I decided to write some instructional articles for the all aluminum tour. Most of them will be mechanical stuff, but this first one is about driving, testing, and learning new courses. It’s particularly relevant here because I’m going to be doing a lot of that soon.
A typical disclaimer–Iím not an expert driver. I donít have the focus required to be great at anything. I do a lot of things and Iím easily distracted (oh look…a butterfly) so the best I ever expect to be is intermediate.
What Iím good at is getting to the heart of things quickly: The 80 percent that makes the difference between lousy and decent. I never get to the 20 percent required to go from decent to good.
So hereís my take on learning new courses.
First of all, walking a course is a nice bit of exercise to do the night before, right at sunset, with a cigar and a little Pinot. How that applies to driving I have no idea. I do all my learning laps in a race car. You do need a track map to learn a course though. Spend some time studying it and ask questions of drivers who have mastered the course. You want to know where the apexes are, where any tricky, rough, off camber, or otherwise unsettling spots are.
If you have a test day then you can probably get your times at the track down to the limits of your car and skill level. If all you have is one or two practices then a lot of your work will be on paper.
Once you are on the track, get your tires warm and then start off with late apexes at each turn.
Pick the turns that seem the most challenging and work on slightly earlier apexes each lap. Hereís how: Pick a braking point for a turn and brake hard. Trail the brake lightly as you start to turn in to keep the car settled and minimize understeer. Hit your chosen apex and roll on some throttle once you start to ease off your steering, get to full throttle and see where you come out on the track. If you have lots of track left you should brake a little later, turn in a little earlier, roll your throttle on sooner (because youíve hit the earlier apex) and use up a little more track on the exit. Within a few laps you should have a decent idea of what to do for that corner.
If youíre not completely clear where your trouble areas are, do a freehand map of the entire course, and then compare it to the actual map. The corners you are drawing wrong are probably the ones youíre having trouble with.
Late apexes are safe but slow. You need to find the brake point, apex, and throttle that gives you the highest speed as you exit the corner which generally means you use up all the track at the exit. If you are not using all the track, or are able to roll throttle on before you start to ease your steering, then the car isnít going fast enough and your apex is too late. To refine your approach to any corner first get the entry speed right, then get the apex about right, then increase exit speed, then increase mid corner speed. Proper entry speed can gain a one or two tenths of a second, proper exit speed can gain much more because you carry the difference down whatever straight follows the corner. Mid corner speed sets up exit speed, but doesnít gain much by itself. Road racing is all about managing exit speed.
Of course each component affects the others, so youíll be tweaking constantly, but this approach will get you close quickly.
If youíre practicing you need to be learning something every lap. When you come in, take care of the car if you need to (whereís my crew chief!?! Oh yeah, its me) perhaps get the wheels up in the air so the rubber heat cycles more evenly, and then sit down with a track map and a pad of paper to go over what youíve learned.
Youíre doing the same thing at every corner on every lap: Brake, balance up, apex, accelerate. You should be able to draw a map for each corner that details what the car is doing at the entrance, what itís doing during the transition, when you are releasing the car and getting on the throttle, and where you are winding up at the end of the cycle.
Write down the worst problems first, and try to determine if the problem is you or the car. Make all your big changes early so you can refine them. The closer you get to the race, the smaller the changes need to be.
To be competitive you need to hustle your car. If you have more than just one or two practices you need to go through the process above, find the limits at the exit, then work backwards. Vintage racing places great value on 8/10ths racing, polite passing and odd concepts like pointing people by. But thereís a world of difference between racing for position and lapping slower cars. If youíre in 23rd the person in 22nd is unlikely to simply concede a position. You can find several balanced sets of brake point, brake release. and apex for corners at the end of long(ish) straights that will give you some flexibility in passing. Late brake-late apex combinations are particularly good for passing since youíre in front at the exit. But if the car youíre passing has much better acceleration than yours, then the lower exit speed means youíll be passed in the chute. When youíre passing a more powerful car itís very important to maintain exit speed and that means an early apex and early throttle. Smooth, fast and relaxed. You canít maintain a pass on quicker cars without taking full advantage of superior car balance, handling and driving.
If youíre doing all that well youíll be safer for yourself and those around you than someone thatís distracted by trying to play ďafter you, AlphonseĒ or driving a ďlineĒ thatís dictated by some notion of the proper way around the track, rather than the physical limitations of the car and tires. Hint: If you can get around the corner driving to the inside or the outside of your “line” then it isn’t a line, it’s a simulation of a line.
Smoothness is extremely important, and itís something you want to practice. If you scare yourself, slow down more than you think you need to, and work your way back up. If you donít, your smoothness will suffer. The faster you go the smoother you have to be. If youíre nervous you canít do that.
A good friend of mine rolled his car two years ago. He spent all of last year pushing his car and himself hard, and going five or more seconds per lap slower. He wasn’t going slow enough to get his confidence back. He did a test and tune day at his own speed and now he’s back in the groove.
The next installment in this series will be about using data acquisition to improve your driving. Iíve taken a lot of heat about data acquisition in vintage cars. I suspect some people imagine instrumentation all over the car. In fact itís just me, my laptop and a relatively cheap GPS/accelerometer system from MSD. Compared to the cost of racing schools, track time and racing in general, a tool to dramatically improve your driving and car handling for less than $1000 seems like a bargain.