Monday, January 5, 2009

Heel and Toe Downshifting in a MINI Cooper

In normal driving, very few people downshift, since the MINI Cooper engine can pull pretty strongly from very low rpm and there are few times when the additional torque is really necessary. But if you want to practice for the day you start doing hot laps at the race track, you can start working on how to downshift, using the technique called “heel-and-toe” shifting to make those shifts as smooth as possible.
Essentially, what you are going to do is make it easier for the engine to cope with the changes in gears by giving the throttle a little blip while you’re downshifting. That way, before the shift is completed, the engine is already spinning close to the higher rpm required in the lower gear. Done properly, this little blip of the throttle will make your driving much smoother, and eventually much faster.
What makes this process a little complicated is that you are going to start downshifting at the same time that you are braking to get ready for the corner. At the same time that you’re putting on the brake with your right foot, you’re going to want to tap the gas pedal with your right foot. “But wait a minute,” you say. “I only have one right foot.”
Right you are. So what you will do is to push the brake in with the toe of your right foot, and by twisting your foot slightly, give the throttle a nudge with your right heel. If it’s more comfortable for you, you can push the brake with your heel and the throttle with your toe. That’s why the technique is called heel-and-toe. (Though to be honest, some people use one side of the foot on the brake and the other side of the foot on the gas. Whatever works for you.)
So here’s the sequence: As you get ready to turn a corner that is going to require that you exit in a lower gear than you entered, you will start to brake with your right foot and at the same time push in the clutch with your left. With the clutch in, you’ll slide the gear shift into the next lower gear and about the same time blip the throttle. With the engine still revving up from the throttle blip, you’ll let out the clutch. Brake, push clutch, shift/blip, release clutch.
Right now this may seem a little like patting your head while rubbing your stomach, but a little practice will make it all work. Incidentally, if anyone asks, you are not “double-clutching.” Double-clutching is actually a more complicated process that requires releasing the clutch slightly at the point that the throttle is blipped in order to get the gears spinning faster, then pushing it back in to shift the gear, before releasing the clutch. Thankfully, with modern engines and gear boxes, the technique is no longer required, except on some really, really old vintage cars.
Of course, if you remember the original cornering sequence we just discussed, we didn’t discuss shifting gears. That does add one additional step to the sequence. However, the downshifting should be completed during the early part of the braking process, while the car is still going in a straight line. By the time you start to make the turn, you want all your shifting done, so you can have both hands on the wheel through the corner.

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