Speed Secrets: How to Come to Grips With a New Car or Track
Drive the car, not the track.
Years ago (a phrase I seem to be saying more and more these days, which I suppose is either a good sign of the experience I’ve gained, or simply that I continue to get older – which is better than not getting older), I was coaching a middle-aged driver who was racing a Formula Mazda race car. We were at MSR Cresson to spend a couple of days solely focused on his driving.
This driver, who I’ll call Tom, was very successful in his profession, and had made a few dollars that he could spend on his newest passion: cars and racing. Tom picked me up in his Aston Martin, and we headed to the track, one that I’d never been to until that day. He’d spent many days at this track so learning it was not the focus. No, the main aim for our test days was for him to consistently drive his Formula Mazda closer to its limits.
Prior to the track going green, I asked Tom to show me around the track. Instead, he threw me the keys to his Aston Martin, and told me to drive and show him how I learned the track. I rarely drive when I’m coaching because I feel that my driver is going to learn more from doing the driving, but at the same time, there is not a faster way for me to learn a track than by driving it.
Off we went.
Now, this Aston had a wonderful sound as I stood on the throttle leaving pit lane, so it wasn’t going to take much encouragement for me hustle it around the track. As I braked and entered the first corner, I could see Tom tense up a little next to me, and grip the door handle. The tires howled as I initiated a bit of understeer trailing into the turn, and then began a transition to a touch of oversteer as I squeezed very hard on the throttle. Oh, that sounded nice.
Okay, it was a bit messy, but in one corner I had learned a lot about what the Aston was capable of – and what it wasn’t capable of. Over the course of the next three laps, I went from seriously over-driving the car, sliding it at lot, to tidying up my driving and honing in on what I learned was the limits of the car.
When we pulled into the paddock after these three laps, Mike looked at me with a big grin on his face and asked, “How did you know that you wouldn’t crash my car? How did you know that you could enter that first corner at that speed?”
Now, I need to be very clear about one thing: I’m not the greatest driver in the world! Okay, you already knew that, but my point is that I’m not special. There are many, many drivers who could have done what I did, and probably better than I did. What I am saying, though, is that my approach is something that almost any driver can use to come to grips with and learn the limits of a car quickly.
So, what did I do?
First, one thing I did not do is get overly caught up in what was supposedly the ideal or perfect line through all the corners. I did not have someone tell me what line I should drive all around the track. Instead, I focused on driving the car to what I felt was its limit, and in the process the line became obvious to me, in just three laps. I didn’t need someone to tell me where the line was because the car told me.
To be fair, at that point in my life, I’d been driving on dozens and dozens of tracks for almost three decades, in hundreds of different cars. This was not the first time I’d been in the position where I needed to jump in a car that was new to me and get up to speed quickly. So, that helped.
But I drove the car, not the track. By focusing on driving the car to its limits – even beyond the limit – I learned what the track needed. If I’d focused on driving the perfect line, as given to me by someone else, it would have taken longer to learn what the car was capable of.
When Tom asked how I knew that his car could go into that first corner at the speed I did, my answer was that I’d driven cars similar to it, so I had a rough idea – and I intended to over-drive it. I was not only okay with driving it beyond its limits, that was my goal. And by the time I’d gotten to the second corner, I had a really good idea of what it could do because I’d deliberately driven it beyond the limit, so now I could dial it back just a little bit.
If, instead of this being in Tom’s Aston Martin, Fernando Alonso had given me the “keys” to his F1 Aston, there is no way I could have done what I did. Why? Because I’m not confident that I can over-drive a F1 car, and catch it when it began to slide. But with cars that are within my “comfort window” – within the performance window of cars similar to ones that I had some experience with – I’m confident that I can drive a little beyond the limit, and know that I can control it. That’s a key to learning a car and track very quickly: trusting yourself, and having confidence in your ability to control the car, even when it’s beyond the limit.
Why did I feel confident in being able to do what I did? If you look at confidence as your belief system, and ask where any of your beliefs come from, you know that they mostly come from past experiences. If you’ve done something in the past, you know – you believe, you have confidence – that you can do it again.
But what about things you’ve never done before? How can you believe that you can do something that you’ve never done before (like firing someone else’s Aston Martin into a corner beyond its limit)? To start to answer that question, I’d like to ask you one: Just because you haven’t done something, what makes you think you can’t do it?
Isn’t it interesting how we sometimes assume we can’t do something that we’ve never done before? And sometimes we think we can do something else that we’ve never done before? One of the reasons very young drivers excel in racing is because they don’t know that they shouldn’t excel. They’re naïve. No one has told them that they can’t do something (or they just didn’t listen to that limiting advice).
If you want to feel confident enough to over-drive a car so that you can eventually dial it back to the limit, be naïve. Assume you can,until you can’t.
Now, besides physically experiencing something, another way to develop and build beliefs is through mentally experiencing it. By imagining yourself in different situations, you can build your confidence. Of course, this is a choice you make. You could choose to imagine not being confident… but who wants to do that?! Yeah, some people are more “naturally” wired to choose to see the worst outcome in situations, whereas others choose the opposite. But when I say “naturally,” a good portion of that is based on past experiences, too, and how one chooses to see things.
Make the decision to deliberately imagine yourself doing things that build your confidence. It’s a choice you can make.
From a driving technique perspective, did you notice what I said earlier about what I did when entering the first corner in Tom’s Aston? I deliberately made the car understeer. That may not be the fastest way, nor what I would want to do in other corners, but a pushing car is easier to manage and correct for than one that is oversteering. I’m super-confident that I can dial it back a bit and manage an understeering car.
A critical step in learning to drive any car at or even near the limit is deliberately making the car do something. I often talk about this being the key to driving in the rain: enter corners at a speed where the car will do something, either understeer or oversteer. That way, you’re not waiting for your car to do something, and you’re not surprised when it does. Instead, you’re driving proactively, rather than reactively. This approach works equally well on a dry track as it does on a wet one.
No matter what the performance level is of the car you currently drive on track, to test what I’m talking about, I challenge you to find a car with lesser performance, take it on track, and toss it around. Over-drive it. Deliberately make it understeer, then oversteer. Play with it. I’m confident that you’ll be confident doing that.
Once you’ve done that, take that same approach with your usual car. Over-drive it.
Then – and this is critical – start a session and see how quickly you can do all of this. A goal should be to over-drive your car on the first lap, dial it back a tiny bit on the next lap, and by the third lap dial it back to what you think is about the limit. But here’s the thing, do not dial it back to below the limit. The goal of this drill is to always over-drive the car just a little, little bit, and never below it.
I’d be irresponsible if I didn’t qualify what I’ve said here by saying that this is not meant for novice drivers. You do need some amount of experience, and have some car control skills developed before you begin the physical, on-track part of this process. How do you know for sure if you’re ready? How do you know when it’s just the limitations of your belief system that’s telling you that you’re not ready? You don’t. But I think if you spend a bit of time being very honest with yourself, you’ll know. And you can test it in small ways. If you’re able to overdrive your car in safe places (say, slower corners with lots of runoff room), then you can move that up to faster corners, and then to most corners (you may choose to leave out the very fast corners that have no room for error). Doing this, you’ll gain confidence in your ability to be able to catch and manage when your car slides or begins to spin.
I’d also suggest taking a bit of time and ask yourself how often you lose control of your car and spin or go off the track. If the answer is “often,” you’re not quite ready for what I’m suggesting. But if the answer is along the lines of “I often miss my line, or have the car snap sideways, but I most often seem to correct it and carry on,” then you’re ready.
You may be asking how one goes from the former to the latter, from not being able to control a sliding/spinning car to being able to. In other words, you’re asking how to develop your car control skills, and that’s something I’ll dig into in future posts, as I think I’ve almost used up all my words for this one!
But before we go, you may be wondering about Tom. After all, the main focus of my coaching for him over the two days was having him get comfortable with over-driving his Formula Mazda. While his experience level was relatively low, and his car control skills were not super-well-developed, we used the same approach of overdriving, then dialing it back. At the end of two days, he was right on pace with much more experienced drivers.