Q: How do I make the most of my practice sessions?

A: As mentioned last month, there is a risk of getting stuck in an unconscious state, which is when we operate on auto-pilot. Auto-pilot is a useful state because it frees the conscious mind to focus on other things. However, the pitfall comes in practicing without intent, where a driver is simply repeating and reinforcing the same patterns and habits. Our objective is to reach a state of unconscious competence in specific skills to ingrain that knowledge and move on to developing new skills. We can focus on developing skills only when operating on auto-pilot in every other area.

How often do drivers pay conscious attention to what their hands or feet are doing? Generally we think, “speed up” and our foot applies more pressure to the pedal, or “turn now” and our hands turn the wheel. It would be distracting to be constantly thinking about moving our hands and feet. However, this is exactly what we do in bringing consciousness to areas that we want to improve. Select one area of focus and allow the others to operate on auto-pilot. For example, while focusing on peripheral vision, we allow our hands and feet to operate on the sub-conscious level.

Getting the most from a practice session requires developing a plan and executing it. Identify specific areas that need improvement and focus on those. The practice session can focus on track specifics such as finding more speed through a particular corner, car specifics such as trying various air pressure and shock settings, or driver specifics such as smoother inputs and better eye, hand and foot discipline. Each plan should have a metric to validate performance. A metric will tell you whether you are improving in a particular area or regressing. Always allow a period of adjustment to a new line or technique before making a judgment on whether it has a positive or negative effect.

When practicing increasing speed through a corner it may be tempting to use lap times as a performance metric. However, lap times are affected by a number of variables and feedback is delayed until start/finish. It is better to pick a reference on the track to compare speed or RPM in the middle of or exiting a corner. Having a GPS data logger with real-time split display is particularly useful to compare the time gained or lost between entering and exiting the corner.

Using practice sessions to gain experience has limited value unless a specific plan is made and executed. It’s one thing to clear the cobwebs in between race weekends and another altogether to cut lap times by seconds. Focus on only two or three things per session. Trying to do more leads to reduced gains in all areas of focus.

A mechanical engineer and driving coach, Joshua Allan has worked in the design offices of Ferrari’s Formula 1 team and has been a vehicle development test driver for Maserati in Italy. He is a five-time PTD National Champion in a Mazda MX-5 with Robert Davis Racing. Learn more at RacerMentor.com

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