What makes up a second of lap time? A later braking point? A better turn-in? The guts to go full throttle?
My lap time was more than 2:50s on Sepang. At that time, I thought I was going to kill myself if I went any faster. When Ivan did 2:45s on the same Z4 M, apparently not concentrating at all, I felt so inspired, and then later frustrated. Frustrated because as hard as I tried, I could only do 2:48s. That already felt like a suicide attempt.
First time hopping into an Lotus Exige, my lap time was immediately cut to 2:46s. I thought that wasn’t too bad. It was, after all, in the 2:40+ range. Later when I found out my fellow competitor could achieve 2:40, 2:46 just wouldn’t cut it. I only had a couple of track practices left before my big race. How do I cut 6 seconds?
I was fortunate to have good drivers sitting with me on track. But they could only devote so much time. While they might excel in driving, they were not necessarily good at coaching. More importantly, what they could do as second nature, such as charging into Turn 12 at full throttle, as a newbie I found it suicidal. I struggled to lower the lap time by trying several tactics, and managed to trim it down to 2:43s in one or two sessions. I felt ecstatic that morning, but the joy waned quickly. Yes, 3-second improvement is significant, but another competitor was doing 2:38s then! In another session just before the race, I brought it down to 2:40s — I’d like to say “miraculously” but I knew there were scientific explanation behind it. And here I’d like to share my experience on my quest to lower lap time as an untalented wanna-be racer.
Overview of my grand plan:
- Get the techniques right
- Get the tools that helps make sure my techniques are right
- Get help from mentors
- Get a lot of practice
Driving is an art, but lap time can be achieved quite methodically. The attitude is to think critically and independently. I have come to realize, I really cannot simply listen to what the different mentors say — that’s due to the “art” part of driving. They say different things. I have to find what works for me. For example, Zen brakes at 90m, but perhaps that’s because he’s 30kg lighter than I am.
What make up a second of lap time? A later braking point? A better turn-in? The guts to go full throttle? All of the above. One second is made of fractions of seconds. You shave 0.3s here and 0.2s there. You mess up 0.5s here but made 1s there. To get the best lap, you must do everything right everywhere. The hardest challenge for me now is to achieve CONSISTENCY. When I could hit 2:43s, 2:44 felt easy. When I hit 2:40s, 2:42 felt easy (or sloppy). The better drivers hit 2:38 consistently. That’s what win races.
To get there, I had to get the basics right “most of the time”, if not all. These are the things on which I have been improving.
- The Racing Line
- The braking points. I take notes of my braking points, and progressively brake later. Progressively.
- The turn-in points.
- The throttle points. Just by keeping in mind to apply throttle earlier probably shaves 1 second off. (Thanks Cheah). Foot on throttle as soon as braking completes.
- Cut the apexes!
- Heel-and-toe properly. Maintain consistent braking pressure when blipping.
- Faster shifting, though I suspect at least half a second is lost due to my slightly awkward seating position. I am too tall and my helmet could get stuck in the roll cage. I didn’t realize shifting can make much difference until I saw Denis Lian’s silky smooth shifting. There was hardly any interruption on the acceleration graph when he drove.
- Use the entire width of the track. It’s a little hard to judge where the left edge of our cars are. Once I found out Denis Lian was a few more feet closer to the left edge entering Turn 4, and consequently a quarter of a second faster coming out, I took the effort to drive closer to the edge. It’s just about finding a good reference point at the nose of the car.
- Look far ahead where you want to go. Your hands and feet will guide your car there. It works like magic. (Now thanks to a special somebody, I have to look behind more frequently too).
Tips from books: The priority is to gain exit speed at corner exits, prioritizing corners that lead onto a long straight. Braking is the second priority.
I read books. The best one yet is Skip Barber’s “Going Faster”.
I take notes. I plan. Like homework. What did I do right today? What do I want to do tomorrow? Track days are scarce. You waste one, that’s one less day to practice.
To maximize the benefits of a track session, I am using a data logger, PerformanceBox. My initial intention was quite ignorant — I was looking for an automated lap-timer so that I could focus on driving. It turned out to be the most useful tool. With the accompanying software, I can see very clearly where I am, how fast I am going, on every feet on the track. More importantly, I can analyze by sectors. The software automatically sums up all my best sectors and tell me my theoretical fastest lap.
Things become even more interesting when I got to log the laps by better drivers. I could see exact where they are faster — and how.
Good drivers are always helpful. They are willing to share. It’s great to have somebody you can call up and clear your doubts about driving. But you can’t always listen to all of them, because you’ll eventually find out that they do things differently, and yet they are almost equally fast. So what do you do?
Experiment. Think critically. If you cannot carry enough speed around Turn 4, then maybe downshifting to 2nd gear would give you that extra kick exiting. That’s what practice was all about.
Blind practice is not as useful as planned practice. Blind practice basically means “charging harder”. When you have data, you can see with absolute clarity of what you are doing. You can have a clearer course of action for the subsequent track practice.
The Process: Drive -> Analysis -> Refine
It’s straightforward. There is no shortcut. One must develop his own abilities. Just for the sake of illustration, I am going to share a sample snippet of my plan for the next track day:
- Turn 2: turn more angle facing inwards, so that I can accelerate out in one big sweeping arc cutting apex at Turn 3 only once.
- Turn 4: Brake 10m later, harder, turn-in later to straighten the exit line more.
- Turn 5 and 6: Inconsistent turn in. These are fast corners with a lot of time to gain, or lose. Find visual reference points.
- Turn 7, brake 10m later. Through Turn 8, use progressive throttle, avoid unnecessary feathering.
- Turn 9. Brake after 100m. Turn in later, and more angle so that I can make one big sweeping arc to Turn 11.
- Keep more to the outside at Turn 11. Inconsistent braking point at Turn 11, due to lack of visual reference point. So I am going to find those visual references.
- Turn 12: inconsistent turn in. Fast corner with a lot of time to gain. Find visual reference points.
- Turn 13: Try full throttle.
- Turn 14, 15, as well as 4, 5 and 6. I am faster with Driver A’s approach. But I know Driver B is faster than Driver A, BUT I am slower using Driver B’s approach. So I am going to try both approaches, log them, analyze them, and then experiment the best mix of approach on the next track day. Better yet, I have both tricks under my belt and use whichever needed depending on racing situation.
I know, in the eyes of “expert drivers”, the above weaknesses must make me seem so particularly inept. But like I said in the beginning, I’m a untalented wannabe racer. 🙂
I just came back swimming with my elder son, Zi Xing. He was swimming. And that was the most beautiful scene I’ve seen in a while. He used to have phobia of water. He’d shiver, and hardly dare to move a limp. Now with his own determination and guidance from teachers, he’s swimming. He is my source of inspiration. I might not be the fastest driver, but I have no doubt I will become champion one day.
Not that I had not been one before.