Many amateur racers spend years discussing slip angles and cornering forces, thinking it makes them sound like really, really fast drivers. They proclaim daft statements like, "to truly perfect turn five you must determine the corner radius and lateral load produced, factoring in the desired 12 degrees of slip angle…" blah blah blah. What a load of horseshit.
I hear this type of uneducated nerdiness all the time. By uneducated, I do not mean what they are saying is incorrect — I'm certain they aced their physics exam in high school — rather it is completely irrelevant to driving fast. I am also aware that a few of you reading this will now be calling me a bellend, stating that slip angles win races and I have no idea what I am gibbering on about.
The fact is, however, that no top racecar driver, and I mean literally none, gives a gerbils buttocks about any of that nonsense. See, driving quickly is not about perfecting angles and basing corner lines on radius versus whatever. It's about the feel you get from the seat of your pants. I know that is a cliché, but it's true. Is it useful to understand the basic laws of physics for driving? Absolutely. The best drivers understand the mechanics of a car and how to make it go fast, but have no need to translate those physics to the actual driving aspect. That part is done by feel, talent and experience.
Take golf, for example. How often do you play a round and start off pretty well when you are just swinging and having fun. Then, by the time you realize you are on for a pretty stellar score, you start looking at all the various nuances and systematically screw up every single shot by over thinking it. Sure, you need a good technical knowledge of what you are trying to do, but you must simplify your thoughts.
In racing, it is even more crucial because the technical knowledge is nowhere near as important as golf. Hitting a tiny ball with a thin stick into a miniature hole a billion miles away is far more technical than driving around a racetrack quickly.
Those who proclaim to need crazy long equations to navigate a corner quickly, are usually covering up the fact that they have as much talent at driving as Nicolas Cage does at acting.
So… Having spoken about all the crap you don't need to know to drive fast, here is what you do need to know.
Think of your car as a bath full of water. When you brake, what happens to all that water? It goes rushing to the front of the bath. As you accelerate, it rushes back. Then as you turn right, the water sloshes over to the left and the opposite is true when you turn the other direction.
Pretty simple, but this is the same motion the car goes through when braking, accelerating and turning. The load is constantly shifting and when that load is all on the front, for instance, the rear is totally unloaded. Our main focus for a turn is to keep the platform (or bath water) as flat as possible. When we brake, of course the weight shifts hard to the front. But by releasing the brake gently and consistently we can minimize aggressive weight transfer causing the car to get out of shape.
Same goes for turning in. Imagine if you turn in too abruptly. The bath water will spill, splash and simply not settle. If you turn in smoothly, the water will gradually load to the outside. With our racecar, we want the same thing to occur — a gradual loading of the tire to prevent it from breaking grip. Often we turn in a touch early and with just a fraction of steering lock. This helps the initial transfer of weight to the outside tires before we start the full turn in process. This can really help the car balance on corner entry.
In the middle of the turn (especially a long turn) it is crucial to keep the bath water as flat as possible in terms of back to front. This, again, keeps the car balanced and the platform solid.
If you understand and are directly in tune with the movement and pitch of the car, and how that affects the weight distribution and tire load, you have cracked it. Everything else is just complete nerdy overkill. Ignore it. It is simply wasting thoughts and complicating what is actually quite simple. Understanding the basics, practicing those basics and having the talent to execute the basics is all the worlds best drivers do.
So next time a nerd tells you that he gained over a second by focusing on his 12-degrees of slip angle. Tell him to go take a bath.
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.