Whether you knew it or not, we are living the glory days of driver development technology. Moore’s Law being what it is, it seems companies have been debuting some game-changing new driver aids over the last couple of years.
Of course, technology has long played a key role in driver development, but for too long it meant learning to use and interpret highly sophisticated software, which presented another learning curve unto itself.
For example, less than a decade ago, data systems with displays were available from major manufacturers. They were sophisticated enough to log engine data, and if you connected a GPS antenna, they also could log your lapping data. However, the software that came with it was often so obtuse that many drivers didn’t use it.
That would not have happened with the Catalyst, a new driver development tool from Garmin. Developed by a group of motorsports junkies within Garmin, known as the “Garmin Pit Crew,” the Catalyst is a real-time coaching tool and driving performance optimizer that provides tips and prompts in real time to help a driver figure out a faster way through a given corner with its True Optimal Lap feature.
“The True Optimal Lap feature on Catalyst is truly a gamechanger,” said Adam Spence, Garmin product manager and Garmin Pit Crew team lead. He’s also a NASA member. “Until now, the industry standard for theoretical fastest lap has been to split each lap into a number of sectors. Then take the fastest time from each sector and add it up to generate the user’s theoretical fastest lap. The problem is, based on the laws of physics, the suggested lap time can be unachievable. Catalyst is different. It gathers several data metrics and identifies where laps can be seamlessly joined together to create the fastest racing line. This shows users their fastest achievable time based on lines actually driven and gives them an optimal lap they can truly achieve.”
Garmin announced the new device in early September and has been sending out demonstrator units to media outlets across the country, and Speed News was on that list. We enlisted the help of Aldrin Villanueva, NASA’s sales and marketing representative, who has been progressing through HPDE, and could stand to benefit from using the Garmin Catalyst. In his first weekend in a new-to-him Subaru BRZ, Villanueva hooked it up and drove to the SoCal Region event at Buttonwillow in October. When we got back home, we caught up with him to see what he thought of the new Garmin Catalyst.
“Once you get to the main screen, you just hit the little helmet icon at the top. From there you can just add a driver and add a car,” Villanueva said. “So they definitely designed this very well that you can move it into different cars, and have different profiles. So if you share it between cars or if you share it between drivers, it’s super easy to switch back and forth, almost immediately because it’s just a clickable, it’s a click of two buttons.”
To dial in the Catalyst, you plug in the type of car you have. There is no need to put in weight or horsepower or tire treadwear ratings, but the Catalyst is subject to updates, so it’s a good idea to check for updates before you head to the track in a place that has good wi-fi.
Ride along with Aldrin Villanueva during a lap of Buttonwillow after using the Garmin Catalyst for the weekend.
The Catalyst display mounts to the windshield and broadcasts its audio signal either to a Bluetooth equipped car stereo or to a pair of Air Pods. Villanueva connected the Catalyst to his stereo, but noted that with the windows open — as required by HPDE rules — the car blasting along at high speeds, and a helmet on, it isn’t always easy to hear. Bluetooth Air Pods or an in-helmet setup like a Sena could be the better call.
“If the windows were up, it would probably be fine, but you can’t have that on the racetrack,” Villanueva said. “So, I think you just need the headset and the helmet.”
While on grid, Villanueva selected the track and the configuration and selected the dry track option. At that point, he was ready to go. The Catalyst unit takes a couple of laps to gather data from your driving, then begins to prompt you with tips for going faster in places and affirmations for corners you get right. It also shows your lap times and delta for the lap you are on.
“It doesn’t really show you the times or anything until about the third lap,” Villanueva said. “And after the third lap, it’ll start, it’ll kind of start coaching you and it’ll start telling you whether you did a great job by turning in early or braking earlier braking later, or using more of the track, it would give you kind of positive feedback, like great job braking later.
“So, it was easy. It wasn’t intrusive,” he continued. “And with a combination of having the big screen, if you were in that segment, and you were going slower, that screen is generally red, but if you’re going faster, it was green.”
Using Catalyst, Villanueva dropped several seconds off his lap times in one weekend. After each session, the Catalyst presents what it calls “opportunities” the driver can use to go faster. It reduces them to digestible portions so as not to overwhelm the student.
“What makes it really beginner friendly is that it’s not dumping all of the info on you all at once. It’s breaking it up in segments and within those segments, it’s also breaking that up by braking, the proper line and your acceleration and your turning,” he added. “So it really, really kind of breaks things into like little chunks.”
The same 7-inch screen that shows you the opportunities also allows you to watch video from your laps. Added together, these opportunities become the “True Optimal Lap,” that create a composite of a driver’s optimum achievable lap time based on lines the driver has driven and are therefore repeatable. The Catalyst breaks the opportunities down into braking, apex and speed, and displays the appropriate section of the track, which you can enlarge with the same “finger spread” zoom technique used on any iPhone. You also can download the video to a laptop.
The Catalyst also displays screen grabs from the camera that will show the optimal placement where your car should be on track to capitalize on the opportunity. Tap the Apex button on the screen and the Catalyst will show you where you apexed the turn, and also show the optimal apex and the speeds at apex. Likewise, the Speed button shows you the optimal speed compared with your speed through a given turn. The purple opportunities all are color coded purple for easy identification.
“It’s definitely a useful tool,” Villanueva said. “I think for HPDE drivers and for, for TT drivers, um, for somebody that’s looking for something very simple and doesn’t have to plug anything in external sensors and have to plug in a GPS and data, they don’t have to plug an OBDIIstuff, I think there’s a big appeal with that.”