“Races are not won at the start, but many are lost.” This old adage is technically correct, since all races are won when the leader takes the checker on the last lap. A driver certainly can throw away a race at the start, but a smart driver also can gain a significant advantage with heads-up driving when the green flag waves.

Say you qualified fifth in your spec class, so you will start from the inside of row three when the field rolls down the front straight for the green flag. Starting on the inside has some advantages, but when the flag waves and you accelerate, you notice a couple of competitors coming down the inside from behind. You are forced to move to the inside to defend against an inside pass, which, in turn, causes the car on the inside of row two to move to the inside to defend against you.

There is no room to the outside since the outside line is moving to the inside as the first turn approaches. You are boxed in. You reach the braking point for Turn 1 and you are forced to brake since the cars in front are braking and you have nowhere to go. But as you slow, two cars from the outside of rows four and five flash past on the outside, gaining several positions. Your first thought is, “Where did they come from?”

Let’s take a ride in the car starting from the outside of row five. This driver was a little off the pace in qualifying, managing only the 10th fastest time. As he approaches the start/finish line before the green, the driver moves slightly to the outside. The pace is fairly slow for the start, Turn 1 is fairly fast and this driver knows that there is no reason to brake going into Turn 1 since the entry speed will be below that of a normal flying lap.

When the green flag waves and the field accelerates, the driver in 10th qualifying spot moves to the outside. This driver plans to find a path into Turn 1 that will allow him a clear path ahead so that braking will not be necessary. The car in front has a similar plan. But when the normal braking point is reached, most cars begin applying the brakes. When the turn-in point is reached, most of the cars in front turn in, attempting to take the ideal line.

The car starting on the outside of row four does not brake, but turns in at the normal spot. Since everyone in front is trying for the optimum line and several cars are braking at the entry, there is a big bottleneck and the eighth qualifier must slow. The 10th qualifier has stay off line to the outside, has a clear path in front at the entry, does not slow and gains five positions, only slowing when the front two rows exit on the optimum line to the outside of the turn. The 10th place starter is now in fifth, and has the entire race to work on the cars in front. Without the bold move at the start, he would never have had an opportunity to shoot for a podium finish.

The point of this is simple. It is rare to have a start on a road course where you reach top speed before entering Turn 1 on a start, or even on a restart. Braking points change, more lines through the corner become possible and opportunities are present if you look for them. Most drivers do not, and get caught up in the resulting traffic jam, which can result in a melee.

It helps to know the following about starts at the track where you are racing, about your car and about the starter:

  • What is the likely speed on the pace lap?
  • Where will the starter wave the green flag relative to the front row position on the track?
  • What will the drivers around you likely do at the start?
  • Do you need to brake into the first turn from the likely starting speed?
  • What is the best position to take in Turn 1 for the best entry into Turn 2?
  • Can you take Turn 1 flat out at the likely entry speed based on the starting speed?
  • If on the inside row, will you likely have the option to move to the outside?

What to look for as you come down for the green flag, or right after the green waves on a standing start:

  • Are the cars in front or behind moving laterally?
  • Can they gain position on you under acceleration?
  • Could wheel spin be a factor?
  • Will you need to defend to the inside?
  • Can you get a good run to the outside, even if you are on the inside row?
  • Is anyone coming up the inside too fast, which may cause a spin to the outside?

Before we go too far analyzing techniques and scenarios, it would be a good idea to look at the NASA rules covering race starts. So, before we continue, click the link below and read Section 20.5

http://www.nasaproracing.com/rules/ccr.pdf

The Rolling Start

This is by far the most common method used to start a road race. Normally, but certainly not always, a pace car leads the field around for a pace lap, dives into the pit lane before the green flag waves and the car on pole maintains that pace until the green flag flies and the race is officially under way. I say officially under way because the real race started at least half a lap ago. That’s when each competitor should be analyzing the competition, positions on the track, who is around you and what you are going to try as the race begins. Let’s look at several considerations based on your starting position.

 

Knowing the acceleration capabilities of the cars around is helpful at the start, particularly in endurance races like the 25 Hours of Thunderhill.

 

From The Pole

Starting from the pole position offers several advantages. The most obvious is an advantage going into the first turn. But there are others that are lesser known and may be more important. In NASA races, there are most often mixed classes and it is not unusual to have very different types of cars on the front row. Lap times may be close, but how each car achieved those times can vary. One car may have superior acceleration and top speed, while the other car has better handling and higher cornering speeds.

If you happen to be in the car with better acceleration and on the pole, you have a significant advantage at the start. You should easily win the drag race to Turn 1. If you have the better handling car on the pole, and your front row mate has the acceleration edge, you are at a disadvantage. What can you do? You want to minimize that disadvantage, of course. But how?

The first thing is to have a clue about where the real advantage lies with your car and the outside front row car. You know your are at an acceleration disadvantage, but how about under braking? You likely can reverse the disadvantage when you reach the first braking zone. But if the starting pace is slow, the first braking zone may not be Turn 1. If that is case, and you are in the slower accelerating car on the pole, it is to your advantage to have the starting pace as fast as possible so that the outside car must brake for Turn 1 and you may not need to slow due to superior handling and higher cornering speeds. Even if you must brake, you gain back the advantage.

But there is another element just as important, and this would apply to either car in the previous scenario. You want a pace that takes advantage of your car’s characteristics. The slowest pace is best for the car with good acceleration. A fast pace is best for the car with superior handling. But for both competitors, you want a pace that puts your engine rpm at peak torque. Peak torque in any gear will give you the best acceleration. For the higher powered car, wheel spin may be an issue, but that is somewhat unusual. And the hope is that your ideal rpm is not good for the other front-row car. Of course in a spec class, this makes no difference at all, since both cars are theoretically equal.

The next factor, which can be the most important depending on track layout, is how the pole car positions itself laterally for the green flag. What is not stated in the rules is that the pole position driver can choose where to place the pole car laterally on the track, of course leaving racing room for the outside car. We will examine this more a little later.

From the Outside Front Row

This can be a great place to start, limited only by the pace set by the pole driver and the lateral placement of the pole car. In most cases, staying to the outside entering Turn 1 is desirable, but the situation will dictate tactics. The biggest danger here is not lining up evenly next to the pole car. If you move ahead, you risk a black flag or an aborted start. Drop back and you lose the opportunity to attack for the lead and you become more vulnerable to attacks from behind.

 

From the Inside Row

Here you have two big decisions as the green flag waves. First is whether to attack or defend. Second is whether to move to the inside or outside. It is almost always better to move to the outside, but you are at the mercy of the car to your outside as to if, when and how far you can move to the outside. Move to the inside if you cannot go outside early, or if you can either out-accelerate or get a jump on the car in front, or if you know you can out-brake the car in front and the car in front is not moving to the inside. The most crowded spot on the track is the apex of Turn 1 after the race start, so be aware! The inside can be a risky spot at the start.

 

From the Outside Row

The biggest advantage for the outside row is plenty of room to move to the outside. Moving to the outside is often the most desirable tactic at the start. You have a better line, less traffic, more room and usually less risk. But you also leave yourself more open to inside attacks from behind. However, if the car in front does not move outside, or moves to the inside, you have a very good chance of gaining tactical position on that car either entering Turn 1, or more likely at the exit. And if that car is on the inside, it will act as a pick for you, blocking inside attacks from behind. This is especially good if the next turn is the opposite direction from Turn 1.

In either scenario, inside or outside, a race start is a dynamic, fluid time on the race track, filled with opportunities and risks. Situational awareness is crucial and something worth practicing. You must know what is happening around you to gain position at the start of the race. You can also set yourself up for failure at the start by relinquishing the advantage to other drivers. Which leads us directly to the two biggest mistakes most drivers, regardless of grid position, make at the start of a race.

 

The Big Mistakes

No. 1: Lateral Positioning

If you are the pole car, you want to be sure to exit the last turn on to the starting straight as far to the outside of the straight leading into Turn 1. In other words, if Turn 1 is a left turn, you want to stay to the right as much as possible. For some reason, most drivers, when starting from the pole, exit the last turn so they approach the start from near the middle of the track. Unless the outside front row car moves over, the pole car is stuck off of the optimum line. In some cases, this is not an issue, especially if the pole car does not need to reduce speed into Turn 1.

The rules are very clear on alignment of rows, but there is nothing in the rules about lateral positioning on the track. The pole car has free reign for lateral positioning, as long as he allows racing room for the outside car. Conversely, if the pole car says to the inside for Turn 1 approaching the green flag, there is nothing to stop the outside car from staying close laterally to the pole car, effectively forcing the pole car onto a less desirable line into Turn 1. There is nothing in the rules that says the outside car must stay to the outside of the track. The outside car only needs to leave racing room for the inside car.

Another case occurs when the last turn and the first turn are the same direction. If the outside front row driver holds a tight line through the last turn, then the inside driver may be forced to stay farther to the inside than is desirable. One trick for the pole car is to jump slightly ahead of the outside car so that the pole position driver can control the exit line for optimum lateral positioning. It doesn’t take much to maintain the controlling position here. And technically, the outside driver is the one who must maintain lateral position next to the pole car. The risk is that if the acceleration to get ahead of the outside car is significant, the pole car may be caught out for acceleration prior to the green flag, which is not legal. But then racing is really about managing risks.

In this start, you can see the pole driver is on the inside for the first turn, but he could have positioned himself a bit farther to the outside on the front straight and still left room for the P2 car.

No. 2: Turn 1 Speed

Entry speed going into Turn 1 at the start of a race is the area nearly all drivers botch. Many positions can be gained by astute drivers based on the simple fact that nearly all drivers, use the same braking point, even if off line, approaching Turn 1 even though the entry speed can be many mph slower. If the start/finish line is close to Turn 1, if Turn 1 is fairly fast, and if the pace is slow enough, you often do not even need to brake for Turn 1 after the green flag.

However, you may have to brake to avoid other cars slowing for Turn 1. While this may seem to be thinking “outside the box,” it’s really just knowing your car and exercising good judgment in traffic. Here is an example.

Willow Springs International Raceway near Rosamond, Calif., has a long start/finish straight. Turn 9 is a decreasing radius, but very fast right-hander leading onto the straight. Turn 1 is a quick 90-degree left. I’ve made dozens of starts there and was the chief instructor of a racing school there for a time. In most cars, under racing conditions, Turn 1 requires heavy braking. But for race starts, since the start/finish line is closer to Turn 1 than Turn 9, and pace lap speeds are usually on the slow side, it is unusual to need to brake, except for very fast race cars, entering Turn 1 after the green flag. But most drivers do.

This creates many opportunities for passing, but also presents some degree of risk. For the same reason many drivers brake unnecessarily, most drivers attempt to follow the “proper” racing line. That also is not necessary in most cases.

So how do you take advantage of this slower corner entry situation?

First, having a predetermined strategy rarely works, unless you are on the pole and have at least a little knowledge of the driver and car starting to the outside. The situation is too dynamic and fluid for plans to be effective. So the best plan is an open mind. Situational awareness is very important.

Know what you and your car can do, watch everything around you and look for openings. Take decisive action based on the input you receive and how you see the situation developing. It’s a good idea to have some sort of escape route planned as well. Keep in mind that aggressive race starts come with significant risks. And most times, someone around you will do something unexpected, forcing you to trash your plan and devise a new one quickly.

In a previous GoPro move of the month, we see how taking a heads-up approach to Turn 1 can be advantageous. Planning goes out the window based on conditions on the ground.

The Standing Start

The big difference is the launch. If you have drag racing experience, you are ahead of the game. If not, practice the launch. Know the best rpm range for the launch, then be decisive when the race goes green. Do not slip the clutch, especially if you have a competition clutch. A little tire spin in the first few feet is good. That helps keep the engine from bogging down and losing power. Once the track goes green, everything previously discussed about rolling starts applies.

Once you get the car off and running during a standing start, everything previously discussed about rolling starts applies.

If you can watch the starter wave other race groups, you might learn something about his or her quirks or body language that you can’t see from behind the wheel.
If you can watch the starter wave other race groups, you might learn something about his or her quirks or body language that you can’t see from behind the wheel.

 

Restarts

The restart looks easier than a race start, but rarely are in reality. For road racing, restarts are somewhat unusual and generally in single file. There is usually more leeway for speed approaching the starter stand, the starter will often throw the green earlier than for a race start, and it usually pays to stay in line until entering Turn 1 (for aerodynamic benefits) where you may be able to out-brake the car ahead. The biggest mistake is not staying close enough to the car ahead and failing to accelerate when the green flies. Do not wait for the car ahead to accelerate. This is a good time to rely more on radio communication than visual input, especially if you are not near the front of the restart line. A restart is treated more like a racing situation than the start of a race.

For restarts, it usually pays to stay in line (for aerodynamic benefits) until entering Turn 1, where you may be able to out-brake the car ahead.
For restarts, it usually pays to stay in line (for aerodynamic benefits) until entering Turn 1, where you may be able to out-brake the car ahead.

If you are aggressive on the start, be prepared to abort your plan and hold position. Waiting for another passing opportunity is better than a spin or crash.

Keep in mind that racing, especially race starts, unlike most other sports, require you to play offense and defense simultaneously. If you do not, you are setting yourself up for lost opportunities, for attack and lost positions. And that is what makes the start of a road race one of the most challenging and exciting events in all of sport.

Race drivers typically fall into three categories, at least for race starts. There are the overly aggressive drivers lacking excellent situational awareness. They often fall off the track, hit other cars, spin or crash. But they also often have good car control skills. And as we used to say to racing students, “It’s a good thing they have good car control skills, because they need them.”

Then there are the conservative drivers who really do not like the race start. They usually do not cause problems, but sometimes do, usually by being too slow at the entry to Turn 1. This causes other drivers to take evasive action and probably causes others drivers to ditch there brilliant start strategy.

If you see tire smoke from a car ahead, it might clue you in to a passing opportunity. Like blood in the water to a shark.
If you see tire smoke from a car ahead, it might clue you in to a passing opportunity. Like blood in the water to a shark.

And finally, there are the aggressive drivers with excellent situational awareness and car control skills, possessing a high level of confidence who relish race starts. They often move up a few spots, or if starting from the front, gain a second or two on the field on the first lap. They also occasionally end up like the first group, off the track backwards or in the fence! The first group is the wild card, while the second is much more predictable and therefore, easier to cope with. The last group either wins or goes from hero to zero quickly.

But then again, if it were easy, anyone could do it.

It’s good to have an escape route in mind when going through the first turn after a crowded start.

If you don’t have a crew chief and a radio communication system, try to position your car so you can see the flagger.
If you don’t have a crew chief and a radio communication system, try to position your car so you can see the flagger.

Things to Remember

In the heat of battle, which is much hotter at the start of a race, here are some important items to remember:

  • Be in the right gear for maximum acceleration.
  • Shift before you hit the rev limiter.
  • Unless otherwise stated in the driver’s meeting, when the track goes green, you are free to pass and choose whatever line is available to you without running into someone or something. Sometimes you cannot pass until the crossing the start/finish line.
  • Will you need to brake for Turn 1?
  • What is the “new” braking point for Turn 1 with a lower car speed and on different lines?
  • Know who is around you, especially to the rear.
  • Watch the starter for the green – do not rely solely on radio communications.
  • Clean and heat your tires on the pace lap! Remember that lateral scrubbing mostly cleans debris from the tread while hard acceleration and especially braking generates the most heat.
  • Watch your pace lap line and avoid areas of the track that are dirty or debris-laden.
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Image courtesy of Brett Becker