We've mastered the racing line, but now we need to understand the techniques necessary to operate a car at its limits. This is the aspect that turns you from a wannabe racer, that is regularly ridiculed by all your competitors in the local autocross, to the guy standing atop of the podium, swigging the urine-tasting swill of Wal-Mart's own bubbly.
Here's what I do when I look at a particular corner: First I figure out the important part of the turn –- entry or exit –- and adjust my line as necessary. Once I have located the ideal apex point, I figure out where the earliest opportunity is for me to get back to full throttle. When I have found it, I try to get to that point as quickly as possible and still make it back to 100% power at my newly marked spot.
Braking is clearly about hitting the pedal at the latest possible moment. A huge amount of time can be won or lost by braking later than your opposition. But you can't brake too late. You need to get the balance just right between optimum stopping time and going in too deep and sacrificing your mid-corner speed. If you do this, you will likely miss that back-to-full-power sweet spot we have just implemented.
Whether you have ABS or not, you do not want to use it on a racetrack. While an ABS system is good at slowing a car down quickly and allowing the driver to just mash the pedal, you can do better. You want to modulate the pedal applying just enough pressure to prevent the wheels from locking (or ABS from engaging), but enough to ensure you are not wasting potential braking ability.
The initial stab of the brake pedal will be the most aggressive and with the maximum pressure. As the car slows and you approach the bend you must continue to back off brake pressure slightly to prevent wheel lock. As you begin to turn in and increase steering lock, you start to release the brake pedal more quickly. Imagine a piece of string attached to your toes and then tied to the bottom of the steering wheel. As you turn the wheel the string pulls your foot off the brake pedal. The more you turn the more it pulls until eventually, you have no brake pressure at all and are at the apex.
This last bit is where a term called "trail braking" comes into play. It is the last moment before you get down to the apex but you are still keeping some brake pressure. We do this to keep the front end pinned down and the car on its nose. This reduces entry understeer and helps us rotate the car around its axis at apex. It allows us to brake later and carry more speed, deeper into the turn. It is the key to taking that next step to becoming a faster driver.
If you are in a car with an automatic or paddle shift gearbox — where pressing a clutch is not needed to downshift — then left-foot brake. Naturally, you may need a bit of practice off-track to develop braking finesse in your left foot, but doing so eliminates the lag between bringing your right foot from the gas across to the brake pedal. It might not seem like much time, but at high speeds the distance is significant — larger than the waistline of Austin Powers' mojo-stealing nemesis, Fat Bastard.
While all this has been going on, you must also have been very smooth on the wheel. Turning aggressively shifts weight, causing body roll and upsetting the car. You want to bring the car down to apex gradually and slowly, gently loading the outside tires.
At the apex you may have a moment of "no pedals" whatsoever. That is ok. The longer the corner radius the longer the wait could be. Fight the urge to get back to power. Patience here will go a long way. If you did pick up some gas all that would occur is the rear would sit and the dreaded "plow" of understeer would manifest, causing you to, again, miss that ideal 100% throttle spot we set out earlier. Wait until the front grips up and you can quickly and aggressively apply power, getting back to full throttle as early as possible. I say be aggressive on power down but that doesn't mean just stamp on it. If you did, depending on the car, you would likely be doing donuts in a plume of your own tire smoke. As fun as that is, it isn't particularly quick.
On power down you want to apply throttle as quickly as possible without spinning the tires. You are progressive and smooth but efficiently quick. Getting to full power a split second before your competition can yield a lot of time over a 14-, or so, turn racetrack.
Again, make sure you are caressing the wheel like silk at all times. Hold it at a quarter to three position and do not move your hands. Ignore the idiots who tell you to shuffle the wheel, and any other bollocks they may try to impart upon you. Shuffling is inefficient and slow. We want efficient, smooth and quick.
Combine these techniques with the racing line we discussed last week and you will have the basics required to destroy your buddies on any given track, course or condition. You are now another step closer to becoming the next Danica Patrick.
Come to think of it, you may now be better!
About the author: @Alex_Lloyd began racing in the U.S. in 2006. He won the Indy Lights championship in 2007. He's competed in the Daytona 24-hour twice and the Indianapolis 500 four times — placing fourth in 2010. The native of MADchester, UK began racing karts at age 8, open-wheel race cars at 16 and finished second to Formula One World Champion - and close friend - Lewis Hamilton, in the 2003 British Formula Renault Championship, followed by a stint representing Great Britain in A1GP and winning races in Formula 3000. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife Samantha (also from England) and three young "Hoosier" children. He also enjoys racing in triathlons and is rather partial to good old English cup of tea. But not crumpets.
Photo Credit: Cadillac