Want to go faster? Here are 10 tips that helped me get faster and reduce my lap times. Includes shared wisdom from other racers and things that I have found work for me.
1. Looking where you want to go
You read this everywhere and most racers will tell you, look where you want to go and the car will follow. It's true, I knew it before I got in the race car but I didn't grasp it totally for a few race weekends. It is not just the looking where you want to go, which helps with target fixation, but also looking far enough ahead. By looking up the track, you can guide you car more effectively. After awhile you will not be worried about the line, allowing you to focus on the driving the car at the limit.
2. Ignore those Cones
Most people start out with track days where they place cones for turn in, apex and track out. The problems with those cones is that they are not there on race day, can move and in general mess up your visual rhythm. You start segmenting the corner into those 3 elements and piece parting your inputs so that you drive to each of them, connecting the dots. What you want to do is have the corner be a nice sweeping arc at the limit of the car. You want to drive the car at the limit not connect the dots. The cones show you the theoretical path but not how to be fast by driving the car at the limit. The cones are just a guide to help you learn the line but once you have that down start focusing on driving the car.
3. Making the Car Do Something
If you have ever read "Racing in the Rain" you will know this already but it didn't click for me until after a few races and wet sessions. If you are waiting on the car to do something and then react you will be too slow, what you want to do is drive the car making it do something and then control it. What does that all mean? Well if you go into a corner not knowing if the car is going to oversteer or understeer you are awaiting to react to the car, this tenses you up and makes it hard to predict. You are more likely to lose time or worse put a wheel off. However, if you go into the corner with your inputs such that you will get a little oversteer or understeer you already know what the car is going to do and what your reactions need to be. I am not saying you should plow through the corners with large steering angles, scrubbing the front tires and all your speed. That obviously isn't the fastest way around the track. But making the car just a little predictable helps your reaction time and overall car control. At first you will be doing this consciously but later it will become subconscious and you can focus on other aspects like traffic and when to put the pass on someone.
4. Using the Brakes to Rotate the Car
This one is a Speed Secret from Ross Bentley but it was amazing how much time I picked up especially in slow corners.
"How and when you release the brakes will have more effect on your lap times then where you start braking"
This doesn't at first make sense as all those movies and race car drivers are alway diving in under braking, but try it out when you are next on track. On a test day, after your braking for a slow corner try snap releasing the pedal and then the next lap try slowly releasing the brake pedal. Turn 2 Hairpin at Laguna Seca is a perfect place to try this or Turn 11 at Thunderhill. You will notice a difference in how the car rotates. Now you can fine tune that to produce the right amount of rotation you want.
I'm not talking calculus. If you have never been to the track, get out a track map and start working out the important corners. Watch videos of people in your type or similar car. If you have been there before watch your videos and go over your data, see which corners you are inconsistent on or where you had a flying lap and were faster. This will help you determine where to focus during your next on track session. See if you can get data or videos from some of the faster guys so you can determine where you are losing time. If you have a simulator or video game drive the track until it is second nature and you feel comfortable with it. Even try different lines on corners for passing and dealing with traffic. Track time is expensive and precious but make the most of it by being prepared before you go.
6. Making Mistakes
Most drivers when they first start out myself included are scared of making mistakes. Most likely due to fear of damaging something, looking silly, or not being comfortable at speed. These are all valid reasons but the problem is they can make mistakes worse as the driver tenses up. I am not saying be reckless, but there are calculated mistakes you can make. There are tracks where there are corners with ample run offs. You can practice on these tracks and corners to push the car and find the limit. Sometimes you have to go over the limit to find the limit but build up to it. Don't try and over do it, as you can go too far past the limit and that could be disastrous. Use every mistake as a learning opportunity review your video and data and work out what you did wrong and how to avoid.
7. Feeling the car
Some of the fastest laps I have produced have not been the laps where I had focused on the lap timer or pushing the car as hard as I could. These laps actually end up with me over driving the car and being slower from scrubbing speed. Knowing what the car is doing and predicting what it will do is important for being fast. I have surprised myself by turning a fast lap while focusing on feeling what the car is doing. The next time you have a test day use a session just focusing on feeling what the car is doing and you will surprised what you might notice, bumps on entry or more grip being off the traditional line. You can also do this on the street in your daily driving. As you get better accustomed you might be able to start to feel when driveshafts or wheel bearings are starting to go bad.
8. Visual Session
Similar to feeling the car, you can spend a session focusing on what you see at the track. Don't just look at the curbing, apexes and exits. Focus on all the small aspects, the cracks in the pavement, the filled in patches, the rubber build up on the outside, the various landmarks and trackside markings. Processing all these visual cues can help you in the races as you will have more references for braking, turn in and track out points. It can also be helpful during the race when you have to go offline to make a pass or when you are pushing the limit you can see your error early and correct it before you go off. You can also practice this on the street.
For the 2016 season it was time to get back in shape after eating better and working out, I was able to lose a few pounds, get stronger and overall feel better. For my first racing weekend I was amazed how much this helped not only was I not sore after a long test day, but I was also more focused. I felt like could feel the car more and put it where I wanted. This might be a placebo affect but everything helps to get to the pointy end of the field.
10. Data Doesn't Lie
The quality of data systems has significantly increased and their cost has also reduced making them available to even the track day enthusiast. An Aim SOLO which at ~$400 or ApexPro which is a ~$450 are great entry points for the beginning driver. They use GPS and an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) to provide real time data collection and in the case of the ApexPro feedback lights. They also provide speed and accelerations so you can analyze your laps and determine how you got that flyer last session. The great thing about data is it doesn't lie, you might think you were flat but it will show where you lifted. If you can team up with some of the faster guys you can even share data and see where they are faster than you or you are faster than them. Data really helps with planning your next session and determining which lap elements to focus on.
Bonus: Driving on Used Tires
Racing can be expensive so when I first started, I raced on used tires or old tires. I was lucky there was a great community of racers with Spec Racer Ford so in the Goodyear days I was able to get take off tires, one cycle sets or last seasons compound that people hadn't used yet. As I hadn't driven on new tires, I didn't know if they were better or not. I was still learning to race, so I still had lots to learn. I was better off getting more track time learning to drive the car with the old tires I had than spending lots of money on new tires. I was still mid pack competitive and even beating people with new tires. I saved money on tires which got me more seat time and I could focus on my driving which has the biggest return in reducing lap times.