Driving at the limit — but not beyond — is key to developing the feel necessary to run consistent lap times.

The driver on pole for the race start had set a new class lap record. The car in second was nearly a second slower in qualifying, so the lead driver felt secure that he would pull away from the second-place driver. After three laps, the lead is nearly two seconds. The leader knows he has the race in the bag — short of unexpected mechanical gremlins.

The leader starts missing apexes on right turns, not by a lot, but enough to lose .1 seconds in four spots on the track. He is no longer pulling away from second place. He hears over the radio from his crew chief the following driver is gaining. So he believes he needs to push harder to regain the advantage. The most common way to push harder is to drive deeper into a turn before braking — later braking! So he does this and starts to lose more time.

Up to this point, the second-place driver has been driving his own race. He has also been dead consistent, never varying more than a tenth of second from his baseline fast lap. The delta, or difference, between his fastest and slowest laps are less than a quarter second. He is totally focused on his lines, braking points, unwinding the steering wheel to reduce tire scrub on exit and getting the power down smoothly and quickly.

By lap 10, the car in second is within inches of the leader. Lap 10 is the second-place driver’s slowest of the race as he stays close behind, biding his time before attacking for the lead. The leader is now on defense, using blocking lines. Second place studies the leader’s actions, spots a weakness and forms a plan. He makes the pass on lap 12 of the 20-lap race and goes on to win by about six seconds.

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The winner’s lap-time delta for the race was about two seconds, but if you eliminate the two laps when he was following the second-place finisher and making the pass for the lead, the winner’s lap time delta was only three tenths of a second, a very good effort by the driver, and the type of consistency needed to win races.

So what happened to the pole driver? A loss of concentration. Most drivers, especially talented drivers, can lay down a fast lap or two. I have often referred to this as the length of time a driver can hold his or her breath, at least mentally.

But drivers with the skill and bravery to be up front also must possess the skill to set a fast pace they can maintain for the duration of the race. The lap times may vary due to traffic, changing fuel loads and tire wear, but the driver was always able to drive very close, but not at or over the traction limits of the car. Ayrton Senna was arguably the best ever at this. However, before we discuss the element of concentration, let’s look at consistency, what it is, why it’s important and how to be consistent.

But drivers with the skill and bravery to be up front also must possess the skill to set a fast pace they can maintain for the duration of the race.
But drivers with the skill and bravery to be up front also must possess the skill to set a fast pace they can maintain for the duration of the race.

In my career, which has spanned more decades than I want to admit, I have been fortunate as a driver to have many testing gigs. Testing offers the opportunity for seat time, which always helps with being consistent. But the truth is, I got many of the testing gigs because I was already consistent. Here’s an example. When I worked as an instructor at Willow Springs International Raceway, the school cars used Toyo DOT race tires, so a friend from Toyo invited me to participate in tire testing at the Streets of Willow in Rosamond, Calif.

Toyo did not have a test track and hence, no test drivers. They hired a very experienced tire test driver from the now defunct Uniroyal tire company. I certainly knew the Streets course, but I had never driven the test car, a Corvette ZR1. I said I wanted a couple of warm-up laps to get a little heat in the tires and learn the car. I then drove at the limit as best I could for about seven laps. The car was fun and the tires were very good.

After the engineers were done with me, my friend took me aside and told me about my lap times. He said my laps were all at least two seconds faster than the Uniroyal guy, (I’ll call him Roy) and Roy’s delta was over 1.5 seconds. Mine was two tenths of a second.

What I later realized is simple. If you have some experience and decent skill levels, it is easier to have really consistent lap times when you drive near the limits of tire traction as opposed to when you are trying to maintain a steady pace. The reason for this may not be readily apparent. When you drive near the limit, when the tire slip angles are at the point of maximum lateral acceleration, most drivers can feel, even hear the limit.

The driver who can be at the top of the curve where lateral acceleration is at the peak, but at the lowest slip angle is the one who is managing the tires most effectively and will have an advantage at the end of a race or stint. But most drivers know they are close to the limit. If you try to slow down to be more consistent, you lose that marker, the feel you have at the limit, the feedback from the tire contact patches. So I believe it is easier to be consistent when driving at or very near the limits of tire traction.

So what is good consistency? For testing where you are running three- to five-lap sessions, the delta for lap times should be less than 0.5 percent. For a lap of 90 seconds duration, this equates to about a half-second delta.

Once I was tire testing three different ultra-high performance tires for a suspension company working with Roush aftermarket Ford stuff. We were testing the skid pad, straight-line slalom, braking, that kind of stuff. The slalom, which was a 700-foot run with cones spaced every 100 feet, is the wildest six seconds you can spend driving. While there are only seven direction changes in six seconds, there are dozens of minor steering and throttle input corrections during a run. Very challenging.

We tested a Bridgestone and a Firestone, but the last tire we tested was the best, and every test run was identical down to the hundredth. The throw-away fastest and slowest runs were only one hundredth off. Not only was it fastest, but the delta on the three runs was zero! Had I slowed even 2 mph with any of the tires, even the Firestone would have felt OK.

So the second point concerning the importance of consistency, and the fact it is easier to achieve at the limit, is that to be truly quick on the track, you need to know what is happening at the limit. A final point about testing, especially on a skid pad, is that testing is great way to learn the limit and find consistency.

So here is another point about consistency, and it relates to the opening scenario for this article: concentration. From my personal examples above, what do you think I was focusing attention on while on the track? Was it what brand of tire was on the car, or the shock valving? No way! I was totally focused on my job, driving the car to the limit. What the car was actually doing, understeer or oversteer, etc., was of no concern while on the track at speed, but some small part of my mind was focused on recording that data for analysis as soon as I slowed down and then in the debriefing.

I was not thinking about whether I was on a Firestone or Toyo tire. It only took a couple of seconds while driving back to the timing station to reach a few conclusions, but while running through the course, my focus was 90 percent on driving and 10 percent on absorbing data. I was not conscious of what I was doing or feeling. I was focused on what the car was telling me to do with the controls. Then by remembering what I was doing with controls, and why, I could easily go back to determine what needed to be done to make the car — or driver — faster.

Back to concentration and its importance. The cause of inconsistency is a breach in concentration. Nearly anything can cause it, but it always involves focusing attention on the wrong thing at the wrong time. Distractions are common: new noises midrace; vibrations near the end you hadn’t noticed; coming under attack and focusing too much on the attack and not on driving your car and your race is all too common.

Focusing too much on the attack and not on driving your car and your race is all too common.
Focusing too much on the attack and not on driving your car and your race is all too common.

If you have learned this, it was probably the hard way, like I did early in my career. Keith Code in his brilliant book “The Soft Science of Road Racing Motorcycles,” offers the best-ever example of focusing attention. He says you have one dollar to spend on attention, referring to 100 percent of your focus. How will you spend it? If you are not spending it wisely, you will not be consistently fast, and to win races, being consistently fast is key.

How will you spend that dollar’s worth of attention? How well you do that will be a major factor in your success on the track, racing and testing.

The guy with the fastest average lap time will win. That driver’s lap time delta will be the smallest, taking into account tire degradation and fuel load. The winner will have the least area (time) under the lap chart curve. Where to focus attention will need another article down the road, but for now, whether racing or testing, the vast majority of attention and concentration needs to be focused on driving! Awareness of surroundings and your competition is important, but only a small portion, a few cents if you will, should be used on peripherals.

Be aware of what is around you, but remain focused on driving the car.
Be aware of what is around you, but remain focused on driving the car.

One of the techniques I have used with students over the years is to slow down. When a driver, especially an inexperienced one, is having trouble finding that last second or two around the track, often slowing down will help. It sounds contradictory to what I’ve been talking about, right? But think about it.

When everything is rushing at you, especially if you are new to racing, have a new car or are at a new track, it is easy to focus attention on the wrong stuff. If you slow down, say 25 percent, you can then focus on perfect vehicle placement on the track, hitting apexes, perfect turn-in points, early throttle application and unwinding the steering at the exit. You start focusing on driving the car, not speed or going faster or being intimidated by the surroundings. Guess what happens? You will automatically start going faster.

Nearly every student I have done this with is going faster than ever within five to 10 laps. And it’s because they are focusing on driving. Ninety cents of the dollar is spent on driving perfectly. Everything else falls into place because the primary focus is where is should be. Then they can return to driving at the limit.

In review, consistency is being repetitive. In our case, at very high speeds. You need to do the same thing over and over to the best of your ability. Our measure of consistency is the lap time variance or delta. Strive for the smallest delta possible at the fastest possible lap times given the situation, tire wear and fuel-load considerations.

You need to do the same thing over and over to the best of your ability. Our measure of consistency is the lap time variance or delta. Strive for the smallest delta possible at the fastest possible lap times given the situation.
You need to do the same thing over and over to the best of your ability. Our measure of consistency is the lap time variance or delta. Strive for the smallest delta possible at the fastest possible lap times given the situation.

The big key is how to be consistent. Concentration, paying attention and mental focus are key. In reality, they are all the same thing. The ability to stay focused is not the same for everyone. But everyone can improve their ability to stay focused. And the most effective way to do that is to learn what is most important to pay attention to. How will you spend that dollar’s worth of attention? How well you do that will be a major factor in your success on the track, racing and testing. Test, focus and pay attention, and consistency will come.

Consistency

Lap times in minutes and decimals of minutes)

Lap #

Driver 1Driver 2Minutes

Seconds

1

1,4951,510,0150,9
21,4931,510,017

1,02

3

1,4941,50,0060,36
41,5111,51-0,001

-0,06

5

1,5231,508-0,015-0,9
61,5161,51-0,006

-0,36

7

1,5221,521-0,001-0,06
81,5311,529-0,002

-0,12

9

1,5251,511-0,014-0,84
101,5271,507-0,02

-1,2

11

1,531,509-0,021-1,26
121,5181,5-0,018

-1,08

13

1,5141,505-0,009-0,54
141,5131,51-0,003

-0,18

15

1,5171,51-0,007-0,42
161,511,510

0

17

1,5121,509-0,003-0,18
181,5021,5070,005

0,3

19

1,5011,5050,0040,24
201,4991,5010,002

0,12

Total Time

30,25330,182
Average Lap time1,512651,5091

Lap time Delta

-0,034-0,029Minutes
-2,04-1,74Seconds
Image courtesy of Brett Becker

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