Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Cornering Line in a MINI Cooper

In preparation for your MINI Cooper first driving class, and as something else to begin practicing, let’s talk about the safest and most efficient way to get around the corner. The choice of turn-in, apex, and exit points, and the pathway between them is what racers refer to as the “line” around the corner.
The optimal line around an individual corner is the one that allows you to wait as long as possible before braking, while still having enough time to bring the car down to a speed that will allow you to take the car around the corner without spinning out or sliding off the track. More important, the optimal line is the one that allows you to be going as rapidly as possible at the point when you exit the corner.
It’s an old saying around race tracks that all racing is simply a succession of drag races from corner to corner. Picking the correct line around the corner is not necessarily a matter of getting around each corner as fast as possible in your MINI Cooper. Instead, it is a matter of setting the MINI Cooper up so that you can win the drag race to the next corner.
Where you exit, and how fast you exit, depends entirely on where you start to make the turn. Selecting the turn-in point is critical to getting the corner right. After that, everything else is just follow-through.
We can start by thinking about the most basic corner, a 90-degree turn. This is a good place to start since most of our everyday driving is going to involve making right-angle turns on city streets, so there will be lots of opportunities to practice the technique.
And remember, you don’t have to be going fast in order to practice and get the moves down. In fact, for the first 100 or so times you turn the corner, you’ll have trouble remembering everything in the right order, even at normal street speeds. But practice the technique and when you do get on the track, you’ll be amazed at how soon you’ll feel comfortable on higher-speed corners, while your less-practiced friends are still looking confused as they lurch around the corner.
The first step in taking a corner is to move as wide as possible to the “outside” of the corner (the side opposite to the direction you’re turning). On the street or highway, this will usually be the center line or curb. (Of course, on deserted roads with no obstructions, where you can see all the way around the corner and up the road a good distance you might be able to go wider.) Once you’re on the track, you’ll be moving clear to the edge of the track before beginning your turn.
You’ll drive at the edge, while completing your heavy braking (and your downshifting, if the corner requires it), until you can see around the corner. While this isn’t necessarily the smoothest arc around the corner, it will be the most efficient line around the corner in terms of exit speed. It is also the safest, since you will be able to see any obstructions in your path.
At that point, you’ll begin to turn in (which, as we noted above, is called the turn-in point) and start to release your brakes. You will want to aim for the inside edge of the corner—remember, earlier we called that the “apex” of the corner—while looking for the point where you will be completing your turn and will once again be at the outside edge of your lane, or the road, the “exit point” or “track-out point.” Remember that you’re looking at where you want the car to go, not just where it is aimed at the moment.
As you reach the apex of the corner you should be off the brakes completely and already starting to ease onto the throttle. As soon as you begin straightening the wheel, you’ll roll onto the throttle and start to accelerate.
You can see from the diagram that the arc of your curve is tightest just past the turn-in point, and widest as you come out of the turn. This will allow you to get on the throttle as hard as conditions permit as early as possible and start that drag race to the next turn-in point.
The optimal line through a single corner is going to start and end at the far outside limits of the available track or lane. As you progress in racing, you’ll often be reminded to “use all the track.” What the instructor means is that if you didn’t start and end the curve at the far outside, while nearly touching the inside limit—curb, berm, or edge of the pavement—at the apex point, you will have made too tight a turn and sacrificed some of that precious speed you need.
Also notice that on this line, the apex—the point at which you touch the inside limit—is just a little way around the corner, rather than being at the actual geometric point of the corner. That “late apex” is usually the best line, since you have a good sight-line down the road when you start your turn, and that same long straight line along which to accelerate as you complete the turn.
You might think about what happens if you get a little tense and try to “hurry” the corner. You’ll start to turn in sooner than the person who’s following the line we’ve just described, but at best you won’t be able to get on the throttle until later in the turn than the other driver. At worst, you will find yourself, as racers say, “running out of road” before you’ve completed your turn, and risk running off the track.
Now all of that is a lot to practice all at once, which is why we recommend that you start now, rather than waiting until you get into the driving course. Incidentally, during the driving course, the instructor will most likely mark off the course with pylons or markers to show you the turn-in point, the apex, and the exit, which will make it a little easier. But daily driving is like rally driving; no one has put pylons out to show you the correct line, so get used to finding it on every corner on your own.
he entrance and exit ramps on limited-access highways make especially good practice areas, since you aren’t likely to encounter anyone going the other way, and the range of speed is as wide as you’ll encounter on most corners of most race tracks.
The best place to practice is on a corner you take every day. That way you can start at a fairly slow speed, and gradually speed up as you get used to the corner, changing the point where you start and end your braking, turn in for the corner, apex it, and come out at the exit point.
If you find that you are having difficulty getting around the corner, it means either that you’re going in too fast, or you’re turning too early. If that’s the case, trying slowing down a little, which will allow you to turn more tightly at the beginning, and turn in later, which will give you more room to finish the corner at the end.
As racing drivers learn new tracks, this is exactly what they are doing; searching for the optimal points and speeds to start and end each phase of each corner, then memorizing those points so they can repeat them lap after lap during an actual race.
When taking the corners, keep thinking about weight transfer as you brake, turn, and accelerate, feeling the car’s weight shift from back to front and corner to corner through the process. Downhill skiers and horseback riders often find that this process is very familiar, it’s just that there is a lot more of you to think about as the car increases and extends your mass.
As you round every corner on your way to work or wherever, make your braking, turning, and accelerating as smooth as possible and try to pick a good line around each one of those corners. If you do your practice diligently every chance you get, pretty soon you’ll start to feel at one with the car, anticipating the weight transfers and feeling yourself going with them, with no abrupt transitions and with as much speed as the situation allows. In short, you’ll really be motoring.

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