Pushing oneself and one’s car to maximum performance is the goal of any podium-caliber driver. However, maximum performance can be elusive. We are constantly treading the line between driving too hard and not driving hard enough. Under-driving is safe but slow. Over-driving feels fast but is actually detrimental to lap times and can have potentially catastrophic consequences. Added to our challenge are variable track conditions, weather conditions and vehicle performance. The key to driving in the optimum performance range is being able to identify when you are under-driving and when you are over-driving.
Under-driving is fairly easy to identify: your competitors are pulling away and/or setting faster lap times. As obvious as this it, it is quite an over-simplification. After all, your competitors may just have faster cars — more power, better handling. However, be mindful that you are not using this as an excuse for driving below your potential. You will know that you are driving under the limit if your car responds to your pedal inputs without changing trajectory: it tracks the line regardless of whether you add brake or throttle. Similarly, you can add steering and the car goes where you point it.
I often say, “at the limit, throttle steers the car and the steering wheel determines the speed.” While this may be counter-intuitive, the truth is that you won’t be able to increase your speed until you can give up some steering input. Additionally, the only way to follow a tighter radius is to give up some speed. At the limit, adding throttle without reducing steering or adding steering without giving up throttle causes the car to push. This causes the tires to follow a wider arc while also scrubbing speed. If your car responds well to additional steering or throttle input, then you’re not at the limit.
Other common symptoms of under-driving are getting off the brakes before the corner as well as getting on the gas too soon. This may seem contrary to the assertion that we must set up corners to get on the gas as early as possible. In this case, the driver is over-slowing and then compensating with the throttle, which causes the car to understeer prematurely. Compare this to carrying more momentum in and following through with maintenance throttle. This can result in a tighter radius while maintaining a higher mid-corner speed. Balancing the load transfer through the corner in this case is more important than getting on the gas early.
This illustrates the difficulty in identifying under-driving when the driver artificially limits the capabilities of the vehicle. You’ll know whether you’re artificially reducing your tires’ grip if you can identify what the car is doing when you get off the brakes and when you get on the gas. If the car takes a wider arc when you get on the gas, but you are still able to steer down to a tighter radius, then you’re artificially reducing your front grip. Ideally, you want to turn down to the apex while easing off the brakes; unwind the steering at the same time that you apply throttle; and allow inertia to carry you to the edge of the track at exit.
In my coaching, I talk about driving the car to the exit. “Driving” to the exit happens when the car is not going fast enough to justify the wider radius. In other words, it could easily hold a tighter radius if the driver were not dialing out the steering towards the edge of the track. This is an indication that mid-corner speed is less than optimum, which often occurs from over-slowing. Over-slowing at corner entry can suggest a lack of confidence. It can also be an indication that turn-in is happening too late such that the only way to get to the apex is to reduce speed. When you can see that you are “driving” to the track edge at exit, try carrying more speed into the corner. If you can carry more speed and still hit your exit but run wide of the apex, then try turning in earlier. This will lead to carrying more speed into the corner while still tracking the desired line.
The best way to monitor your performance is to use a lap timer with instantaneous time delta compared to the fastest lap. Try carrying more speed into the corner and see how this affects your ability to get on the gas. Consider the timing of your throttle application in relation to the gain or loss in time. Keep increasing your cornering speed until the throttle application must be so late that it results in an overall loss of time. This is when we get into the realm of over-driving, which will be covered in the next article.