Nothing is more rewarding to a driver than the sweet sound of that perfectly timed blip of the gas pedal, effortlessly matching the revs to the wheel speed, and downshifting crisply into the preceding gear. It's the sound of a true professional.
Here's how to do it right.
For most amateurs shifting marks the moment when their right hand is searching franticly for a gear, their feet are totally confused by the tasks being asked of them, and the gearbox sounds like it will blow up like a caravan on Top Gear.
We've all cocked up gearshifts and it can be the most frustrating thing known to man. In our defense, many cars' throttle and brake pedals are hardly situated in the correct position to allow for seamless heel-and-toe shifting, making our job even harder.
Now would seem a good time to attempt an explanation of the heel-and-toe technique for those unsure. As a disclaimer, it is not easy and it takes practice, but when mastered it is a beautiful thing.
When downshifting in a car using a stick shift, we must first depress the clutch pedal to disengage the gears, move the gearstick into the lower gear, and release the clutch pedal to re-engage the gears. Sounds simple enough, but the issue we have is when pressing the clutch the engine revs drop to idle. When releasing the clutch pedal we need the revs to match our engine speed, which let's say is 4000rpm, for example. So we must manually blip the throttle to 4000rpm just as we release the clutch pedal to ensure our engine revs match our wheel speed.
If you get this wrong the car receives a nasty jolt as the unmatched components coincide and, in all likelihood, the wheels will lock momentarily. On a rear wheel drive car under-braking, this can produce an embarrassing smoky pirouette.
So we need to blip the gas in the middle of the shift. No biggie, but the tough part is that, unless you descend from alien ancestry, you likely don't have three feet. You need to keep your left foot on the clutch at all times, which means you must brake with your right foot and at the same time blip the throttle with the same foot, whilst all the time maintaining the same brake pressure.
How we do that is, with our right foot firmly on the brake, roll the outside portion of that foot onto the left edge of the throttle pedal and give it a blip. Practice this while stationary in the driveway and get the feel. On the racetrack you will notice you can — and need to — be quite aggressive with that blip. The key is to achieve the right amount of throttle blip while still maintaining a constant brake pressure. Oh, and do all this as fast as physically possible without screwing it up.
Once you have the technique down, the next part is getting the blip just right. It needs to be the correct amount and at precisely the right time. If you blip too much, the engine will have too much speed compared to the wheels and that nasty jolt will occur when you release the clutch. If you didn't blip hard enough, the engine speed will be too low and you face a potential lockup. Blip too soon and the revs will have returned back to idle by the time you have released the clutch and all that effort will have been for nothing.
The more you practice, the more you will develop the feel for how much you need to blip the throttle. Bet you wish those childhood musings on whether your parents were indeed aliens turned out to be true now.
If you're new to this and still confused I suggest looking up some YouTube videos on "heel-and-toe." Grab a beer and resist the temptation to revert to such sites as Busty Babes and instead, spend the next hour staring at people's feet in a racecar.
Moving on, I want to explain how downshifting can help you brake significantly later. Of course, our main form of deceleration is the brake but engine braking is an effective tool we should also incorporate.
Downshifting early in the braking zone requires a large blip on the throttle as our wheel speed is still high, therefore our revs through the braking area will also be high. When the engine is spinning it has a tendency to slow down, partly because of compression effects in the cylinders. This creates a negative torque and the higher the revs, the higher the negative torque. So by downshifting sooner, with higher rpm, we utilize more of the available negative torque to slow the car down.
This means we can brake later, which means we will be faster. Yay!
Next up we can also skip shifts. For example, we can go from fourth gear directly to second, if we heel-and-toe correctly. This can be useful when short on time in the braking zone and you feel rushed to achieve all your downshifts before the turn in point. It isn't something to do every time but it's a good tool to have in your back pocket if needed.
So far we have talked entirely about downshifting but let's not forget the importance of upshifting. Slow shifts cost a monumental amount of time. Every time we shift up we momentarily lose engine torque, meaning we are no longer accelerating. Over an entire lap that is a lot of time spent powerless. By focusing on getting the shifts done as quickly as possible we can sometimes shave around a tenth of a second per upshift. Do the math on how much that can add up to over a lap of your local track.
Even better, some cars have the potential of flat shifting. This is where you keep your foot flat on the gas and quickly depress the clutch just enough to disengage and yank the shifter into the next gear. You must be careful with this, as it is easy to get wrong and end up on your lid in a heap against the tire barrier. Please don't try this on the highway in rush hour! Some cars simply aren't capable of doing this but if you can do it safely, it could be a big advantage. It requires being very forceful with the shifter, which in turn can destroy a gearbox quickly. It is also best achieved with cars that have straight cut gears. Exploiting this asset could depend on your willingness to sacrifice Benjaminss in search of the ultimate lap time.
Driving a stick shift correctly is one of the most rewarding aspects of driving fast. If you are new to it, don't be discouraged by what initially seems extremely complicated. In England, 17-year-old girls are driving on the road with ease using a stick shift, and while they may not have mastered the art of heel-and-toe, I think it proves a point that with practice, you too can be mixing it up with the big girls.
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: Shutterstock.com/Matt Valentine, Illustration: Jason Torchinsky