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The Next Step Episode 8

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Episode 8: Racecraft

Dear Aaron,

Two years ago I graduated from lapping days to racing. The differences I’ve experienced since I moved up such as using the entire track (and then some), driving off line, earlier apexes, higher slip angles and deeper braking has been fantastic. But, not having grown up in competitive motorsports, I found that I was sorely lacking in an important skill- racecraft.

Questions quickly presented themselves in the first few races that I couldn’t answer, such as how do
I most quickly and efficiently assess the weakness of the driver in front of me? Do I overtake in the braking zone, at the apex or do I hang back in order to get a run and attempt to pass on the next straight?

I would very much appreciate it if you would dedicate one or more of your future columns to the art of racecraft.

John Wechsler
Spec Miata  #23

Great questions, John and there is a lot to say on the topic – in fact an entire book could be written encompassing all of the possible actions and reactions of wheel to wheel combat. Let’s start with how to assess the driver in front of you.

Attention and Awareness

Assessing the weakness of a driver in front of you is all about having the mental bandwidth to analyze what your opponent is doing (as well as yourself), while driving your car at maximum speed.

The analysis itself is pretty straight forward: you are looking for which corners or parts of the track where you are a quicker and vice versa. You can break this down into a few basic areas: braking zones, getting to the apex, exiting the corner, and speed down the straight always. Whether you overtake in a braking zone, at the apex or hang back and get a run, will all be relative to your strengths and weaknesses in these basic areas. Often they are all interconnected.

Wheel-to-wheel combat is a fluid, constantly evolving thing – there really are no absolutes, and unless one is there watching in real time, it would be impossible to say when a move should be made. I think the best thing I can do is give you a list of relevant guidelines to keep in mind.

Create a Plan

Set up the pass. Once you’ve realized which section of the track you are strongest, create a plan of attack. This usually involves lying back in the preceding corners and making sure you get the maximum launch off the corner before your chosen passing zone. Think your way around the opponent.

Don’t Force It

Just because you see a gap it doesn’t always mean you should take it.

If you are too far behind to make a movestick then don’t waste any time or speed on a half-hearted attempt. Understand that when you attempt a pass you are going off the optimum racing line, which means if the move doesn’t work all you will be doing is slowing yourself through the corner and allowing your opponent to pull away again. A premature passing attempt will not only allow your opponent more breathing room, but can also drop you into the clutches of the cars behind. Don’t force a pass that isn’t there, it will only set you back.

The general rule of thumb is if you’re more then half a car length behind your opponent as you enter the braking zone, don’t even think about it.*

* This notion applies to racing someone of relatively equal speed and machinery. Lapping back markers or different vehicles can be another story entirely, as some brake WAY earlier than you do, so be ready to swerve!

Become an Opportunist

While devising or executing your plan, be ready for the unexpected. You should ALWAYS be prepared to pounce should the driver in front make a mistake or have a problem. A famous example happened in the 1989 Hungarian Grand Prix. While leading the race, Ayrton Senna catches a lapped car exiting a corner and is forced to slow as he nearly hits the struggling back marker. Nigel Mansell, who was just far enough away to read the situation, tightens his line mid-corner and blasts past them both and went on to win the race. Go to YouTube, search Mansell / Senna / Hungary to see how fast it all unfolds!

Sometimes a rival’s mistake can be as small as taking a defensive line into a corner unnecessarily (an unexpected gift!) If this happens, you might have the opportunity to make the pass coming off that corner. When this opportunity presents itself, disregard your plans and pounce.

Create an Opportunity

Many opponents will crack under pressure. Apply pressure- liberally. Do everything you can to rattle and distract them. Show yourself in their mirrors often and in places where they won’t be expecting to see you. One of my favorite tricks is to show myself in an opponent’s inside mirror coming into a braking zone – even when I am too far away, and have no intention of passing. I will then simply tuck back onto my racing line by the turn in point of the corner. You would be amazed how many times I’ve seen an opponent miss an apex while being too distracted by the “mirror dance”. Once they start missing apexes or running wide, you know you’ve got them.

Go With the Momentum

Convention says you pass on the inside. Taking the outside line is the longer way around the corner and therefore less likely to work. Convention also says that the grass is not a part of the race track.

Long story short: If you have a run on someone, meaning noticeably more momentum, roll with it. I don’t care if it means you’re on the outside, running up the middle of two cars or having ¾ of your car in the grass, momentum is the key factor.

Rarely would I advise giving it up for a specific position or line on the track. I have a nice example of this in my own library at www.povoledo.com. Check out the video labeled “Mosport Corner 2 Pass” (you’ll also notice a “mirror dance” on the way into the turn 1). It’s also available on YouTube.

Think of this point especially at the start of a race. How often do you see everyone stacking up trying to pass each other up the inside of the first turn? It becomes a parking lot with everyone going much slower than normal while at the same time the outside lane is wide open and all you have to do is run around it at 7/10ths and you’ll pass 3 cars!

Get Close (Take the Opponent’s Steering and Throttle Away)

John, you mentioned that you came from a lapping background where it is common etiquette to give as much room as possible when passing. This is great when you are working with a co-operative point-by system, (drivers voluntarily let faster cars through by “pointing” with their arm when and where it should happen) but is doesn’t work in real racing.

When executing a pass on the inside of a rival, get as close to his car as possible. This allows you to do four significant things: 1) Increases your radius into the corner, keeping you closer to the optimum line and allowing you to keep your speed up. 2) It keeps you out of said driver’s blind spot so you can be sure they see you. 3) It reduces the chance of a heavy impact if said driver turns in on you. 4) It takes the opponent’s steering away because they cannot turn in until you do, otherwise they’ll hit you. Once you are alongside, you are in control, so turn in when it suits your agenda best.

If you are on the outside, the same applies. The closer you are to the rival, the more they will have to tighten their line and won’t be able to unwind the wheel – which also means they can’t apply as much power, which will scrub off their mid-corner and exit speeds. Effectively, you can limit an opponent’s power and steering. This is called pinching down. Watch NASCAR drivers on ovals – they are masters this technique, and it is all too often a lost art in road racing. Also you should always keep this in mind when defending from an inside pass: just because another car is there it doesn’t mean he’s won the corner. Try to roll more speed through the corner on your wider radius and see if you can emerge ahead on exit.

Again, as I said before, a lot depends on your own personal bandwidth and ability to multi-task. Racecraft is a high speed game of chess which requires a lot of plotting and scheming, while simultaneously pushing your abilities to the limit. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.

I’ll give the final word to my former boss and head of the Jim Russell Racing School in England, John Kirkpatrick: “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”

Best of luck with it and enjoy your racing.


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