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I spend a lot of weekends at the track, either working with my friends on their cars, racing my car, or helping them race their car.
When I was younger, I was lucky enough to live next to a rally driver, and he took the time to actually teach me the basics of how to handle a car, instead of letting the car handle you.
The reason I win is because I am a student of racing. Far too often I see people show up at the track two weeks after their car purchase to race. They have a ton of horses under the hood, but with no idea about how to use it. In this article, I hope to convince you to ditch any other ideas you have about racing, or just driving in general, and accept the fact that the quickest way to become a better driver is to be smooth.
From drifting to drag to circuits, aggression does not equal speed. Now, there are a couple of instances where an aggressive driving does mean faster times, but they are so specific and rare that for the sake of argument, just remember: Smooth is Fast. On the track, being smooth helps to minimize weight swings in your vehicle, and utilize your maximum grip potential. For civilian driving, it will improve your gas mileage noticeably. For a racing situation, smoothness helps make the incremental gains you need to win; if you are only driving at 75% of your cars maximum, you can afford to hard-shift and slam on the brakes. However, as you reach the limits of your car’s range, the harsh actions are amplified exponentially.
So how can you become smoother? You’d be surprised in the number of disciplines affected by this skill; braking, steering, accelerating, shifting, and line management are all drastically affected by smoothness. Use this guide to intellectually understand the essence of smooth, and then go practice to shave precious seconds off of your track time.
Great racers have trained their instincts with a thorough study of the physics of driving. To move any object, you need to overcome the objects inertia, or the objects resistance to moving. Inertia is easily the second most important aspect of racing behind friction. To understand this force, we turn to Newton’s Second Law; F=ma. This law details inertia by: Force = Mass x Acceleration, and acceleration can be speeding up or slowing down. Since the mass of a car (its weight) stays relatively the same, the only variable that we can control is acceleration.
In a car, the speed at which you can decelerate is much greater than your maximum rate of acceleration. So the force exerted on the tires is much higher when you are using the brake, which leads to a risk of losing traction. Smooth braking minimizes this risk by preventing large transfers of weight in the car.
The effects of smooth braking are most apparent while cornering. If you slam your brakes before entering a turn, your car is throwing most of its weight over your front tires, which steer your car. This means that you have to slow down even further to allow your tires to make some grip available for turning, instead of using it all for stopping. Meanwhile, the smoother driver won’t have to scrub off as much speed, can utilize more grip, and will make up valuable time on the turn against their hard-stopping competitor.
Although it is on the opposite side of the spectrum from braking, smoothness affects acceleration in a similarly drastic measure. If you like to race, it is pretty safe to assume that you have enough ponies under the hood to make your tires smoke. Applying smooth acceleration techniques can make your takeoff times drop drastically.
At a start, the two most important physics principals are inertia (explained above) and the previously mentioned most important force in racing; friction. You see, inertia helps calculate the amount of force that you are putting on your tires, and friction is directly related to force. If you apply too much force to your tires, you exceed the available friction, or grip, and your tires spin.
As the lights move towards green, press down on the clutch and use the accelerator to get your car in its power band. When the green light flashes, progressively let the clutch out whilst simultaneously pressing down the accelerator at the same rate. This will raise the rev rate to match the loss in power from the clutch, and allow you to take off the fastest you possibly can. Being smooth at the start can make or break a race; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve raced an amateur Corvette driver and laughed as I easily take the first turn because they dumped the clutch. Remember, smooth is fast!
Smooth shifting is a very simple concept to understand, but arguably the hardest skill to master. It is so intuitive that any driver who can use a stick has found out that a smooth transition between gears can keep your car in its power band more easily than hard shifting, increasing acceleration.
There are many techniques for smoother shifting, including rev matching, heel-toe, and drop shifting; but all of them can be boiled down to smoothness. Regardless of how you prefer to shift, work to make the shifts seamless, and you will be faster.
Steering and Line Management:
Smoothness affects steering and line management more drastically than anything else simply because they are composed of all the disciplines described above. Smooth steering allows you to have the ability to learn the absolute grip limits of your car and bring your car as close as you can to it. Combine braking, acceleration, shifting, and steering to get line management, which is the path you choose to take around the track.
In a track environment, smooth braking allows you to start steering sooner, which in turn allows you to begin accelerating out of the turn sooner. Each of these incremental gains, when added up over the course of 5 laps, adds up to valuable seconds at the end of the race. Now that you understand all of the concepts, just remember to be smooth, and you’ll be able to take the line you want, and take seconds off of your final time.