Whether you have a thousand laps at Sonoma Raceway, or if NASA’s Western States Championships will be your first visit, Sonoma Raceway can be a daunting place. It has everything, from big elevation changes to blind rises, close hillsides and fast corners! On top of that, the design of the circuit makes it one of the most challenging courses to learn the fastest way around. Hopefully, when you finish reading this story, you will have a better understanding of what it takes to get around Sonoma Raceway quickly. Good luck at the Western States Championships.
As you head down the main straight and pass the Start/Finish line, you will begin initializing your turn-in for the first part of Turn 1. Start on the far right side of the track next to the wall separating the road course from the drag strip. Use the bend in the left K-wall as your apex and then track out toward the right side of the track. Once you are tracked out, this is where most cars will make a speed correction. For some of the faster cars, this might be a brake, for others a lift. For lower-horsepower cars, or cars with a lot of grip, they might be flat here. What you want to be able to do is initiate the second turn-in for Turn 1 so that you get your car pointed up the hill and parallel to the curbing on the left. Once you turn in and your trajectory looks good, get back to the throttle to help stabilize the car through some ripples that are in the track surface. Once you arrive at the curbing on the left, pick a brake marker, get your braking and downshifting done, and turn in for Turn 2.
As you transition off of the brakes, position the car at mid track, and initiate your turn-in, clipping the apex toward the second half of the curbing. As you apply power, the road is flattening out and the camber of the road falls off at the same time. Unwind the wheel as soon as possible and let the car out to the exit curbing. Almost all cars will be loose coming out of Turn 2. The key is to unwind the wheel as early as you can and let the car be free. If you keep too much steering input in the car and get on the throttle too quickly, you often will find yourself with a quick spin toward the inside of the track.
As you transition from Turn 2 to Turn 3, accelerate hard and slowly move the car over to the right side of the track.
As you enter the braking zone for Turn 3, the track does a little dogleg to the right and dips down a bit. Get your braking done as straight as possible and early. You want to roll speed into Turn 3. Turn 3 is a give-away turn. You will sacrifice a little speed to gain more speed through Turn 3A and down into Turn 4. As you initiate turn-in for Turn 3, you want to turn in very late and end up far at track left and parallel to the track for a split second. Be patient with your turn-in for 3A. Carry speed over the crest and power down to Turn 4. The common mistake in this section is to turn in too early for 3, not get far enough over to the left and then turn in too early for 3A. With this line, we end up with a lot of steering input in the car, and the car will be loose and not allow much throttle over 3A, possibly allowing someone to sneak to the inside under braking into Turn 4.
Downhill braking and an off-camber turn-in make this corner quite a struggle for a lot of racers. Wherever you think you should start braking, back that up by one brake marker. Most drivers I work with in coaching brake too late for Turn 4. By doing this, they are still threshold braking where they should be turning into the corner. Now as they turn in, they are using too much of the friction circle for braking, don’t have enough grip for turning, and slide past the apex commenting how much their car understeers. Brake early, get the car slowed down and move the weight balance to the rear as you turn-in to this medium-apex corner. Clipping the apex berm slightly can help rotate the car and get you pointed down the track and not toward the track exit. Once you pass the apex, get on the throttle aggressively and track all the way out on the left side of the track.
Some of you are probably wondering why I’m talking about Turn 5. It is not even a corner, more like a bent straight. In lower-horsepower cars, this might be true, but in a higher-horsepower car this is a turn, and there is a lot of time to lose here. For those in a Spec Miata, Spec E30 or similar car, get all the way down to the apex, let the car exit the corner out to mid track and get ready to initiate braking for Turn 6, most likely on the downhill side of the crest. For faster cars, you will hit the apex, and then let the car out to the left side of the track, maintaining full throttle as long as you can. Keep the car toward the left side of the track as you start your braking for Turn 6.
For the Turn 6 braking zone, let’s divide you up into two camps: high horsepower and low horsepower.
For a high-horsepower car, you are on the left side of the track as you exit Turn 5. You will need to brake before the crest of the hill. Then, after you crest and you start releasing pedal pressure, let the car out to about mid track, start with a light throttle and continue adding throttle and playing with the car at the limit as you head down the hill and through the corner. Aim for a late apex and let the car all the way out and onto the exit curbing.
For low-horsepower cars, you are exiting Turn 5 mid track, to slightly right of mid track. You most likely will initiate your braking zone on the downhill side of the crest. As you bleed off pedal pressure, you will stay in the middle of the track, pick up throttle, and continue through the corner down the hill. Aim for the apex curbing and let the car all the way out and onto the exit curbing.
This is a long, fast corner for either car type and it leads onto an uphill straight. It is very important to get on the throttle and be able to keep adding more throttle throughout the corner. Many drivers will get too aggressive on the throttle and have to back out of it mid corner. This will have an effect all the way down the straight and into the braking zone of Turn 7.
One of the best passing zones under braking, but don’t wait too long! Start your braking on the left side of the track. There are numbers on the K-wall to help give you a reference point. You can stay slightly off the first apex, almost turning in early, then let the car out and set up for the second apex. You should late-apex the second apex and get all the way down to it, but not touch it because it is quite tall. Once you are at the apex, you should be accelerating hard, letting the car track out wide to the left, getting a good run into the Esses.
Turn 8/8A, The Esses
As you are accelerating out of Turn 7, you will find yourself on the right side of the track before you turn in for Turn 8. There is an access road on the right side of the track. It is here that you will make your speed correction. Some may lift. Some may need to brake. The key is to do it here, early, before you turn in. You need to be back onto a maintenance throttle or more before you turn in. Hit the Turn 8 apex, maintain the same throttle or more, then late apex turn 8A. By the time you get to the apex of Turn 8A, you should be at or near full throttle. Let the car out as you crest the hill and get all the way to the exit curbing on the left side of the track. Common mistakes in this section are to go into Turn 8 too hot, having to lift in between 8 and 8A, killing all of your exit speed and speed through Turn 9.
As you exit Turn 8A, you will be on the left side of the track at full throttle. Low-power cars can stay pretty tight on the inside. Higher-power cars will move out to about mid track and then line the car up at the end of the corner parallel to the curbing on the left side of the track.
If there is one corner that will scare you at Sonoma Raceway, this is it. It’s fast with very little run-off if there is a problem. There are several keys to Turn 10. First, get your speed correction done early. In most cars it will be a brake — some quite a bit of brakes. As you are turning in, you should be applying some throttle to move the weight balance to the rear. The apex for this corner is a mid to late apex. Get all the way down to the curbing. Once you are at the apex, you should be at or very near full throttle. As you are tracking out, use all of the track, keep your eyes looking forward and down the track.
As you exit Turn 10, you will be on the left side of the track. You will need to move slightly right to keep out of the pit entrance and set up for the braking zone to Turn 11. It’s a straightforward braking zone, with brake markers on the inside. There are some rolling bumps in this brake zone, so if your car is very stiff, you may need to tune the chassis setup for this. Turn in is late, but you initiate your turn much earlier than you think. The more to the inside of the turn you can get, the more grip there is. Depending on where the tire barrels are set up, you can go as far inside as your left-side wheels on the paint. By the second-to-last tire barrel, you should be at or near full throttle.
As you accelerate out of Turn 11, you will be on the left side of the track. Low-power cars can stay tighter to the wall through Turn 12. Higher-horsepower cars will need to arc to the right as they accelerate out of Turn 11 and make Turn 12 more of a turn than a straight, which brings you back to the Start/Finish line.
Tony Colicchio is co-owner of TC Design Motorsport, a Campbell, Calif., company that specializes in custom roll-bar and roll-cage fabrication, seat mounting, harnesses and window nets and other racecar hardware, including a wide array of data acquisition systems. TC Design also performs custom suspension and exhaust work. Colicchio has been a professional racing coach for 12 years and is the 2013 NASA GTS3 National Champion. He holds GTS3 track records at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Sonoma Raceway, Thunderhill Raceway, Buttonwillow Raceway and Miller Motorsports Park.
NASA NorCal racer Tony Colicchio shows us the fast way around Sonoma Raceway in his GTS3 BMW E36.
Red = TPS > 70 percent
Green = Lateral acceleration > 0.3 g
Blue = Brake pressure > 300 psi