Friday, January 14, 2011

Track Day Driving Techniques

Sequences of Corners
The corners on a track or autocross course that really show off a driver’s skill and experience are those where several corners come in a row. In these circumstances, taking the optimum line around one corner may make it impossible to take the best line around the next corner.

For example, many tracks have a situation where if you go all the way to the outside of the track to prepare to enter the first corner in the sequence, the result is that you wind up exiting that corner way beyond the point where you can get a proper line into the second corner.

The key to these situations is to think about where you want to be when you come out the other end of the sequence of corners and are back on a straight section, whether that sequence is two corners, or five corners. As a general rule, the driver with the best lap time is not the person who goes through the corners fastest, but the one who gets from the beginnings of the straighter high-speed sections to their ends fastest.

To get the highest speed on the straighter sections depends on coming off the last corner before that section on the best possible line. Sometimes this is impossible unless a less-than-optimal line is selected through one or more of the earlier curves in the sequence. This principle is sometimes called “sacrificing a corner” for speed.
Obviously, you aren’t going to get this right the first time you drive the course.
In fact, you have to find that line through the sequence of corners one step at a time, starting from the very last corner before the straight. As you start to learn the track, or begin working to lower your times, start by driving relatively slowly through the sequence so that you can set up the last turn as effectively as possible in terms of how fast you’re going when you exit. Once you’ve figured out where to begin your entry into that last corner, then you can do the same thing by determining where to turn in and how fast to enter the second-to-last corner in the sequence.
By following this process back to the first corner in the sequence, you may very well find yourself starting the first corner at a point that wouldn’t make any sense at all if that corner were the only one, or you may find yourself going relatively wide and slow around a corner in the middle of the sequence in order to finish the sequence at the highest possible speed.

We grant that it is much easier to explain this process than to follow it. Nevertheless, if you were to watch a professional driver who was learning a new course, or mastering a new car on a known course (nearly the same thing), you would see that their lap times get progressively lower, one step at a time, as they continue to practice.
It isn’t that they are getting better and better at the whole course. Instead, what is happening is that they are finding a good line through one corner of a section at a time, and then progressively learning the corners leading up to it.

For the near term, the main thing to remember is that when you confront a sequence of corners, you won’t necessarily be able to follow the theories of correct lines through corners and find yourself going fast at the end. Instead, concentrate your attention on the last corner in the sequence, since that’s where the greatest gains will be made in improving your lap times. Be willing to sacrifice speed around earlier corners in order to find that good line out of the last corner, and you’ll be on your way to driving better.

Blind Corners
Whenever given the chance, those devious track designers will generally take advantage of terrain changes, or geographic characteristics to make the driver’s task even more difficult. If they do very well, they will be rewarded by having their track called “technical.” In our terms, a technical track is one that calls on all of the driver’s skills to get good times.
One of the favorite strategies to do this is to use changes in elevation to create a blind corner, where the important elements of the corner, like the apex and exit point, can’t be seen until the driver is already making the turn and is committed to a line. One of the best examples of this is the “corkscrew” at Laguna Seca, but just about every good track has at least two or three examples of blind corners offering similar challenge.
To drive these blind corners well, two tips are in order. First, try to see the entire corner, including the part you can’t see, in your mind’s eye before entering it. Second, help yourself by finding visual landmarks that you can see in order to take the corner well.

Seeing the corner in your mind is a trick that all good drivers use. It’s often noted that an experienced driver can remember every foot of every corner of every track that he or she has mastered, and can drive the track in their mind so accurately that if you tell them to start, and they tell you when they’ve completed the mental lap, the elapsed time will be almost precisely the time it takes them to physically drive a lap.

The idea is that as you come up to a corner that is obscured by a rise in the terrain, or other barrier, that you try to see through the barrier in your mind, picturing what the corner will look like as you clear the barrier. Do this several times as you begin driving a new track and fairly soon you’ll have a clear picture of what the corner looks like in your mind. At that point you’ll find that your confidence has been built up so that you can clear the barrier without slowing down more than is justified by the actual characteristics of the corner.

The second tip is to select a physical landmark that you can see, to give you a guide point to tell you where to aim the car as you go over the rise, or around the barrier that obscures the corner. For example, drivers who have mastered Laguna Seca will tell you that they aim for the top of the first oak tree as they make their turn and prepare to dive over that blind crest into the Corkscrew.

On other courses, the landmark might be a particular lamppost, or water tank, or other physical landmark in the distance that you can aim for when you round that blind corner or crest that blind rise into the next corner.

But if you use the combination of creating a mental picture of the corner, coupled with a physical reference point to help you find your line, you’ll be able to take the corner almost as if you had x-ray vision.

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