Saturday, January 23, 2010

(99) Unlisted

It has recently come to my attention that Castrol has developed a list of the 2100 top drivers in the world.

I am not on this list. This is unfortunate.

Moving on, I've been playing a lot of racing simulators since the off season is rather depressing. Naturally this leads to discovering new ways to quench the need for speed, and naturally a good way to do that is by simulating it (a bad way being street racing. Don't street race). I've signed up with one,, and so far my first month is promising. I'll do an in-depth review of it (and other simulators) later on once I've had more time with more cars and tracks, but suffice to say the first impressions are "it's worth it, even if it is expensive".

I've also been watching a lot of racing. I have a backclog of IndyCar races I never got around to watching last year, and Speed has just started showing the British Touring Car Championship, which is good. I have a feeling they're trying to get away from the "NASCAR TV" title they've been branded with over the past couple of years. They sure do show a lot of NASCAR. Some of us certainly don't appreciate once a year 24 and 12 hour endurance road races interrupted for stock car practice.

Anyway, about the BTCC, I'd like to imagine that one day I'll get to go over to the UK and race them a little bit. Nationalism notwithstanding (Brits seem to think us fractured colonists are slow), it looks like a blast to race in such a tight pack. Like karting, but with fenders, and on nearly the same sized tracks. I just watched Knockhill. That is a truly miniature ribbon of asphalt.

BTCC at Oulton Park.

The only thing I don't like is how SpeedTV cuts up the races. I realize that it's 3 races during a weekend, and that cramming all 3 into 1 hour means a chop job, but why not make it an hour and thirty minutes? The races themselves are only 30 minutes if you cut the pre-race and post-race commentaries, you can cut the safety car laps and a few snippets here and there and no one would be the wiser (even if the driver interviews are very entertaining). It's just weird when it jumps from lap 2 to lap 7.

Still, it's enjoyable and action packed enough to satisfy the cravings, if only for an hour. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a race at the virtual Laguna Seca in 10 minutes.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

(98) Driving According to the Chump #4: Driving a Car, not a Track and Driving "Flowing" Corners

This afternoon I was racing a Le Mans Prototype at Road Atlanta. Don't worry, you haven't traveled forward in time, it was on a simulator. During the race, for some reason I just could not nail the infamous "esses" section. In the Le Mans car, it should be flat out, but for some reason I kept faltering, backing off, and losing time.

I could blame this on any number of classic racing driver examples, including downforce, the weather, a bad set of tires, or even the fact that my opponents are blatantly cheating and should be thrown out of the race!

But then I realized the real problem - I was driving a track, not a car. And in terms of mindset, this can be very dangerous.

Lets say you're a racing driver, and you have a race coming up, and you're going to sneak out onto the track a couple of weeks before to get some practice, since you've never driven this track before!

And that's all well and good, but there's a problem. Obviously you can't use your Acura ARX-01b Le Mans car at any old track day. So instead, being a good, brand loyal racing driver, you bring out your suitably sporty Acura NSX. And that's great.

So you go out for a day of fun and you learn about the track and you learn some things about your road car and have a few good conversations with fellow enthusiasts.

Now comes practice day, and you're all fired up about using your new knowledge to climb to the top of the time sheets. You go out for the first session, try to brake and turn in the same way as you did in the NSX a week ago and then, uh oh! You crashed! Flipped upside down, carbon fiber shards, wheels and dirt everywhere! The car is totally destroyed and the team will now have to rebuild it out of a million new pieces.

Oh no! You're crashed!

Silly example? Definitely. Scott Sharp crashed of blindness, not because he drove an NSX once. He's a professional.

But this is a mistake anyone else can make, and I've obviously not had ample opportunity to make it yet, as I'm only racing karts in a spec series. But, I was able to experience it in the simulator, which is useful, and now I can begin combating it in my mind. It's all in my mind.

If you haven't read Driving According to the Chump #2, I recommend you do so. It says a little bit about reading the car. You'll need that.

Driving a track, as opposed to driving a car, can be described in a very simplistic manner. When you're driving a track, you're probably more or less braking in the same spot, using the exact same line, with exactly the same inputs, despite varying speed, conditions and setup or car changes.

In the same way you need to relax while you're driving, you need to relax and conform your driving style. No corner is ever exactly the same. A lap is fluid, and you can watch the really good drivers adapting their driving mid lap, and even mid corner. A really good driver can see when he enters a corner a tiny bit too fast, and he uses a tad more trail brake or adjusts his line a little bit. You can't do this if you just drive a track, braking at the same point, turning in the same way, using the same amounts of input. It's limiting, restricting and you probably won't get much faster.

This is what happened to me this afternoon, driving the Le Mans car at Road Atlanta. The problem was, I was used to driving road cars through those esses. In the road car you breathe off the throttle, maintain a light steering angle and float the car through those corners with nice, smooth and neutral lines while the back end just barely hints at breaking free.

In the Le Mans Prototype it's a different story. The Le Mans car has oodles of downforce and big, fat, stiff racing slicks that don't like to get out of shape. I was driving the Le Mans car like a road car, trying to bend the car into the corners. With the Le Mans car you need to dart the car in, taking an aggressive late apex, on the power full throttle through the entire section without breaking traction and losing the airflow efficiency. Once I started doing that, I gained a second just in the esses.

Yet another reason why I'm glad I use simulators. I would've used up real-world laps learning that, and they cost a lot more than 50 bucks.

The esses at Road Atlanta are an interesting beast. They look quite forgiving - there's a big bowl to catch you at the bottom and the track looks quite wide. It's also high speed, and there doesn't seem to be much danger of throttle on oversteer since you're going so quickly. The real trick comes from a blind entry, and a braking zone right at the exit of the section. It's difficult to line this braking zone up without letting the track get in the way.

The biggest key to any combination corner, is to only be turning for what's coming up. Lets say you go through the first apex, a left-hander. The next apex is a right-hander. Which way should we be turning the wheel? To the right, right? Seems simple, but I and many others didn't figure this out on our own.

The effect of "pinballing" stems from this issue. Pinballing is the act of "bouncing" from one early apex to the next, steadily lowering our cornering speed and, depending on how many apexes there are in the section, increasingly delaying our throttle-on point and ultimately pinching our exit quite badly. Forget driving a car versus driving a track, this is the track driving you.

Once we pass a given apex in the section, we must only turn the wheel in the direction of the next apex. This entails making the initial apex incredibly late. And I mean incredibly. So incredibly late that if the geometry of the corner wasn't there, it would look like you are approaching the next apex from a normal straight away edge-of-the-road braking zone. Of course the severity of the late apex varies, but in most cases it's almost as late as you can possibly make it without pointing the car straight off the track.

Watch this guy take the esses section at Road Atlanta in his Star Mazda car. Damp conditions tend to exaggerate the lines, and better illustrate what I'm talking about.

Ten tips for driving the car, not the track and combo corners:

1. When you're driving the car, you're fluid. When you're driving the track, you probably won't go much faster because your technique is set in asphalt.
2. Having a "drive the car" mindset makes transitioning and adapting to new cars and handling behaviors easier.
3. Driving the car, not the track relies heavily on reading the car, so read about reading the car.
4. Driving the car, not the track is useful whether you drive many cars or just one.
5. Drivers who drive their cars, not the track are usually better in the wet and in slippery conditions.
6. Only turn the wheel based on what's coming up in the section. If you have to keep adding wheel after the apex you're going to bounce.
7. Many combo sections are real "man handlers". These will require a lot more angle from the car than your average corner.
8. Combo corners are restrictive, and you may not be able to adapt your line very much to wet conditions based on how tight the section is.
9. Usually, the later the initial apex the better for combo corners.
10. If you do start "bouncing" or "pinballing", take the time to slow down and get back on the preferred line. You may salvage some MPH out of the exit if you get to it early enough.