Throughout the How To Drive Fast series, I’ve offered opinions based on the experience I’ve amassed during my 17-years behind the wheel. The whole basis of this column is to help you drive faster, and learn the tricks and techniques utilized in the quest for victory. But for this piece, I turned to my friends for help: This is how to achieve the perfect lap, and it’s told by four of the fastest drivers on the planet.
The drivers in question have raced in IndyCar, Formula One, V8 Supercars, ALMS , and Grand-Am, and they’ve driven for some of the most esteemed teams in the business. Simply put, these guys know their shit, and they’re going to tell you some of their secrets.
My question was simple: “How do you approach that last lap, in the final minutes of qualifying, when it’s time to leave it all on the line?”
First up, let’s here from former Minardi and Jaguar F1 driver, Daytona 24-hours champion, Champ Car race winner with Newman-Haas, and current IndyCar driver - and multiple race winner for Dale Coyne Racing - Justin Wilson:
“I always find the best results when I'm having fun and enjoying my driving. When things are not going perfect its hard to get the most out of your self, but you have to sit back and say "what ever happens, I'm going to enjoy driving this car." I try to clear my mind from all distractions, expectations, previous frustrations of the race weekend and focus on my brake point turn in markers, and remind myself to enjoy it!"
"The obvious place to find time is in the brake zones, braking later and harder, but on most occasions there is not a lot of time left there. Usually there is more in the brake release, to gain entry speed. I try and use the car’s weight to help rotate the through the corner and that helps me use less steering lock. The least amount of lock you put in the quicker it is to get it all out. From there I focus on being back to wide open throttle as early as possible with out the back of the car stepping. Any little slip or slide seems to eat into your lap time. You’re typically bracing the steering wheel all the way out of the corner to not allow the car to slide. From there you’re staring at the shift lights to get the perfect shifts, you don't want to give away easy lap time.”
As Justin states, clearing your mind is imperative, as is rolling more speed into the turn.
Following on, let’s hear from J.R Hildebrand, the 2009 Indy Lights champion and runner-up at the 2011 Indy 500 driving the National Guard Panther Racing machine:
“Getting the most out of the car when it’s time to put in a lap is one of the single most complex tasks that a driver has to be capable of completing. It can be easy to overthink, easy to stress about, and easy to not be at your own optimal level of performance. Heading into a qualifying session on a street or road-course, it is imperative to have a grasp of what the car is likely to feel like and what the conditions may allow for, but those things are also very difficult to truly quantify, and therefore can't ever be entirely predicted. Because of that, when you close your visor with five minutes to go in the session and the crew chief waves you out onto the track, you have to let that preparation be secondary, and trust in your own self-belief that you are going to go out and nail it."
"Thinking consciously about what is going on has never been something that works for me, when I'm at my best, I'm in a very subconscious zone, knowing what is happening, reacting to what is going on, but not actually thinking about it specifically. When its all done I can frequently look back and recall the thought process that was going through my head - at any time; practice, qualifying, or race - but at the time its very intuitive. With that recollection, one can then try to ‘tune’ their mental attitude moving forward, a task in and of itself that can yield improved performance without a doubt.”
Again, J.R talks about the importance to clear your mind and drive. Trusting in your own ability is another key point, as well as predicting the grip level available when on new, sticky tires.
The next guy on our list is badass fast. He raced and won in Champ Car with Walker Racing, and started his IndyCar campaign with KV Racing. Beginning in 2009, he moved to the legendary Penske organization and has finished runner-up in the Series standings for the last three years. Driving the Verizon Wireless machine, ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Will Power:
"It’s about putting the lap together at the right time and anticipating the grip level of the track. When we race, often on street courses the track drops a second almost every session. By the time you get to qualifying it’s the first time you will be on the softer compound tires (red tires). I think it’s an understanding of how much grip you are going to get from those tires and also adjusting the car the right way because they usually change the balance. At the end of the day it’s doing a mistake free lap, getting every sector and putting it all together. No matter which way you look at it, that’s what it’s all about."
Again, we talk about predicting the grip level. This allows you to utilize the tires while they are at their very best, not waiting a lap or two to figure it out, missing the optimum window of operation.
Finally, let’s hear from a man that has won the IndyCar championship. He has won the Indy 500. He has won the Daytona 24-hours. He is a Kiwi. He is Scott Dixon. And he makes a very valid point:
“The perfect lap? I guess there's one out there, but it’s almost impossible. I know when I've won poles, or put together good laps in practice or a race, there's always that consciousness and knowing there was one or two spots where you could have done a better job. Carrying a little more speed in, getting a little more curb, on the exit knowing you could have gone for the gas a split second earlier..."
"So in reality I guess the perfect lap is out there, but do any of us actually achieve it?”
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