Walking the tightrope: a poetic way to convey the feeling one has when trying to roll those last few miles an hour into a long corner that challenges both axles.
We’ve all learned how to go in slow and exit fast, but fast drivers enter fast, exit fast, and keep their minimum speeds from dropping much. The best in the world have an innate ability to keep the car moving ahead without interruption, with no major departures off the intended line, no time-sapping snaps of oversteer, and no lollygagging when it’s time to get back to throttle. How can they constantly drive at the edge and keep it pointed in the right direction at all times?
It all begins with a plan. As Blayze.io president Dion Von Moltke says, “Determining the most important phase of the corner is the first step.” For example, the prioritized portion of a long corner without a long straightaway before or after is its mid-section.
Long corners, especially the faster ones, reward a gentler speed change. This means getting off the brakes sooner and keeping minimum speed up — mainly to keep the rear of the car from sliding much, because big snaps are harder to catch at higher speeds. There’s another reason to do this: the faster the corner, the less the exit generally matters. Most of the speed is found into and through the middle of the bend. This is especially true in cars with little horsepower.
Anemic or Athletic?
Sandro Espinosa, a talented Georgia-based businessman who’s raced most things under the sun, has two approaches to maintaining minimum speed through this type of corner. When driving a momentum car, one that doesn’t recover easily from a midcorner mistake because it lacks power, he utilizes a non-textbook technique.
“With a Spec E30, I like to induce a little oversteer into the corner,” Espinosa said. “The slide is easy enough to catch. The main reason I do this is because I get pointed in the right direction faster, and this allows me to get to throttle a little faster. After I’ve done the downshifting, I have my left foot hovering over the brake pedal and go flat with my right. If I feel the car start to understeer, I don’t lift off the gas since conserving momentum is so important. Instead, I try to rub the brake to put a little more weight on the front axle.“
With higher horsepower cars, the approach changes a lot. The stiffer suspension that usually accompanies more horsepower means faster weight transfer, and so a midcorner lift is best avoided lest a snap occur. Obviously, one can’t go full-throttle in the middle of a slow or medium-speed corner when there’s so much power available, so Sandro avoids the two-footed technique and relies on a measured throttle application.
While sensitivity for the pedal position is important in any car, the need to avoid big power-slides requires a little restraint. The driver cannot experiment so much at the edge as they might in a Miata. Therefore, if the throttle pedal is treated more like a light switch in a car with more grip than power, the loud pedal in the overpowered car is much more like a dimmer switch. To avoid upsetting the powerful car’s rear and deploying as much of that power as possible, one needs a committed, progressive throttle application.
A preemptive caution is necessary in regard to what the driven wheels will accept at various stages of the corner, but even so, the drivers will inevitably exceed the rear’s limit, and when that happens, they have to be a little more delicate with their throttle inputs. The way they massage the pedal to maintain the balance without exacerbating wheelspin. This sensitivity requires time and enough experience to remain analytical while sliding, but it can be harnessed and felt with time.
“To get a feel for the front end, it takes a couple laps of light pushing. The first should be done with a little caution, since the tires are cold. Then next lap, push a little harder. By the third, you should have a decent idea of where the limit is,” Espinosa says.
This measured yet assertive style of driving reveals enough to give a good sense of how much stick is available without putting the driver in a predicament.
Don’t Take Push for an Answer
Take Buttonwillow’s Riverside: a high-speed, increasing-radius left that most cars will navigate at or around a hundred miles an hour. A little understeer through this corner is expected — in fact, it’s something that many accept as an inevitable part Riverside.
Obviously, the corner is too fast to negotiate with any significant oversteer, though the special guys might be able to get away with it a few times, but that doesn’t mean a long lull through the middle of the corner is inevitable. “Carry enough speed, make sure you’re looking in the right place, and drive the car with the pedals,” Dion instructs.
In a stiff car with lots of grip, this usually means a smooth release of the throttle to trace the intended line, though a softer car with less stick might actually benefit from a rub of the brake. In either case, a hasty but delicate reapplication of the gas is needed soon thereafter to stabilize the rear. Since the corner is fast and the amount of speed change needed is small, it has to be done relatively quickly and with near-perfect timing. Then, once the intended trajectory is obtained, the throttle needs to be reapplied to settle the rear and prevent a sphincter-squeezer of a snap.
Watch Brett Smrz navigates this turn in a nicely prepped BMW M3 with stiff suspension and aero at more than 100 miles an hour. As he starts to feel the front starting to wash away (3:14), he releases the throttle to help the car turn and return to the ideal line. We can even see him countersteer briefly as the throttle is released. The rear is starting to slide ever so slightly. He then feels the front bite and applies some stabilizing throttle as he steers in more to regain the line he’s just slid a couple feet away from.
He repeats this subtle see-sawing several times more before exiting Riverside, every time careful to arrest any slides at the rear before they get out of hand. He feels the front fade, releases the throttle, then once he’s back nearer his intended line, he stabilizes the car with a dab of gas to plant the rear. It’s all done with such precision and commitment that it hardly looks like he’s steering, and that’s because he really isn’t — his feet are responsible for the direction changes.
“Some drivers will roll through a high-speed, steady-state cornering situation and just blindly accept that the car will understeer,” says Von Moltke. “The key is to carry enough speed in so that the understeer can be minimized, but there’s more to it than that. It’s not just about rolling enough speed — you have to harness that extra momentum with the right sort of weight transfer to help it turn.”
The way the throttle and brake are manipulated change somewhat when the shape of the corner tightens. In a long, fast corner like Buttonwillow’s Riverside, the inputs must be very subtle and the throttle curve is fairly flat. In a tighter corner like Laguna Seca’s Turn 2, a more dynamic corner, the approach is slightly different.
Turn 2, a relatively slow corner that happens to go on a while, is preceded by a long straight. Speeds are high on entry, which means the weight transfer available is significant. The braking zone can and should be pushed relatively late into the corner, which allows for a more pronounced direction change.
Charging in with slightly more speed past the first apex, then a slightly slower rate of brake release, or even a split-second dab of the brake pedal can unload the rear long enough to encourage a little more yaw. This is feasible because the corner is slower, and because it’s tighter than Riverside. It needs a little more mid-corner “bending” to get it pointed at the second apex sooner, which shortens the corner slightly and allows an earlier throttle application.
Studying the way Luiz Serva attacks Lime Rock in his GTS3 BMW M3 — a car that straddles the fence between momentum car and muscle car — helps clarify some of the techniques involved in finding midcorner speed. Big Bend and The Esses require a soft touch and a level of improvisation that might throw analytical, detail-oriented drivers for a loop.
Luiz, a self-described “natural driver,” ignores reference points and instead relies on feel to find his lap times. There’s a way he balances the car that could be explained with basic theoretical terms, though. In Big Bend, a long corner that decreases in radius, he knows that the way the weight is transferred around the turn-in point makes or breaks the corner.
Big Bend is preceded by Lime Rock’s fastest straight, and so the speed gained along this straight should not be wasted when rolling into this deceptively fast corner. To do this, the platform must remain relatively flat on entry. The nose cannot be loaded too heavily when the steering inputs are applied.
“It’s better to brake a little early so that you can brake softer,” Serva said. “To carry speed into this corner and keep the rear underneath us is paramount, since minimal speed loss through a gentler application of the brake is our first objective.”
The second step requires a little juggling that might not be as easy to appreciate because the car is composed, neutral, and well understood by its driver. However smooth and stable it all looks, there’s a lot of improvisational work going on — especially since the track is drying and still quite damp in certain patches.
As the car is turned into the corner, it is crucial the driver releases the brake pedal smoothly. Just how smoothly and at what rate the pedal must be released depends on car type, car placement, corner shape, and available grip, but since there’s a bit of direction change needed later in this decreasing radius corner, the rate of release is usually a little slower and smoother than an impatient driver would like. This way, a big time-sapping slide is avoided, and a little scrub, assuming the car understeers slightly in these steady-state cornering situations, can be used to bleed off any excess speed.
Sensitivity is all-important in this balancing act, and that light touch can be appreciated when Luiz must get back to throttle. His Senna-like stabs of the throttle are metered out after processing the information he receives through his hands, his eyes, and his butt.
The third phase — moving from the apex through the exit — is probably the busiest. As he traces the line he feels will work best in these conditions, he starts to add throttle as soon as the corner begins to unwind. If he can sense some sliding through the wheel, through the seat, or simply by noticing the trajectory of the car change unfavorably, he can rein in the nose of the car by adjusting the “rhythm of his blips.” He moonlights as a producer, so musical terminology has a way of sneaking its way into the conversation.
Thanks in part to the differential settings, this staccato throttle technique also helps the rear rotate slightly, though that yawing isn’t obvious in the onboard footage. Because his car is sorted and he’s accustomed to his car’s reactions while treading that fine line, he can keep the car in a generally neutral state, though he still agitates it just enough to alternate between negligible understeer and imperceptible zero-steer—sometimes several times per corner.
This is all lovely sounding, but how does an intermediate driver still working through the basic theory of cornering in their driver education move into this challenging area?
“All this takes a lot of iteration and it’s often the area where the most amount of bad habits are formed since racing or driving at the limit is very counter-intuitive. If you want to refine your technique at the limit, it takes a coach,” Dion encourages us.
By inducing a little oversteer into a corner and catching the slide, you can get the car pointed in the right direction faster so you can get back to throttle a little sooner. Luiz advocates a little autocross for the rapid rate of information a driver must deal with. To keep the car moving ahead while dealing with a ceaseless barrage of corners, a driver has to make myriad subtle changes and compromises to keep their minimum speeds as high as possible.
However, autocross is filled with short corners and abrupt direction changes, and those don’t necessarily teach a driver how to walk the tightrope. For that, they need a longer corner, preferably one with a changing radius.
Find one of these corners, ideally one that has a little runoff, and release the brake a fraction earlier than feels comfortable. The car will have to be manipulated a little more delicately with the additional entry speed, but some practice managing the car in its mildly agitated state will teach the driver how to shift the weight with the right timing and flirt with the edge for an extended period of time, yielding a few more miles an hour and a significant advantage on technical tracks or in tricky conditions.