By Ian Williams
Chair, Motorsport Australia NSW Supersprint Panel
There are quite a few things that don’t matter much when driving day to day on the street that suddenly become important when driving at speed on a race track.
The techniques in this article have been drafted to help competitors make the most out of their supersprinting sessions.
Many of these techniques require practice and patience to master. The good news is that many of these can be practiced during every day driving to help them become second nature. You will find that the art of going quickly and safely around a race track is acquired through quality practice.
When on the track, concentrate on the quality of your driving more than your speed. With quality practice the speed will come as you become more familiar with your car and the track.
The examples and data in this article are from my 427 cu in road registered VXII HSV ClubSport at Wakefield Park Raceway. Different cars have different power and handling characteristics so you will need to experiment to see how the techniques outlined below best suit your car and its own unique characteristics. You can also click on the images below to see more detail.
Preparation – Car
Before leaving for the track make sure all your fluids have been topped up, and for Wakefield Park I’d suggest you overfill the sump by no more than 1 litre. You can do through more than 8 seconds of continuous lateral “G’ around Turn 8 (the “fish hook”) during which your oil can run up the side of your motor and away from the oil pickup. Fitting an oil cooler and catch can is also a good insurance policy if you are going to do the occasional track day. Many cars are susceptible to oil overheating so if you see a warning light come on, pit your car and let it cool.
Check the condition of your tyres and the pressures. I’d recommend a hot pressure of 40psi for street tyres on the track (to keep the side walls rigid) as a starting point. Make sure to check them after every run as they will build up heat & pressure significantly which will result in quite a loss of grip. Don’t compete if you have worn or damaged tyres.
Make sure you have plenty of meat on your brake pads as they will wear much faster than on the street, and remove any unnecessary loose items before you leave as that will save you doing this at the track.
Finally, read the Supplementary Regulations (and the Technical Regulations if you are unsure of which Class you are eligible to run in). They will not only contain important information about the day, but will tell you if there is anything else you will need to do to your car beforehand like taping over forward facing glass lenses as an example.
Preparation – Driver
The proper driving position is important because it helps you get the optimal feedback from your car whilst keeping you from becoming fatigued. Your seat should be adjusted so that you are able to depress the clutch completely and perform heel/toe braking without banging your knee on the steering column. You should also be able to use the “foot rest” and the driver’s door for support through tighter turns. Your seatbelt should be tight so that you do not need to rely upon the steering wheel for support.
When seated behind the wheel you should have a 90 to 120 degree bend in your elbows with your hands in the proper 3 and 9 o’clock positions on the steering wheel. This will allow you to make a 180-degree turn of the wheel when you need to correct an over steer slide. Ideally, your thumbs should be in contact with the 3 and 9 spokes on the steering wheel. This gives you more direct feedback from the front suspension in case of an under steer situation. Hands inside the steering wheel is a BIG NO NO !!! Should you lose control of your vehicle or hit a kerb, the steering wheel can be jerked out of your hands, you can potentially break thumbs, fingers or arms…. BAD
Also, if the steering wheel airbag goes off with your hands in front of it, you can implant your hands in your face, literally!
Another little trick that may help with driver position, is before you go out onto the track pull your retracting seat belt tight then give it a quick tug to make it lock into place, this will stay locked until you are back in the pits.
Move your seat down as low as you can, remember you will be wearing a helmet so you want more space between your head and the roof and it stops you from looking like a tool when exiting your car and getting your head caught on the way out (I figured this one out for myself). You also get better car feel if your butt is closer to the ground.
Your backside should be tucked firmly into the seat back; this will give you a better feel for what the rear end of the car is doing. Get comfortable, go faster…simple!
Finally make sure your mirrors are adjusted so you can see behind you without having to turn your head. You don’t need to see the side of your car through your side mirrors, adjust them to eliminate the majority of your blind spots.
The most common driving mistake in both day to day driving and circuit racing is failure to look far enough ahead. Most people become lazy and look only between the A pillars and at the tip of the bonnet.
With the high speeds on a race track this is really inadequate vision. You must condition yourself not only to look much farther ahead, but out the left & right side windows as well.
On approach to a corner you must be looking ahead to the turn in point for the corner.
Then, when you are aiming for the apex you may need to be looking
out the side windows and corners of the windscreen. Before reaching the apex,
you should be looking ahead to your corner exit point. Always attempt to drive
ahead of where you currently are on the track and train yourself to use your
peripheral vision when looking ahead.
The rule of thumb is, “The faster the car, the further you should look ahead.” Failure to lift your vision and look ahead will most likely mean you go slower.
As you negotiate day to day traffic, practice looking further ahead as well as looking out of the side windows. I call looking ahead “looking into the future”. The farther that you look ahead, particularly in daily traffic, the more that you can see into the future.
Also, try to get used to using your peripheral vision in daily traffic as that will also benefit you on the track. Practice seeing your rear view mirror in your periphery while you remain concentrating on looking ahead. You may not see the absolute detail in your periphery but you will see cars coming up on you in your mirror without having to take your eyes off the track. This technique is also useful for viewing warning lights, including shift lights, without taking your eyes off the track.
Concentrate on smoothness and slow, deliberate movements. Many people get on the track, and suddenly think that everything needs to happen at light speed. In fact, the opposite is closer to being true.
Watch a good driver and they will always seem like they have so much time in the car. Jamie Whincup is the perfect example of this and his results speak for themselves! Be smooth on gear changes; be smooth on the steering wheel, and all inputs for that matter. You will keep the car better balanced, and be ‘quicker’.
Smoothness is well demonstrated by pro rally driver Chris Atkinson when we pushes journalist David Zalstein in this YouTube Video Clip. A quick hard push makes David loose his balance, whereas a gentler push enables David to keep his balance. It is a similar principal with driving a car.
Also, you do not necessarily have to be either hard on the throttle or hard on the brakes. Sometimes as you come out of a corner the temptation is to give it everything, but that may result in loss of traction which will end up in a huge opposite-lock slide which will look spectacular but is not quick.
When changing gears, do that smoothly making sure to match your engine revs so you don’t get compression lock-up when downshifting. To do that, you need to use the brake and accelerator at the same time. To do that, you put your foot on the brake and use the right side of your heel of the same foot to blip the revs up. The same goes for upshifting too, shifting smooth and fast without jolting the car.
Try feeding the power in gently, like squeezing an orange. Also – exiting a corner with wild wheel spin may look and sound spectacular, but you’ll do far better with a more gentle application of power, and it will also be much easier on the tyres and not make them overheat as quickly. The next two sections on traction and weight transfer elaborate on this.
When dealing with corners, Ian Luff’s words may save you a great deal of frustration: “go in slow and come out fast“. Tidy is the fast way around a racetrack.
What affects a Tyres Grip on the Track?
The first element is the Coefficient of friction between the tyre and the track. This is influenced by factors such as Tyre Compound, Track Surface, Weather conditions etc.
The second element is the Size of the Tyres Contact Patch. This is influenced by many factors including the Camber angle, Tyre pressure, Roll & Bump Steer, Rear Axle Squareness, Toe Settings etc
The third element is the Vertical Load on the Tyre. This is basically the weight of the car plus the aerodynamic downforce. However, there is another element related to this which Weight Transfer, which I believe is very important to understand as it has a significant effect on just how fast you will be able to circulate on the track.
As mentioned earlier, tyres only have 100% traction available to them. This can be used for braking, accelerating, cornering or a combination, but if you use more than the 100% available, the tyres will lose the traction and you will go slower or crash.
To better understand this we’ll look at a concept called the “Traction Circle” (opposite). The red circle represents 100% of your tyre’s traction on the day.
The vertical axis shows longitudinal normalised force with acceleration force (or positive G’s) above the horizontal axis, zero force at the horizontal axis and braking force (or negative G’s) below the horizontal axis.
Similarly, the horizontal axis shows latitudinal normalised force with right turn force (or positive G’s) to the right of the vertical axis, zero force at the vertical axis and left turn force (or negative G’s) to the left of the vertical axis.
The combination of your tyres friction coefficient and G force will determine your Maximum Grip level which is shown as the red circle here. At this grip limit the car is still in control, and this limit is usually 1G of force in a street car.
The tyres available traction needs to be “shared” depending on the need. For example, when accelerating out of a corner you may need to share 80% in accelerating and the remaining 20% with the cornering. Practice what works for your car and use 100% of what you have and no more!
If you exceed 100% of your available traction you will exceed your car’s limit and lose your grip which will put you out of control of your car – which is not what you want. On the other hand, if you remain under your cars limit, you will remain in control but your lap times will be slower as you are not using all the grip available to you.
Using weight transfer will help increase the size of the traction circle to retain your grip and control with higher lateral and longitudinal G forces (and therefore speed), which with practice, will help you to lower your lap times.
When you squeeze the brake pedal you will move the cars weight over the front wheels to give you more traction for braking or turn-in. In a corner, you can shift your car’s weight to the outside tyres giving them more traction by the smooth application of steering input. It is important to understand that smooth driving will help add traction (and speed) through weight transfer.
Violent braking can more easily lock the car’s front wheels as it doesn’t give the car a chance to shift its weight over the front to provide the increased level of traction required. It’s a similar principle with violent use of the steering wheel which can unsettle the balance of the car just when you need it to be predictable.
An example from my data logger of how the traction circle can be expanded by using weight transfer to increase your car’s overall grip is shown opposite where I’m trail braking into Turn 6 with 1.4 lateral G’s and .5 braking G’s. The combined weight transfer from both braking and cornering provides an additional downforce enabling a total of 1.9G’s in force whilst still in full control of the car. Remember that the weight needs to be transferred by the progressive application of brakes and steering, like squeezing an orange as mentioned earlier.
Trail braking, as mentioned above, is The above technique of remaining on the brakes while entering a corner is called trail braking. Brake hard before entering the corner and then progressively release the brakes approaching the apex. This allows later braking which effectively increases the length of the previous straight.
If your car doesn’t have the power to brake traction accelerating out of a corner you can use that remaining portion of the tyre’s traction to maximise your cornering speed. Only practice will show you how your car reacts to the braking, accelerating and cornering demands as depicted in the Traction Circle.
ALWAYS BRAKE IN A STRAIGHT LINE WHEN BRAKING HARD ON THE TRACK!
When I’m talking about “braking hard” here, I’m talking about braking as hard as you can, being right on the verge of locking the wheels up. This will use up all of the tyres available traction for braking, and that means there is no more traction available for the car to get around the approaching corner without releasing some of the pressure on the brakes.
Squeeze your brake pedal to shift weight over the car’s front wheels and get your braking (and down shifting) done BEFORE the corner. Don’t suddenly jam the brakes on as that won’t give enough time for the car to transfer its weight over the front wheels and you will end up locking up as discussed in the “Weight Transfer” section above.
Wash off the majority of your speed before you tip it in to the corner. Once you start to turn in, you can continue braking up to the apex by balancing the amount of braking force with the amount of lateral cornering force (“trail braking”), so as the combined forces don’t exceed the tyres available grip – which can’t exceed 100%! This was discussed in more detail in the “Traction” section above.
Some drivers brake hard enough in a straight line to slow their car down for the corner, but then they totally release the brake or go to the throttle before they get to the apex of the corner. They transfer the weight off the front tyres and onto the rear wheels just when they need their steering the most. This can cause the car to go into an oversteer slide. Whilst this generally looks impressive it is slower!
Also, in some corners – particularly fast ones – you may feel that you need to have a quick brake before the corner. This can often upset the balance of the car as the nose goes from being up under power, to down under brakes, and then up again as you power on again. Try keeping the throttle held open, but use your left foot to squeeze the brakes while you are still powering on. This prevents the car from having that little dance and change in attitude, but at the same time will wash-off that bit of extra speed.
AUTO Drivers: You have 2 feet and 2 pedals so why not use both of them? Some people are not comfortable with left foot braking technique but it can and does help when circuit racing. Try it out, it may work for you and studies have shown that faster braking responses can be achieved through using your left foot to brake. Again, practice is key here and can be done in everyday driving.
In general terms there are two types of cars whose different power and handling characteristics mean that their approaches to cornering will also vary. These two types are “Power” cars who engines can generally can overpower the traction limits of their tyres and “Handling” cars who rely on their agility to overcome a relative lack of engine power.
“Handling” cars need to maintain corner speed momentum. The next two sections relate more to two wheel drive “Power” cars as this is where straighter line acceleration out of the corners is required to maximise traction.
At Wakefield Park Raceway there are far more late-apex corners than early-apex corners.
“Apexing” too early is a big killer of straight-line momentum. The below diagram of Wakefield Park’s Turn 2 shows this.
The red race line in the above diagram shows an earlier turn-in and a later apex race line is shown by the black dotted line.
Notice how the red “early apex” race line heads towards going off the track after apexing. This means that you will have to back off further or get into major understeer to keep on the track. Both will slow your exit speed down significantly, and then this exit speed is lost for the entire length of the following straight!
The black “late apex” race line above shows a later turn in and a later apex. The dotted exit line allows you to accelerate from the apex earlier and in a straighter line which will give you a much faster exit speed.
Also, you will notice that the black “late apex” race line will give you more braking distance (ie a longer straight) because of the later turn-in.
It is normal to want to turn in early and apex too early. It takes practice to brake sometimes right into a corner before turning in to achieve the desired later apex. You can see that I keep making this mistake at Turn 10 (entry onto the main straight) in the video at the bottom of this page. (Note: When I later fixed this, I dropped my best lap time to 1:09.033)
The symptoms of apexing too early are as follows: You turn into the corner where you think the apex should be, but upon exiting the corner, you find that you need excessive steering input just to stay on the track (understeer). You have major understeer and you are scrubbing off way too much speed at the exit point of the corner.
The most important part of a corner is the exit from the apex where you get your speed for the next straight. Your speed from turn-in to apex is not that critical, so get your apex right and this will then set up an awesome exit!
Accelerating out of Corners
Some people have made a sport out of this and have called it drifting, however sliding through a corner like that is slower.
It is not enough to turn into the corner at the right speed and correct apex if you still are going to “give it heaps” on the exit of the corner. Be patient and share the available traction on the exit between your cornering and acceleration forces. And make sure that you have the car balanced before getting on the accelerator.
Accelerating too far before the apex of a corner will just exacerbate under steer and wear out your front tyres.
Get your car pointed towards the apex of the corner and then line up the exit point of the corner. Don’t accelerate before you have the car pointed in the right direction. When you transition from brake to throttle, do it smoothly without upsetting the balance of the car, but be ready to go to the throttle when you reach your apex and the car is pointed down the straight.
The more powerful the car, the more important throttle control on exit is. The straighter the exit line, the more power can be applied as less lateral traction is required by your rear tyres. Your exit speed can be maximised by “driving by the throttle”, that is attaining a throttle position where the rear end is at the limit of it’s adhesion.
Using the Entire Track
Professional race drivers use every last inch of the track, including the kerbs. Not using the entire track can hurt your lap times. Using the whole track requires practice once again and the first time you ride over the kerbs/ripple strips can be a butt puckering experience as the noise can be a little frightening. Touching the kerbs tells you that you are using the entire track, but care is needed as too much use of ripple strips can increase wear in your front end significantly. Learn which kerbs can, and need to be “taken”. Fast track driving is a game of inches. Inches become tenths of a second. A tenth of a second on each corner can turn into a full second per lap.
On Your First Track Day
1. Best advice is to take it easy and don’t try and break lap records first time out. Work up to your speed, don’t be a hero on cold tyres and brakes. In a street car you’re not racing for sheep stations so don’t be stupid. Mistakes can be expensive not to mention embarrassing – enjoy yourself without endangering anyone else!
2. Use your mirrors! You should always know who is coming up behind you. When you are about to be passed, hold the racing line because the person behind you will then know exactly where you’re going. Accidents on Track Days can happen when drivers go off the racing line. It is the responsibility of the faster car to get around the slower car and as long as the slower car sticks to the line, the faster car will have no problem getting around. You should be constantly watching your mirrors and know exactly what’s behind you. Don’t drive unpredictably!
3. If your car has some sort of problem, you should take it off the track wherever it is safe. This is particularly important if you are losing liquid, you should definitely get off the racing line immediately. If your car has to remain off the track during a session, exit the car safely and get behind a safety barrier as soon as possible.
4. Work up to your speed and concentrate. It’s so easy to lose concentration for a split second and end up somewhere you don’t want to be.
5. If it’s your first time, try and have someone who knows the race lines, braking and turn-in points etc join you as a passenger to show you the best way around the track. Driver development is probably more important than car development. Until you’re running consistent times lap after lap don’t worry about the car – worry about your driving!
6. After you have finished your cool down lap and come into the pits, your adrenaline will still be pumping so it’s easy to forget a few simple things such as:
a) When you park your car leave your handbrake off and stick it in gear or P for autos. NEVER pull the handbrake on after a session on the track. Heat build-up in the brakes/rotors can cause the brake pads to adhere to the rotors and this should be avoided at all costs.
b) Leave your bonnet open to let any heat out as quickly as possible and finally don’t forget to take your seatbelt off before trying to exit your vehicle I’ve seen others attempt it, and it does provide good entertainment for those watching!
c) Immediately check your tyre pressures when hot and adjust them to your required pressure. On the track, your tyres will build up heat which increases pressure, and they must be checked while hot. When cold, reduce by around 4 psi to allow for this build-up.
A lot of people think that the way to go faster on the track is by increasing the power of their motor. Below are a couple of charts from my data logger which back up my experience that going quicker is more about (1) the car’s brakes, tyres and handling, and (2) the driver – rather than the absolute power of the car.
The chart below shows that the car’s brakes, tyres and handling account for over 3/4 of my car’s lap time.
The chart above summarises data from a 3 lap supersprint session, and shows the throttle position and track speed. Taking lap 1 as an example, the throttle was wide open for just 16.69 seconds of a 70.46 seconds lap – or just 23.69% of the time. The remaining 76.31% of the lap was maximising brakes, tyres and handling. The amount of full throttle used can be easily heard in the video clip at the bottom of this page.
If you want to spend money on your car, spend it on your suspension, brakes and tyres before you worry about adding more power.
Also, a significant improvement in lap times can be made simply by quality practice. “Bum in seat” time not only will give you the greatest improvement in lap times, but will also give you the most fun!
The above data has been taken from the same track session as above and shows each of the 3 lap times broken down into sectors. My fastest lap in this session was 1:10.460. If through practice I was able to achieve each of the fastest sector times in a single lap, that lap time would have been 1:08.930! My car has shown that it can do that time, so its up to me to improve my skill level and that’s best done with heaps of “bum in seat” time!
I hope that this helps prepare you for your time on the track; it will certainly prepare you for some of the surprises you may unexpectedly get on the road too! Enjoy your driving experience; remember … if you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re missing the point of the entire day!
Below is a short video of my ClubSport running the actual laps from which the above data was taken from.