Before we get into specifics about how to learn a new track, let’s look at some priorities concerning how to approach learning a new track and goals you may have. Certainly, one common goal, since it really is the point of being on a racetrack, whether for racing or HPDE, is to get around the track as fast as possible given the circumstances. Since track time is limited, not only is it important to learn the track to achieve the fastest possible lap times, but it also is imperative to do so in the least amount of track time. Being efficient when learning a new track and getting up to speed not only improves competitiveness, but also reduces the burden on your budget.
There are many ways to do your homework before getting to the track. But let’s start at the track. Knowing your goals and priorities beforehand will greatly influence how you approach you pre-event preparations.
It makes sense to look for the biggest chunks of time first. On most tracks, 70 percent to 80 percent of a lap is spent accelerating, so let’s start there. The fast driver is the one who spends the most time at full throttle, of course, while keeping the car on the racetrack. One key to fast laps is getting on the power as early as possible exiting corners. So it makes sense to focus on getting on the power as early as possible. So finding a cornering line that allows the earliest acceleration is a key factor and should be a high priority.
Many books and articles talk about prioritizing corners based on what the corner leads to. The corner leading onto the longest straight is the most significant since speed gained early at the exit is added to down the ensuing straight — or flat-out — section of track. And this is true, so pay maximum attention to the corner leading onto the longest straight first. But only the exit portion of the corner. Not the braking zone. This is a lower priority than the exit of any corner where acceleration takes place — as opposed to flat-out corners at high speeds.
So why should braking be a low priority early on? Braking is certainly important, but only 10 percent to 15 percent of a lap is spent decelerating. Therefore much less time can be gained under braking. Save the time quest under braking for later. The core reason for taking it easy on the brakes in the early stages of learning a track is simple. Late braking is very exhilarating and “feels” very fast. Deceleration is much more intense than acceleration so it is more of a rush. But there is just not much time to be gained in the braking zone, and a lot of time wasted by over-driving under braking. Getting into a corner a little too deep does not necessarily mean an off-course excursion, but it will put you off the best line and force you to delay the all-important throttle launch out of the corner.
Back to prioritizing corners by importance. That is an important area of focus, but work on exit speed — early power on — first, then cornering speed and last braking. Focus on the corners leading onto straights first, especially the last corner in a series of turns. Then focus on carrying speed through corners, with high-speed corners having the highest priority. It used to be that we would focus on one corner at a time, get dialed in, then focus on the next most important corner. It could take a while to get up to speed this way. Now it is common practice to work on several corners during a session by focusing on early acceleration first, then corner speed.
So far, we have not talked about lines, which are very important, but about 90 percent of all corners are pretty easy to figure out. You can watch what others are doing before you go out and when you hit the track, you likely can follow others at least for a turn or two at a time. The big exception to this would be a blind corner, especially one starting over a blind rise in the track. Having a good idea where blind corners go before going onto the track is very important.
Before we move on to braking, let’s review priorities:
- Most important is getting on the power as early as possible.
- Do this first on the corner leading onto the longest straight.
- Work on the exit of several corners during the first session out.
- Once an early acceleration line is worked out, work on carrying more speed into and through the corners.
- Last, work on braking.
- Once the basic lap is figured out, you can start refining what you do to find that last half second.
We have discussed optimum lines through corners in past Speed News articles, but a quick review is in order. The most important factor is turning the steering wheel as little as possible. Find a line that allows early acceleration first, with little or no wheelspin, then work on turning the steering wheel as little as possible. Turning the steering wheel as little as possible reduces drag, tire wear and allows the tire contact patches to operate at the lowest possible slip angles. This translates to more speed, less heat in the tires and longer tire life.
We have talked about finding the traction limits in earlier articles. Applying this to learning a new track requires creating priorities just as above. In this case, it is best to approach finding the limit by getting the exit right first. One of most challenging aspects of driving fast is getting the corner entry speed correct. But if you go in a little slow, get the car settled and increase speed until you feel the car beginning to lose traction, it is easier to find the limit of traction. Then, as you carry more speed into the corner, you will get closer and closer to the traction limits earlier and earlier in the corner. But while you are gaining speed in this process, you are getting the largest chunks of time first, then finding the last bits of speed later.
Braking, while a critical skill and extremely important, is low on the priority list primarily because little is to be gained. So when learning a track, braking for corners is important, but brake early while focusing on carrying speed through the corner and applying power as early as possible. Once you get cornering speed and exit acceleration dialed-in, you will find that later braking will gain very little time, for as you become more comfortable with the cornering speeds and early power applications, you will be braking later without putting much effort into the process. By the time the higher priority tasks are worked out, you will be 90 percent of the way to optimum late-braking point. But if you start out by braking as late as possible, you will likely lose time mid-turn and be forced to accelerate later at the corner exit.
ORIENTATION TO A NEW TRACK
Getting to know a new track before driving at speed is genuinely helpful. The best way to do this is old school, but it is effective, and that is to walk the track. We used to do that with students, at least in several critical turns. This allows you to see the terrain at low speed and to pick out landmarks and track features you may miss when traveling at near-racing speeds. If walking is not an option, driving slow laps is second best. Slow is good because not only do you need to get a good mental picture of the track itself, but also landmarks that will help you with turning points, apexes, acceleration points and braking points. This is crucial on portions of the track that are difficult or impossible to see like blind corners and corners over rises in the track.
Landmarks come in many forms:
- Marks, cracks and spots on the track surface.
- Painted lines on the surface.
- Signs within your field of vision.
- Light poles, telephone poles and trees that help define where you are and upcoming actions.
- Permanent corner worker stations.
Items that are not good landmarks include:
- Traffic cones.
- Parked vehicles.
- Anything that can move or be moved.
Anything that helps you find your marks or helps to line you up where sight lines are difficult or non-existent makes a good marker. These are easier to spot at low speeds. It is important to look around away from the track as well. A line of poles or trees far from the track may actually provide a great marker for lining up for a turn-in or exit point. Look for markers that stand out like an antenna or cell tower on a hilltop.
Additional factors that will affect performance also should be part of your reconnaissance. What may affect traction or platform balance? Bumps and depressions on the surface may require alternate lines to avoid. This is especially critical for high-downforce cars where bumps and depressions can alter air flow over wings and under the car. Where is the edge of the dust and tire rubber that builds up on the track surface? And where is the rubber embedded into the track? The dark rubber line that helps define the common path around the track? Most important, keep your eyes and your mind open!
BEFORE GETTING TO THE TRACK
The are many tools that will help get you up to speed at a new track. The most rudimentary is a simple track map. This is easy to find online. A printed copy is good place to make notes. Another online information source is forums. But the issue with forums is accuracy. Many, if not all, forums contain inaccurate or bad information. They may contain some good info as well, but telling the difference is at best difficult.
Online video, especially in-car laps from sources like YouTube and Vimeo are great tools. Try to select a video from a car with similar performance to yours. It is best to use the videos as a resource for learning track characteristics in a general way. Specifics can be misleading, but search for qualifying laps to get the purest driving line. However, understand the driver in the video may be off the best line for you or the car may have different handling and power characteristics than yours. The more similar the car in the video is to yours, the better.
If you have the ability to record video from your computer monitor, you can watch the video at low speed. If you have simple video-editing software, you can run in very slow motion, analyze frame by frame and even print individual frames. Single-frame analysis allows detailed looks at the surroundings and track surface. You can use this to find the items discussed earlier in the track walking or slow-drive section.
If you do this, verify markers and points when you get on the track. They may look different in reality.
ANALYZING AT THE TRACK
Naturally, any data logging can help you figure out a new track more quickly. There are many systems, but the key is to be able to analyze the data. There is much information available on data logging and analysis. But here is a simpler, quicker way to analyze what needs to change to go faster when learning a new track. With the incredible popularity of on board video cameras, recording, playback and analysis is easy and fast. Some systems even capture data logging info on the screen. These systems can be expensive, but they are invaluable.
But there are inexpensive ways to gather important, useful data. Onboard video like the GoPro Hero can provide high resolution video with easy playback for quick and accurate analysis. To make use of this less costly option, you again need to prioritize what you need to analyze. Many options are available, but consider using the onboard video camera as a timing device, A camera like the GoPro can record at 60 frames per second, so it is accurate enough for lap-time and segment-time analysis. You also can record voice with a plug-in microphone with an adapter. With this, the driver can provide a running commentary about lines, braking and turn-in points and notes on the track. Segment times can be taken from the time stamp on the frames. Playback is easy on a smartphone, tablet or laptop. With driver comments and segment times, you can discover the fastest technique quickly. This simple approach is great for limited budgets and small or one-person teams, or for running in HPDE.
A couple of points to remember:
- The most important goal is going faster around the track.
- A flexible and constantly moving visual field is even more important when learning a new track.
- Focus attention on your priorities, like fast corner-exit speed, first.
- And when you are looking for that last second, slow down. Try going 10 seconds a lap slower and make your lines, turn-in and braking points, acceleration and control inputs as perfect as possible. Within five laps, you will be back up to speed without even realizing it, probably even going faster than before.
With the tools and technology available today, learning a new track is easier than ever!
Vbox Motorsport posted a couple of excellent videos for learning two bucket-list tracks, Sebring in Florida and the Nurburgring in Germany. Studying video before you go to a track you’ve never been to before can pay off when you get there.
NASA Southeast racer Adam Romito threading his way through an inverted grid provides a unique look at getting around VIRginia International Raceway. Once he clears the field, you can get a better look at the classic line.