If you want to carve a mesmerizingly fast curve, you'd better understand how to determine the most efficient line around the bend. No matter if you've mastered cornering techniques like Michael Schumacher, if you are not on the correct racing line, you will be no faster than a NASCAR driver attempting to turn right.
The general philosophy is simple. We want to open up the corner as much as possible, allowing you to flow the greatest amount of speed through the bend. This can be broken up into three phases — entry, middle and exit.
For the entry we want to be as wide as possible. For example, let's say we have a right-hand turn; to enter, we want to be on the far left side of the road, with our left wheels inches from the grass.
As we turn in, we bring the car across to the tightest part of the bend on the inside (right side). This is called the apex. We are now in the middle of the turn and our right-hand tires are likely grazing the painted curbing on the inside of the racetrack.
For the exit, we let the car release out of the bend and slide back across the racetrack to the far left hand side once again.
What we have done is gone "outside, inside, outside" and widened the turn as much as is physically possible. By opening up the bend we have effectively reduced the tightness of the corner and, as we all know, if the corner is less tight we can travel faster through it.
That is the simple bit — although not that simple to explain in writing! Now for the more technical bit.
You heard me mention the word apex. This is probably the most important term in this entire topic. The apex is the part of the corner where the racing line is nearest the inside of the bend. It is the exact spot where our inside wheels will touch the curbing. It also varies in placement from turn to turn.
You may have heard people talk about adopting an "early apex" or a "late apex." What that means is they are adjusting their turn-in point to produce an earlier, or later apex point. The reason you do this is rather simple.
Let's say you are coming off a sequence of bends into a tight hairpin curve. At the exit of the hairpin is a long straightaway. You want to sacrifice the entry of the corner to allow for a better exit off the turn. The time lost on entry will be worthwhile given the time gained down the long straight. In this case, you would turn in late and apex late. This would require you to input a lot of turning initially to get your car back down to its apex point from its late turn in, but in doing so, you will be able to get the car straighter sooner and be on the power earlier, resulting in a better exit speed which will carry all the way down the long straight.
The opposite would be true if, at the end of that straight, you came to another tight hairpin followed by a series of bends. Now the exit is not as relevant because you are immediately into the next section of curves. So the important part to concentrate on is making the most of your fast straightaway speed and carry that all the way into the corner. So as you hit the brakes you turn in early making for an earlier apex. You almost ‘dive-bomb' the apex carrying as much speed as possible, braking as late as you possibly can. The philosophy is to go in as hard as you dare and simply sort it out on the exit. This way you maximize your entry speed and don't lose much on the exit because you are immediately into the next bend.
In every type of turn, on every racetrack, the line and apex will vary slightly. The key is to analyze the corner and figure out the most effective way around. Be aware that you may adjust your line as conditions differ, your car's handling changes or you attempt to set up a pass (or defend) against another racer. You must be able to adapt on the fly and be constantly trying new things to find a faster way through.
Most important, you need to be smart. You can't enter a bend without a strategy on how you are going to navigate the turn as fast possible. It's like a quarterback in the NFL. They don't just throw the ball and hope their man catches it; there is a carefully thought-out plan to ensure maximum effectiveness. However, if the defense catches on, they are ever ready to switch it up and rewrite the playbook.
If you master the racing line you have achieved the first step to becoming the best driver you can be. It's like building a house. Once you achieve a solid base, you can begin building the structure.
Next up: Braking, steering and throttle techniques.