Friday, March 12, 2010

become a thinking driver

Fail to plan, and you plan to fail.
by Pierre Martins

_the_eyes_of_sennaThey say there are three kinds of entrepreneurs - Those who make things happen, those who wait for things to happen and those who wonder what the hell happened.

Well, the same is true in racing. Top drivers make things happen. They are always fast and at the sharp end of the field. They make it look so easy, yet they always strive to do better. 

Top drivers understand that it’s an ongoing process to remain the fastest of the fastest out there. 

Secondly there are those weekend racers who substitute their shortcomings as drivers by throwing more and more money at their cars in an attempt to go faster, instead of investing time and effort developing their driving skills.

Fast cars and fast drivers are not always synonymous.

But how do you develop your driving skills? By spending more time on track? Not necessarily. See, you also get those drivers whom I call ‘Track Zombies’. You know, the ones who don’t work on their driving at all, the ones who will do hundreds upon hundreds of laps and still end up mediocre drivers and none the wiser…

So how do you develop your driving?

IMG_5259Things happen very fast when you’re out there on the race track. There is really no time for thinking and you have to drive on instinct. The thinking part you have to do in the pits, between sessions. In other words, the actual driving part is the net result of your thinking.

To become a ‘Thinking Driver’ you need to learn how translate your thinking into your driving. In other words, learn how to put your thoughts into motion on the track. But wait, there’s more! You also need to learn how to translate your on-track experiences into thought, how to analyse those thoughts and then translate them back into your driving…

Okay humour me here. Let’s assume you arrive at the track for a test day. Your car well-prepped and ready. Everything is cool and you’re hoping to do well. Your objective for today is to drop your lap times by 2 seconds faster than you’ve lapped in previous races at this track. However, enthusiasm and ability are two entirely different concepts. How will you reduce your lap times? Where will you find those two seconds and how will you go about doing it?  Balls to the wall driving does not necessarily make you any faster and pushing yourself beyond your limits usually means making mistakes more often. You know that’s counter-productive, so you’re gonna do things a bit differently this time. You’re gonna work with a plan…

There are two parts to a Driving Plan - thinking and driving.

Thinking happens in the pits before you go out for your first session. It’s about studying the track map and your notes from previous race meetings at this track. If you don’t have any track notes, now will be a good time to start writing things down. We’re talking about a shitload of information here, so unless you are a superbly talented driver blessed with a photographic memory, the best way to memorise things is to write them down…

KyalamiLatest2Look at the track map and plan the ideal lap. Start with turn 1 and make notes on how you would like to drive the track, corner by corner.   Think about the braking zones before each corner and write down where you need to start braking, how much braking is required, and where you get off the brakes for each corner. Make notes of your lines and turn-in points for each corner. Getting a corner right starts with how you position the car on the approach to that corner, so remember, if you’re on a good lap and you screw up the entry to just one corner, you’ve probably screwed up the rest of that corner and your lap time for that matter.

A nifty little trick is to use an imaginary block of one square meter, right next to the curb, or even on the curb, to aim for as turn-in points on the entry to each corner.

If it’s a right-hander you should hit your turn in block with your left front wheel, and vice versa.

Also note down-shifts and what gear you have to be in for each corner, where you aim to apex and exit on track out, where to feed the power on, up-shifts, bumps, known track conditions, the whole shooti'n’ match…! If you haven’t made detailed notes of this track before you’ll probably have some info missing about some areas of the track, as well as vague areas where you’re not 100% sure what you do on that part of the track. That alone is ample proof why you need a driving plan with comprehensive track notes in the first place. But not to worry, this is essentially what testing is for – To gather and translate info.

It’s advisable to walk the track beforehand, or ride it with a pit bike or bicycle. You’d be amazed how much you pick up by doing this.

Make a note to gather info about those areas of the track you’re unsure of. You will need to pay special attention to them when you’re out on track during your first session, especially if you’re slow in those areas.


Your Driving Plan Make Notes!

Think first!

thought happens in the pits,
before driving
Use a track map walk the track beforehand,
if possible.
Plan the ideal lap turn by turn 
make ample notes
lay-out & conditions
identify known conditions
difficult corners
banked corners
off-camber corners
combination corners
fast sweepers
camber changes
radius changes
surface changes
Braking zones
(brake markers)
threshold braking
braking force
braking distances
brake release
Gearing down-shifts, 
gear selection per corner
Racing line turn-in points
apex point
track out
Missing links identify
missing and/or vague areas
Study memorise your track notes
over and over

First session

Time to turn your thoughts into driving with the preliminary driving plan you now have, but remember, the driving plan also requires you to turn your driving into thinking.

You not only need to implement your thoughts as per your driving plan, you also need to experience and record the track conditions, as well as your car’s performance and handling. 

It is advisable to use the first session as an ‘orientation’ session to familiarise yourself with things. Pay attention to what happens when you’re out on the track, think about it as making a movie in your mind, a documentary of the events as they unfold whilst you’re driving. This is easier said than done, but the better you become at recording things, the better chance you’ll have at translating your driving into thought when you’re back in the pits again. Accurate recordings will give you much needed information. This is where modern day technology helps a lot in the way of onboard video footage, data loggers and telemetry, but you cannot depend solely on these things to improve your driving, because quite frankly, all these fancy gimmicks won’t do the actual driving on your behalf. 

modp_0912_14_o racing_gear_buyers_guide racepak_iq3_data_logger_dash But please don’t get me wrong. I'm not against data loggers, but I've seen drivers misinterpret these things and I've also seen drivers become mentally lazy because they become overly dependent on data loggers. Some say data loggers are effective for newbies and people with limited time to go testing. That may be true, but your ability as a driver ultimately depends on how good you are at interpreting what happens whilst you’re driving. You have to learn how to turn motion into thought and then to translate those thoughts back into motion again. That’s the only way to improve your driving.

So, to recap, your objectives during the first session is to record what happens on track, what the track conditions are and what your car’s handling and performance are like. You need to experience and pay attention to grip levels, what the brakes are like, gearing, engine performance and handling. Do you experience any over-steer and/or under-steer and if so, in which corners and where in those corners? On entry or exit? And you need to do all that whilst implementing your preliminary driving plan, as well as making mental notes of those areas of the track that you’re unsure of, the areas with missing and/or vague information, as well as areas of the track where there’s obvious room for improvement.

Can you see that there is no point in going hell for leather during first practice if it means you’re gonna miss out on all the important stuff you need to take cognisance of?

Interpretation and expression

Back in the pits after your first session. Things will be freshest in your memory during the first five to ten minutes, so use this time constructively. The main objective now is to interpret what you’ve just experienced out on track. The car comes first. Think about issues with the car - traction, gearing, braking and handling. Under-steer and over-steer. You need to give your mechanic feedback on what the car is doing in order for him to improve the setup as necessary. And you need to do this first, so he can get started on the car whilst you get back to your notes and working on your driving plan.

For a mechanic there is nothing worse than a driver who can’t give feedback. How can you expect him to make positive setup changes if you can’t tell him what the car is doing in the first place?

The relationship between driver and mechanic is crucial and you need to express yourself in a way your mechanic understands. The two of you need to talk the same handling and setup language. He needs your input to understand what the car is doing, and you need to understand how the setup changes will affect the handling of the car.

Circle_Track_Log_Book_Tire_Temperatures Data loggers and onboard footage are handy tools at this stage, but be careful not to fall into the trap of blaming the car for shortcomings in your driving plan, especially not after the first session. Maybe I’m just old-school, but I believe you should not become overly dependent on technology to tell you what the cause of your problems are.  I prefer using onboard footage and data logs to second guess myself. In other words, I like to identify problems myself, and then use technology to confirm whether I’m right or wrong about something.

That’s how you gain solid experience, in my not-so-humble opinion.

Working the Driving Plan…

Right, now that the mechanic knows what setup changes to make, you can get back to your driving plan. Get your track notes and track map and get ready to make more notes.

In aviation they have a saying - ‘Identify, verify and rectify’.

Think about the laps you’ve just completed and identify the areas on the track where you can go faster. Ask yourself which corners posed problems for you? Where did you brake too early, too hard, or too long? Where did you turn in too soon? Where did you struggle to find drive on the exit?  Make notes, write things down.

video-camera-shotAsk yourself why and how you made those mistakes. Try to find the answers in your mind first, and then view your onboard footage and data logs. It’s important to second guess yourself in order to make sure you’re right about your facts. If you don’t have a data logger or onboard camera in your car, you can always ask other people who were watching you what they saw. Ask the driver who was coming up behind you in the area of the track where you were slower. What did he see?

Another handy tip - Appoint spotters. Get a friend or member of your crew to watch your driving in the corner where you struggle. Ask them to observe what you’re doing in that corner and what the competition is doing in the same corner. Where do the faster guys brake, turn in, apex, etc?

Think about your mistakes. Why did you make them and how? It’s very important to know this. The more you know about your mistakes, even the silly ones, the more obvious the solutions will become…

Okay, now that you know what your mistakes were and where on the track you made them, you can start thinking about possible solutions. What can you do about it?

To go faster you have three basic choices –

Change something, add something, or remove something.

Your driving plan is not written in stone. You can change things. Remember those imaginary square meter blocks you aim for as your turn-in points? Well, they can be moved around if you decide to change your turn-in point for any corner. You can also change your line through a corner, your brake markers, your apex points, whatever. You can also add and remove things. Modulate the pressure you apply to the brake pedal for more braking force or less braking force, and so on. You know what I mean. It’s perfectly okay to change your driving plan, as long as you think things through.

For example, what will the implications be if you change your line in a certain corner? What if you add more throttle? What if you brake less? In fact, there are countless ‘what if’ scenarios you could run through your mind for each corner on the track. Some will improve your lap times and others may bite you on the ass, but in the end everything boils down to your ability to translate your driving into thought…

The more experience you gain the easier it will become, but you know what they say about experience – It usually gives you the test first and the lesson afterwards…

Let’s use an example. You struggle in a certain corner and you’re always slow on track out. The other competitors get better drive there and you get passed there often. So what are you going to do about it? If you’re thinking about simply carrying more corner speed through that corner, you’ve lost the plot already. But if you plan to change your line by going in deeper and getting off the brakes a tad sooner, squaring off that corner so you can get back on the power sooner and harder, well, then you’ve got a plan that may actually work! 

You can’t knock square pegs into round holes. 
Your plan must fit the corner.

It’s senseless having a plan that doesn’t work. You gotta think things through. Think about the consequences when you change something, when you add or remove something. What will the implications be further down the track? How will it effect your speed and ultimately, your lap times? In the end you have to be sure that your plan for a corner actually fits the corner.

Every driver has a ‘favourite corner’. Think about your favourite corner on this track. It’s the corner you enjoy the most, probably because you have a good working plan for that corner and you’re pretty quick through there. So what’s stopping you from developing good working plans for the corners you hate?


Your Driving Plan
Make Improvements!

Corner by corner

use track map 
and make notes

find better markers
entry Line
threshold braking 
brake pressure
braking distance
release brakes
down changes
turn-in point
apex point
power on
track out marker
Identify room for improvement
where were you slow?
Verify why were you slow?
what did you do wrong?
consult data logs, footage
talk to others
Rectify change something
add something
remove something
define changes think things through
consequences & implications
plan must fit the corner
your driving plan

think in the pits
drive on instinct

Taking it to the next level…

Right, you’ve now got a car with the necessary setup changes, so it should perform better. You’ve formulated and memorised your updated driving plan, pit-lane opens and away you go! But hang on a minute, before you get cracking there is something very important that you should consider -

The trick is not to drive the car, or the track for that matter, the trick is to DRIVE YOUR PLAN.., bada bing, bada boom!

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that you stand a better chance of improving your driving with a well thought through and well rehearsed driving plan, instead of just going out there and trying as hard as you can in a ‘come-what-may’ fashion. It’s a no-brainer, really.

IMG_4304And as always, the faster you go, the more difficult things will become. For starters, things will happen quicker, your reactions will have to be quicker and you’ll have to be quicker at recording things at speed.  There won’t be any time for thinking, which is all the more reason why you should become accustomed to driving on instinct. The more proficient you become at executing a proper driving plan, the quicker you’ll become. You’ve heard top drivers talk about that ‘zone’ you get into when everything seems to happen in slow motion. You become ‘detached’, yet you always remain one step ahead. Well, that can only happen if you are able to drive on instinct.

Think about your favourite corner again. Things are easy in that corner because you’ve got a well-rehearsed plan for that corner. You’re obviously driving that corner on instinct. Now think of the other corners you like. There should be quite a few of them, because you like racing, don’t you? You like those corners because you have semi-decent plans for them. What you need to do throughout the rest of the day’s testing is rehearse and fine-tune your driving plan in those corners…

Racing is a test of skill and race tracks are designed to be challenging by nature. All the corners are not supposed to be easy.

You only hate a difficult corner because you’re not comfortable in that corner. Be honest with yourself - Chances are your plan doesn’t fit that corner, or you have no plan at all.

So what are your options? You can’t ignore the bloody corner, or the fact that your plan ain’t working for that corner, so change it! You can see where I’m going with this, right? – The idea is to use the time in the pits between sessions to develop well thought through plans for each and every corner, connect the dots, memorise them and rehearse them during practice.

Enough for now…

I sincerely hope this little guide will be helpful to you. At the very least I hope it gets you started on your way to becoming a thinking driver and ultimately, a better all-round driver. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and you have to refine your driving plan continually to remain on top of your game. You have to keep working at it, over and over and over in an endless quest to reach a level where your driving becomes instinct, second nature…

With confidence comes complacency and there’s no room for complacency in racing…

Remember, it’s an ongoing process. Your ability as a driver ultimately depends on how good you are at interpreting what happens whilst you’re driving. You have to learn how to turn motion into thought, and then to translate those thoughts back into motion again. That’s the only way to improve your driving.

Good Luck!


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