The last few articles discussed techniques for passing as well as being passed in ways that minimize time lost to competitors. I also covered some potential pitfalls during passing. It ultimately comes down to being prepared for the unexpected. As racers, we spend a lot of time and effort studying and practicing the ideal line. If your interest is particularly on Time Trial, then this is exactly where you should focus your attention — along with strategies for clean, unobstructed laps. However, if you are racing wheel-to-wheel for position, then you are likely to find yourself in scenarios that deviate from the ideal. How you deal with these scenarios determines where you finish. This is true whether you are passing another competitor, passing traffic or avoiding an incident.
Think about how much time you spend trying to drive a perfect lap. Now, think about how much time you actually deviate from that perfect lap in a race. Lastly, think about how much time you spend practicing lines that deviate from the perfect lap. Sure, it’s important to set fast times in qualifying and achieve consistent fast times in a race. However, it’s equally important to have experience with likely passing scenarios and imagine potential escape routes. Highly seasoned drivers rely on their experience to make decisions in the moment. Nonetheless, newer and more experienced drivers will both benefit from exploring the areas outside the groove.
The best time to explore alternate lines is during the latter half of a qualifying session. Spend a few laps setting your fastest possible time. When the tires start to fall off, use the remainder of the session to explore tighter and wider lines. You will also find the track is less congested as other drivers pull into the pits when the tires’ performance degrades. One thing to consider is whether you are willing to dirty those qualifying tires. If you don’t want to chance it, then the second half of a practice session is a reasonable alternative. In either case, it’s important to know how the tires perform on alternate lines as well as how driving over different parts of the track affects the grip in subsequent corners.
Consider that the alternate lines will tend to have more or less grip, whether it’s because the surface is rougher or covered with clag and dust. You want to know whether you’ll be able to make that inside late-braking pass stick, whether you can run two wide and carry the speed on the outside line, whether you can put the power down after driving over the clag or whether you’ll be at a disadvantage approaching the following braking zone with dirty tires. Attempting a pass and making it stick requires confidence. Confidence comes from practice and experience.
One of the most important spots to practice alternate lines is the first corner after start-finish. This will set you up for the best possible position after the green flag. Imagine that you are entering the first corner two or three wide. Practice an inside line, leaving room for one or two cars on the outside, as well as the outside line with one or two car widths to the inside. Get a feel for how much speed you can carry into the corner on these alternate lines. You won’t be able to pick up a good brake reference unless you have some way to simulate a start. However, you will know how much speed you can carry into the corner, which will improve your braking. You’ll also discover how it sets you up for the following corner, so continue to practice as if you were going side-by-side with another driver through the first series of corners.
As you continue around the track, imagine where the most likely passing opportunities will be. Practice offensive and defensive lines. If you make an inside pass while carrying excess speed into the corner, will it lead to bogging at the exit, resulting in a repass and a loss of time in an overall race strategy perspective? If you defend your line by protecting the inside and end up going two-wide into a corner, can you make it stick or will the other driver have the speed and position advantage going into the next corner?
Of course, there are any number of possibilities and strategies to study and practice in preparation for a race. And we’re not just studying one corner but how each decision impacts each successive corner as well. With limited track time, it’s important to prioritize the areas to practice. Therefore, it’s helpful to take a moment away from the activity in the paddock and visualize some possible starting scenarios as well as passing or defending scenarios. This will help inform your practice on track where you can test the grip to see whether the strategies will work. It takes deliberate effort to focus on these things, but I can assure you that the time you spend will give you the unfair advantage over less-prepared competitors. And in the fiercest competition, you’ll need these skills just to stay with the lead pack.