Episode 4: You, Your Car and the Track
I’m about to make my debut in car racing (Formula Vee). I have no previous racing experience other than attending 3 racing schools in the last 10 years. My major concern is how to “safely” find the limit of the car at a new track. Basically we have a test day (5 sessions) before each race, but all the tracks are new for me. Do you have any advice about strategy? Any particular car set up I should start with?
P.S. Looking forward to reading more of your articles...good writing!
It is great to hear from you, and congratulations on going racing in a Formula Vee. What kind of chassis are you running and where are you racing it? Years ago I tested a Formula Vee, loved it, and since then I’ve pestered Mr. Bill Vallis of Vallis Motorsports every year to please let me race one of his cars. (Bill manufactures his own Formula Vee, the BRD - which can usually be found at the front of the pack. He is also, in my opinion, one of the nicest and most straight shooting team owners you will ever meet)
Regarding your questions – Yep, I have some tips for you but before we get to them take a step back and start with your own personal strategy, not in terms of technical strategy but mind set. Being that you are very new to racing this try to treat this entire season as a learning experience. There really are tons of things to learn, new tracks, new lines, driving techniques, the set-up and mechanics of your car, race weekend preparation, dealing with race weekend emotions (expect lots of highs and lows) and most of all staying focused throughout it all. It would do you well to consider your self a big sponge with the goal of soaking up as much information as possible every day of every event. Focus on the process, not the result. I cannot influence it enough. It is the key to success in motorsports. It is also one of the hardest things to do as it requires discipline and leaving your ego at home!
Try not to get wrapped up in competitors’ lap times, where you qualified or your finishing position. But isn’t that the point, you might ask?? Yes, trying to be the fastest and winning the darn thing is the point but by focusing on these results – or worse yet, worrying about these results (as many do), we are taking our eye off the ball. It is only through the correct process that we can achieve a good result. For example, let’s look at what it takes to drive a great lap: heading down the front straight we keep our vision up, see our braking point, modulate the brakes, release the brakes smoothly, turn in at the appropriate spot, aim for our apex, feel the car take it’s set, make any necessary corrections, apply the throttle at a certain point in the corner, make sure we track out and have the correct exit point, up shift at the perfect rpm, draw up our mental check list of all the things we need to do to maximize the next section of track, and so on. This is the process, and it takes 100% of your focus. When you let your mind go to anything other than maximizing the next section of track, you are compromising that focus and your speed.
So let’s take this concept deeper into the race event. When you are out of the car, the process changes but it is still all important. It is no longer braking points, turn in points and apexes – it now changes to whatever you and the car need for the next session: Change the tires, bleed the brakes, nut and bolt check on the suspension, eat lunch with enough time to digest before your back in the car. Is it going to rain? Are the rain tires mounted or do we need to take them over to the tire truck, etc. Do we have to time to focus on anything other than this process?? Not really. Is it better to worry why so-and-so is half-second faster or should time and effort be spent contemplating a set up change that will allow you go faster? (I’d recommend the latter).
All of this, of course, should be balanced with actually having fun and it is very much up to you to determine the pace and intensity you want to work at, but my main message is pretty simple – concentrate on what you need and what the car needs and the results will follow.
Getting back to your question of safely finding the car’s limit: Take your time and build up to it. Try to set yourself simple goals such as: Friday- focus on learning the track – even if the last session is qualifying, and don’t get hung up on times. The no-pressure mind set alone will make you faster.
When you are on the circuit pick a relatively safe corner to test your car’s limit. Look for a corner with lots of run off and relatively low speed – use that as the place to experiment with the car. Try going in a little too fast, or turning the wheel a bit more abruptly, or trail braking in. See what happens, and apply what you learn there to other corners.
A common issue when learning a new track is finding the correct braking points. Here’s a little trick. Later in the day (third or fourth session) - during a lap where there is no one behind you, select a corner and use your normal braking point to try a full emergency stop – I’m talking threshold brake as hard as you can and get the thing stopped as though your life depended on it. (Careful not to flat spot any tires – try this on an old set). If you are stopped well before the corner, or have to re-accelerate to get to apex – you will know you braked too soon. Move your braking point forward a few feet and try again. Use this exercise at all the big braking zones.
We can also look at where and how you get back on the power when cornering. Usually with a Formula Vee you want to be getting back to the power around the apex or possibly slightly before. When you are feeling comfortable with your racing line you can start experimenting with getting on the power sooner. Provided you do this in small increments it is a relatively safe way of working up to your car’s maximum corner exit speed. If you overshoot this mark by a small amount the car will start to run wide and you should be able to gently release a little bit of throttle (not all the way – never lift 100% in a corner) to correct the cars exit line.
The final phase is corner entry speed and the key to this is baby steps. A baby step equals no surprises. No surprises equals staying on the black stuff. Staying on the black stuff equals everyone going home happy.
When you are confident to start increasing your speed going into corners do it very gradually. Recently a friend of mine decided he would go into a high speed corner 15 mph faster than had before. His logic was that the car he was chasing kept pulling away from him there. And true, he might well have been entering the corner slower than his car’s capability. Realistically he might have been able to go into the corner 2 or 3 mph faster – heck maybe even 5 -7. But is 15 mph faster a baby step?? Not exactly. Is making that jump in one lap going to avoid surprises? Nope. When the dust settled my friend had completely written off his gorgeous BMW Z3 M race car, and he was very fortunate to not injure his neck or spine.
When I asked my friend what happened his reply was as honest as it was accurate, He said “I let my ego drive the car, not my brain”. This brings us right back to where we started with this column – mind set. If you constantly temper yourself with realistic and healthy goals, such as, “I am a sponge and here to learn”, “I don’t care what my lap time is, my goal is to learn the racing line today”, you will not find your ego getting the best of you, and your results will improve.
Stay focused on your process - you, your car the track. Nothing else matters.