My racing career has always been about driving high performance, insanely fast, purpose-built racecars. Open-wheel bullets, such as IndyCars, have traditionally been my meat of choice. And while these machines may be some of the coolest, toughest cars to handle on Planet Earth, the techniques required to drive a production car fast can differ wildly.
This is how to get the most out of whatever it is you drive.
Writing about cars this past year has led me to track-drive a horde of different vehicles. I've raced a Hyundai Accent against a Sonic RS (in which I lost) and have even driven my all-time pinnacle track-day machine –- a Nissan Altima.
In a high-performance racecar (especially open-wheel) the suspension is incredibly stiff, the ride height is measured in millimeters rather than inches, and the cars produce a wealth of downforce. Simply put, body roll is almost non-existent.
You can attack the corner entry with astonishing ferocity, and trail brake all the way down to the apex. And while doing this, the car's platform remains rock solid and consistent.
On the other hand, even the most track-ready production vehicles have to consider the ramifications of adopting suspension that is too stiff, or ride-heights that are too low, or a neutral handling balance that would scare the living shit out of 82 percent of its drivers (killing the other 18) on a slippery, oil-riddled off-ramp.
So when you attack a corner in a production vehicle (even a supercar) the machine rolls far more than any purpose-built racecar would. Meaning, if you go in too hard on the nose the weight distribution dives to the front wheels, leaving the rear wheels bearing almost no weight whatsoever, making it light and unstable, right down to the apex.
This becomes most prominent in the faster turns. In the tight sections, most production vehicles are set to understeer. Take the Audi R8 or the Nissan GT-R (both AWD supercars), for example. In the twisty sections you have to wait on the gas for the car to rotate, but in the fast turns the cars respond to a little maintenance throttle to keep the back planted.
In this case, as a driver you must focus on braking earlier and lighter, carrying as much speed into the bend (all the while attempting to keep the car flat –- not on the nose) and pick up some throttle just as you enter the corner. Then you can continue squeezing more power to return to full gas as soon as physically possible.
Driving the new 2013 SRT Viper (one of THE best — and uncompromised — production cars I have ever driven on a racetrack) requires the exact same technique. Take turn one at Sonoma Raceway, for instance, a very fast uphill left-hander. If you go in flat out and release the gas as you turn, the car will damn near swap ends on you. Therefore you must lift early, reduce speed, and get back to around 70 percent throttle before turn in. This scrubs velocity but plants the rear of the car to keep the platform flat so you can maintain a higher corner speed throughout the bend.
The most wild machine for high-speed oversteer (at least with new production cars I have driven this year) is the Audi RS5. If you enter a fast bend without maintenance throttle the aggressive Quattro torque vectoring system swings the car around the front axis in a perilously vicious manner. It even does this in the tight turns. You have to be sure to slow the car down efficiently so you can get back to throttle unusually early.
The Porsche torque vectoring system works in much the same way, albeit far less pronounced.
Manufacturers do this because they realize that most owners taking their cars to the racetrack are not pros. Therefore they will not attempt to attack the entry of the corner quite as prominently, causing understeer to become a major problem. So torque vectoring is setup more aggressively in order to address the inherent deficiencies that the "amateur" driver will likely employ.
As an experienced racer you will have to drive around this problem with smart thinking and technical adjustments.
When you drive cars like an Altima on track (of course only an idiot like me would do that) or any front-wheel drive machine, things are very different. The cars do not rotate whatsoever. They just roll and plow with understeer. Therefore trail-braking becomes imperative to get the car to dive (placing all the weight on the front wheels) right the way down to apex. The key is getting the car turned around its axis as quickly as possible. Maintenance throttle, in this case, is the enemy.
I remember my first few track-days in a 1600cc Formula Ford car. I was on track with all types of vehicles, including production cars. And what shocked me was how much faster a tiny, low-powered, featherweight Formula Ford racecar was compared to a supercar such as a Ferrari 360. It wasn't even close.
This exemplifies the difference in performance you can achieve if you do not have to worry about making the car street worthy. It therefore makes sense that the driving styles would be completely different as well.
As always, the correct style will vary from car to car, but if you plan to drive a high-performance production vehicle on a track, you'll probably need a limber right foot that's ready to apply excessive maintenance throttle.
The best thing about evaluating road cars this past year is experiencing their innate, subtle differences. Adapting my driving to suit. Then achieving the fulfilling, satisfying sense of achievement, knowing I have unearthed the cars inner secrets, and overcome its challenges to master the machine and produce that perfect, elusive, glorious lap.
Photo Credit: Grant.C via flickr
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 a good old English cup of tea. But not crumpets.