There is always more performance to be had from tuning the driver than from tuning the car. That should make deciding where to focus your time and money easy. In addition to a stronger performance payoff per dollar spent, improving your driving skills transfers directly to anything else you drive, whereas money spent on the car stays with it.
There are a lot of ways to improve your driving skill, but the best ones are high-quality seat time and humility. Treat every season as an expensive self-improvement program. Try to learn something from every track session that will improve your personal performance. Becoming competitive is about making cumulative progress over several years. You may have noticed that many national champions have a few gray hairs and have competed in the same car in the same class for a long time. Learning from champions is a great way to improve your performance. In addition to talking with them, you can learn from up-close observation. The best place to do that is from a flag station, and the regular flaggers will welcome your help.
If there is a secret sauce anywhere in racing, it’s in developing the right kinds of processes between your ears. It is possible to improve your performance dramatically with high-quality visualization. It takes just as much focus to do that successfully as it takes to drive the car, so it’s good practice for mental control. This is something that can only be done with a total absence of external distractions. Close your eyes and visualize what you are actually doing at every point through a lap of a track you know. Every detail matters. Reach out and use the controls just as you would in the car. Take your time to build the complete lap as precisely as you can. Next, pick a corner where you are not using all of the car’s potential. Decide what you can do better, then visualize yourself doing exactly that, and use your knowledge of how your car behaves to visualize how it will respond to that altered control input. Rather than mentally driving that corner over and over, drive full laps in your head and wait until you get to the corner that you are working on to try that new technique. Once you have made progress that you can believe, pick another corner and do it again.
Keep going for as long as you can stand it. Your first few sessions won’t last very long, but with practice you should be able to work your way up to an hour at a time. This is real work. Your pulse and adrenalin should be the same as when you are on the track. If you don’t have a headache afterward, you are not doing it right. No one ever said that winning is easy. Improving your brain is hard, but the payoff is worth the effort, and the price is right.
Only you can develop your driving skill, but getting some help is vital to the process. Expert guidance is a great way to accelerate your driving development. Your efforts will be more focused and more effective with a skilled veteran guiding the process.
One of the techniques that your coach will teach you is how and why to write everything down, immediately after every session, while it is still fresh in your head. The key problems in each corner, any fix-it items, and any handling ills go down on paper first. Your action list to prep for the next session is what you just wrote down.
Drivers only have direct control over how much tire slip to use at any given instant. There is of course a relationship between slip and grip, but that relationship is nonlinear near maximum grip and there are several influences that the driver cannot control. It is up to the driver to sense the proper amount of slip to use to produce maximum grip with a given set of conditions. That is the situation where a finely calibrated posterior is required.
No one starts off being any good at driving. That is why the typical professional driver started in karts at a young age. Driver development is not an event. It is a long process and there is no such thing as good enough. There is a deep and expensive learning curve to climb and many skill-level plateaus you have to work hard to break through. There is a very big performance payoff for extra effort in this area, so you will be much better off paying for a racing school than any sort of improvement to your car.
It should be obvious that seeing your surroundings clearly is important on the race track, but it’s vastly more critical than that. It takes a huge effort to keep your eyes moving and process everything that you see for the full duration of the race. A third of your brain is dedicated to processing visual information, and you are going to use all of it nonstop.
The easiest pass that you will ever make is rolling past another competitor on the way to your well-earned grid spot. But that’s not the main reason that qualifying well is so important. The field regularly gets tangled up during the start, so you want to be in front of that. If it is raining, you must be in front of it if you have any hope of seeing anything. If there is no tangling, I’m sure you have noticed how rapidly the field spreads out during the first few laps. If you intend to pass anyone, learn how to get it done at the start or during the first lap. The way most races go, after the first lap, you are where you are going to finish unless you screw up.
You want to come as close to jumping the start as you can get away with. If you are half a second late, you will get eaten alive. Here is a technique that works really well for rolling starts: When the grid is formed up for the start, get in first gear, drag the brakes with your left foot, control your speed with brake modulation, ease the throttle all the way open, and keep it there. When it’s time to go, just release the brakes. There will be no engine lag because it’s already roaring away, the driveline is already wound up, and dragging the brakes against full power in first gear is a very effective way to warm up both the brakes and the tires. This technique is worth about half a car length on anyone not using it. You will have to shift entirely by intuition because you can’t hear your own car and you absolutely cannot afford the split second that it takes to glance down at the tach when you are closely surrounded on all sides.
The most effective method of dealing with everyone else on the track is focused aggression tempered by self-control. That is not easy to do unless you have an excellent command of yourself. It takes precise control over your emotions to summon enough aggression to be effective as a racer without losing your focus and causing an unforced error.
Intentional car to car contact is an unforgivable sin. That is the line that cannot be crossed in a racecar. Trust is earned and the Golden Rule applies. It is vital to know whether you can trust your competitors with your life, and they need to know the same about you. Nothing that you can say to them on this subject will matter at all. It is only about what you actually do.
PLATEAUS AND PATTERNS
Despite your best efforts, your skills will improve quickly at first, and then stay about the same for some period of time until the next breakthrough happens. It is massively frustrating to expend a huge amount of effort in preparation for the next event, but end up finishing farther back than usual or making a mistake that should not happen. That is just the way the skill development process works. Stay focused, stay positive, and make adjustments to your preparation process while keeping the parts of it that work well. The breakthrough events will make up for all of the effort it took to get there.
Cumulative progress is what it’s all about, but the progress curve is annoyingly jagged. Sometimes you know that you are going to an event just to get your character built, but as long as you learn something valuable while you are there, it is worth doing. The definition of a successful event is one where you fully perform up to your own expectations. Race results have nothing to do with that. The best races that you drive might just be those that someone else wins.