-full bottle of water.
“I put the bottle on its side, move the nose down and the water flows forward,” he explains. “It is a real simple way to show the principle of weight transfer. On the track, if you are heading towards a righthander, for example, you want to brake heavily to load up your front left tyre and use the most amount of grip you have at your disposal.”
Ginetta instructor Charlie Robertson says “de-programming” that natural instinct to brake lightly is one of his hardest jobs. “People understand why it makes sense, but actually doing it on circuit takes a bit of time,” he says. “It is actually easier to coach the kids coming from karting or sim racing, because they have no reference from a real-life car.”
It is, however, easy to overdo this technique too, and Andrew Crighton, S-grade ARDS instructor at Anglesey Circuit, has one more tip: “Being too assertive with the brakes can take too much momentum out of the car on a corner approach. That can cause the suspension to compress <I>too<I> much, leading to imbalance, a poor line, and a slower speed.
“Having a full understanding of weight transference is vital. So too is appreciating that a compressed front spring is inherently uncontrolled and will be subject rebound. Really quick drivers know that easing the way in which weight transference happens makes them quicker because a well-balanced car will result in a faster corner exit speed and a faster lap time.”
Corner smoothly: If braking is all about being firm to scrub off speed and reach the optimum entry speed at the right point, cornering is about following that up with a smooth, flowing motion, and getting onto the power on the exit as soon as possible, then smoothly building up acceleration as you head out of the corner.
“Slower in, faster out is the basic approach, but that is an oversimplification by far,” says Crighton. “Carrying too much speed into a corner produces understeer, but higher and more assertive entry speeds are possible if a driver has enough confidence and ability to balance the steering and project the car through the corner in single arc.”
Your positioning through the corner also has a huge effect on your speed when you exit and Pearson adds: “If you have the right line, you can ease off on the steering lock and pick up the power earlier. If you are well offline, with lots of lock on, you cannot get the hammer down as quickly.
“Your throttle pickup point depends a lot on your confidence. I spend a lot of time trying to coach when to get back on the throttle, but once you get it a lot of it is down to feel. The human brain is a magical thing because if you are looking out towards your exit curb, you start to subconsciously pick up the throttle.
“It is very car dependent, though. In a rear-wheel-drive, it is hard to get back on the throttle early because you will kick the rear end out. In a front-wheel-drive, you can engage maybe 20 per cent throttle to pull you through. You are always balancing, and if you think you are going to run out of road, you must adjust in a split second.”
Master corner flow: The same principles apply for any simple ‘in-and-out’ the corner – whether it is a tight hairpin or a flowing fifth-gear curve – but when there is a complex of multiple corners, the challenge becomes infinitely more difficult and what may be the textbook exit for each corner is not always the right one.
“You have to think of the corners as a set and you are always trying to set it up for the last part,” says Robertson. “Mostly, you want to ‘open up’ the corners as much as you can by holding the car to the opposite side before you turn in, then you get the clipping point on the apex at the optimal time.
“Find the line of least resistance and keep the momentum in the car. Do not try to hold the car tight because that is when you get a bit of understeer, a bit of scrub, and you kill your speed. But it is a fine margin, because you can then under-drive and lose time, so you need to get to that point where you are comfortable with being on the edge of grip.”
Pearson agrees that a sequence of corners is toughest to master and adds: “When you have a right-left-right, for example, the worst thing you can possibly do is carry too much speed through the first one. If you do, it forces you offline and that would then overtighten coming back to the left.
“If you go into the first corner more slowly, you may feel like you have under-done it, but you must weigh up net gain. If by carrying more speed in it forces you offline, you may gain a few tenths at first, but you go will through the second off [the racing] line, cannot get on the power as early after the third and once you are on the straight, you are well in deficit.”
Putting it together
Whether you are heading into a race weekend, track day, test session or instructor session, you should get to know the track before you go. Most venues have a circuit map online – you can find them on Google Images – and zooming in on Google maps’ satellite view is also useful, as you can spot real-life detail and even pick out the ‘polished’ racing line.
Driving the circuit on a simulator, of course, is another good approach if the track is available on a game. So too is walking the circuit once you arrive, as this will enable you to spot potential visual triggers for braking points and it is also the only way to see areas of camber that could catch you out.
To help with this, instruction days typically begin with a passenger ride at medium speed. “We give people four laps or so, explaining on the intercom where they want to be for braking, where to turn in, where to hit the apex,” says Robertson. “We get them to talk it back, so we know they understand then we swap and let them drive.”
Although the racing line may seem obvious to most racing drivers, it is not always so for beginners. Pearson adds: “Often, when people leave the pitlane for the first time they try to stick to a lane, as if they are on a motorway. I often have to spend the first lap or so with a hand on the wheel, showing them the line.
“Over time it becomes easy to spot the basic line and on instructor days we have perfectly positioned turning-in and apex markers, so as soon as someone gets into a car, they see what they are aiming for. Even then, though, a complete novice will find it very hard to trust the markers and to trust me as an instructor!”
Learning your way around: Although there is always a general racing line to any track, the subtle deviations you make can win or lose vast amounts of time. Different car types and set-ups can alter the best route through a corner, and you should never think there is one perfect line – there is far more than one way to take a corner.
“The first stance is often to use the far ends of the apex and exit kerbs as an initial reference,” says Crighton. “Once you have that mastered, it is normal to adjust these slightly to suit your specific circumstances. The most important thing is consistency, and using specific reference points initially will enable you to fine-tune the precise line.
“If you are consistent, it will soon become apparent on the lap timer whether turning in a couple of metres earlier for a corner, for example, has a beneficial or negative effect. If you are not consistent, it is hard to tell whether a sudden improvement in a lap time is due to a change in line or just a sudden flash of inspiration or enthusiasm.”
One of the biggest factors in nailing the best line can actually come from changing where you look. “I always look at the corner ahead not the one I am in,” tips Pearson. “In the braking zone I am already looking out towards the corner exit because if you look far enough up the road, you get a better feel for the steering lock you need to get out the other side.”
Be consistent: It is one thing putting a single lap together, free of traffic, just racing the clock, but preparing for wheel-to-wheel competition is far more complicated. Achieving a good race performance is all about consistency, nailing those braking points over and over again, and avoiding mistakes, as well as managing your tyres if your race length demands it.
The key to that is defining the reference points mentioned above and adapting them as your fuel weight goes down and your tyre performance changes. “The car changes all the time and you need to be able to adapt to that,” says Robertson. “To prepare for that, you need to do long runs – 15 laps or so – and consistently lap within half a second of your best time.
“A lot of people struggle to concentrate and focus for that long, but to stop mistakes starting to creep in you need to focus on repetition. You need to feel what the car is doing, how it is changing and how to drive around that because over the course of the race, you will often have a very different car at the end to what you had at the start.”
Fitness is also a big part of achieving consistency, as fatigue can not only affect your physical ability to drive a car, but it can also affect your mental state. The inside of a race car can become extremely hot over the course of a session or a race. That requires preparation too.
“It is important to learn to be comfortable being hot and pushing on the edge,” adds Robertson. “The adrenaline and the need to hit the brakes at such a force time and again makes it is very physical, so you do become tired. The top amateur drivers train all the time, they have nutrition programs, fitness programs, all of that can make a significant difference.”
Work on your racecraft: Getting race ready is not just about building consistency, it is also about getting your elbows out and competing for position. Racing, says Crighton, is “50 per cent art and 50 per cent science” and being able to pre-empt situations takes experience. However, there are ways to learn before you get into the heat of competition.
“The best way to prepare is to do one-on-one race training,” says Robertson. “When we train the people for the Ginetta championship, I jump in a second car and effectively start racing them. That is great because I can sit in their mirrors, they get a feel of what it looks like, and they can start trying to overtake me.
“We do it in a structured way – for example, I will say ‘I am going to defend here, see if you can get underneath me on the exit’ – and it is definitely a good help, particularly for people who have not raced before. Putting someone through different live scenarios can help them build up a toolbox of different approaches to use in a race.”
Crighton adds: “Being able to pre-empt situations on circuit is a key skill. The ability to be able to watch the car in front and see what it is doing, then discipline yourself to hold slightly back and get a better run out of a corner to overtake it, rather than crowding it and being boxed in to lose momentum.
“Building an understanding of how other people are driving also helps you to see if another car is on the brink of control, so you can brake earlier and plan to provide space to avoid an incident. Again, it comes down to vision. The further ahead you look, the smoother you drive and the earlier you may expect to spot opportunities or hazards.”
Know your competition: If you are a regular in a championship or series, you will likely be seeing the same drivers out on track every race weekend. Whether you are racing at the front, battling in midfield, or just trying to keep out of everyone’s way at the back, the more you can learn about the people around you, the better you will perform.
If, for example, you find yourself out of position in qualifying, you can use insider knowledge to plan your attack. Alternatively, if you have repeatedly failed to get past a particular driver, you can learn a lot by either taking a look at your own onboard race footage, if you have it, or watching a replay of the race, if it is recorded.
“You should always look at who is ahead of you after qualifying and plan what to expect,” says Pearson. “You may know from experience that a certain driver is likely to go wide in a certain place, so prepare to grasp that opportunity. If you have not had the best qualifying, think of who you can pick off quite quickly and how you will do it.
“You have to be a forward thinker in motorsport to be any good. If you are trying to set up an overtake, that does not just happen, you have to work to make it happen – out on track but also before you get there. Prepare by looking at footage on a laptop, plan what you can do, look at different scenarios and see what might work best.”
Making use of data
Data analysis has been used to seek performance gains in high-level motorsport for decades. Now, advances in technology are providing those opportunities to everyone, with a number of different motorsport-focused data gathering tools starting to come onto the market at an attainable price point.
A few examples of these include Garmin’s new ‘Catalyst’ virtual racing coach and Racelogic’s VBOX products, which range from the entry-level speed and GPS ‘Sport’ unit to the Video HD2, which can combine data and onboard video and even stream it live to any location. At Ginetta, meanwhile, they include an in-built data system into every car they produce as standard.
“In the first few sessions for someone new, data is not that crucial because there are quite clear and obvious things you can do just by watching them,” says Robertson. “But once you get the basics sorted, it is incredibly useful to get more into the detail and to delve into where and how hard they are braking, when they get on the power, and so on.
“There is a lot of different ways of driving a car and producing a similar lap time, so the data is useful to find out where the differences are and how to move people forward. It is just for that last second-and-a-half when the data really comes into play, anything above that, it is still quite clear to a coach where that time is.”
Racelogic has been making systems for motorsport for more than 30 years, initially focused on technology for systems such as traction control and paddle gear shifts. However, when the US switched off its GPS signal scrambling in 2000, increasing its accuracy from 100m to 3m, a new door was opened for vehicle tracking data and the VBOX was born.
Since then, the company has developed a range of products and features, including a particularly accurate predictive lap timing tool. VBOX Motorsport’s Rob Barnett explains: “Most predictive lap timers work off distance travelled so they can become inaccurate, particularly if you are on a circuit with a long lap or you are dealing with traffic.
“Instead, our systems use positioning and a fast update rate to align the reference and comparison laps, delivering an accurate lap time even if the driver takes a different line. They can maintain 0.1 second precision the entire way around a circuit, including long circuits such as the Nürburgring or Spa.
“Our data analysis software was designed by racing drivers and is focused on quickly identifying areas where improvements can be made, and time can be found. Often you only need to do a quick scan of the Delta Time channel to see where the biggest opportunities are and then focus on those particular sections.
“We have a speed trace that shows when a car is accelerating or decelerating, even without pedal sensors; the minimum apex speeds are another good point of reference; and the ‘Combo G’ channel effectively shows how much of the available grip is being used and helps focus on braking, cornering, and accelerating transitions.”
Fitness technology firm Garmin has recently released its own motorsport solution after one of its product developers, Adam Spence, developed the idea during the pandemic. The British-born amateur racing driver, together with a team of fellow motorsport enthusiasts, have created what appears to be quite a revolutionary device.
The Garmin ‘Catalyst’ looks similar to a traditional SatNav unit and is designed to be securely mounted in the cockpit of a racing car. It collects and instantly analyses your performance data and uses it to provide real-time audible coaching during the session, as well as delivering simple and immediate improvement suggestions as soon as you return to the pits.
Explaining the inspiration behind the device, Spence says: “I had been racing for a number of years and got really frustrated with trying to do data analysis, because it is really important, but it was always a case of coming back to the pits, downloading the data, getting the laptop out and going hunting for the bits that you need to try to make yourself faster.
“There are times when you are on the track, and something feels really good, but you do not know why. You must go in and look at it and understand what that was, but you need to remember what lap it was, what turn. So, the idea was to try to develop a racing coach and a data analysis tool that provided instant feedback.”
To achieve high positional accuracy, the device combines three distinct elements: optical image processing; a high sensitivity Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS); and internal inertial sensors in the device itself. This allows it to determine exactly where the car is on the track by recreating a 3D model of that track around it.
During the development of the device, the concept hung on the idea of using complex AI programming to read the raw data and create an ‘Optimal Lap’ over a session or a weekend. This splits the track into small corner-by-corner sections and puts the fastest time in each section together to show how fast a driver <I>could<I> go if they did their best at every corner.
“The key thing is that this is a line you have already driven, just not all together,” explains Spence. “The software takes the thousands of data points and works out for every lap you give it, what the fastest route through that track is that you can actually drive. It can then look at what you are doing on average and see where you are least consistent.
“The first thing you see when you look at the screen after a session is three ‘Opportunities’ which the system has identified as the key areas that can make you go faster. If you then look at each one, you can flow through the sector, seeing braking positions, turn-in, line, brake release and so on, and analyse quickly to see how to improve.
“That really helps you to not get too lost in the data and if you want to go further – and few people will – you can look at segments and walk yourself through every single segment and explore by yourself. That way, you can then prioritise what you look at, depending on whether you have five minutes, 15 minutes, or an hour.”
The Garmin system even has an App that allows drivers to submit and share their data, similar to the way cyclists do on Strava. You can then compare yourself to other drivers in the same equipment, looking at lines, speeds and even joining leader boards that show where you are in relation to other drivers at the same track in the same car. Just do not tell your rivals!
Read more from this month’s edition of Revolution…