Friday, August 12, 2011

(147) Trackwalk, Episode 2: Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca

A long, long time ago I did a post on the nuances of the Infineon International Karting Center. I talked about the corners and the variety of ways to take them.

Now that I have a greater variety of tracks under my belt, I feel like I should do another Trackwalk. I'll throw in some images I found around the web as well, so you get a better idea of what I'm talking about.

So, let's do the circuit I have the most experience with: Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Mazda Raceway can be seen from orbit. Or you could just drive.

Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is probably best known by the rest of the world for it's MotoGP race. So naturally it's construction does favor bikes - it's smooth, it's fast, and it has an emphasis on acceleration. The curbs, well, they're not really curbs, more like painted bits of race track. There are, however, nasty little red humps smack on the apex of every corner as a cutting deterrent. There is deep sand bordering the track all the way around, which is great to fall into off of a bike, but not so great to drive in.

But those are just secondary features. The biggest draw for this track is undoubtedly the hill, and on top of the hill, the Corkscrew. But we'll get to that.

So, I guess what I'll do is just run through it corner by corner and try to give you an idea of what it's like to drive.

Turn 1.

Turn 1 is really only an actual corner for bikes, and maybe extremely high horsepower cars with little grip. Pretty much every racing car built after 1985 should be able to take this with no lift and minimal fuss very easily.

The turn itself is preluded by a large hump as you crest the ledge cut into the hill next to the track. That makes turn 1 a little blind, and new drivers running the track for the first time can feel a bit rushed to try and quickly place the car so that the exit of turn 1 leads them into good placement for braking for turn 2, the Andretti Hairpin (the first real turn of the circuit). You can hug the inside more and brake towards the outside of turn 2, or you can swing out wider and brake while diving down to the first apex of turn 2. It's really personal preference, and even situational depending on who's behind you and whether or not they are looking to pass.

To the left is the pit exit. And it is optional whether or not the exit leads straight onto the track in turn 1, or uses the little slip road to disgorge pit-stop-ees on the exit of turn 2. Most professional sanctioners use the slip road, but some club race organizations such as SCCA just let you cut straight out onto the track. In that case, turn 1's apex is actually inside pit road, with no penalty from the stewards.

Turn 2, the Andretti Hairpin.

Turn 2 is aptly named "Andretti". If you talk about an iconic Andretti driving style, you're talking about the ability to rotate the car right at the apex. Early in, stab the brakes, rotate the car, point and squirt. Classic Andretti driving style. All the Andrettis do this from what I've seen.

So it's no surprise that the Andretti Hairpin relies on good mid-corner rotation skills. There are a variety of ways to do that. You can stab the brake, jerk the wheel, snap off the throttle... which technique to use in turn 2 depends on the car you're driving. In a Miata, a snap off the throttle will do nicely. In a Porsche, a hesitation on the throttle just after finishing braking will make it turn automatically. In a Mustang, varying your brake pressure as you near the center of the corner will exploit the car's deficiencies and turn it into a dancing behemoth.

The start of turn 2 is a little scary for new drivers. It's not insignificantly downhill. You're talking about coming over a crest at 110 mph, lining up a flat out corner, and then braking hard as soon as you're done turning, a mere 300 or 400 feet from the turn-in point for the corner. Cars don't stop as well when they're going downhill, thanks to gravity's inexorable and unceasing pull. That makes braking for the turn more dubious, since you know the car won't stop as well. It takes a while to get comfortable with it.

The downhill nature continues through the first half of the corner. Most lines will have you apexing the corner twice. Handling characteristics and racing situation will determine whether you should apex the first part or not.

In any case, a fast lap is not going to be a case of "swing out wide, then dive in half way through the corner". The entry is too tight, and the middle opens up too much to make that a fast technique. Most of the time you should be no farther than about a car width away from the first apex.

The tricky part is deciding what to do in the middle of the corner, as the car carries you to the outside in preparation for the final apex. When does the throttle go on? What needs to happen with the steering?

I prefer to get on the throttle a little early, and feather it more as I gently bring the nose into line with my intended heading. Others will prefer to wait with the throttle, get it lined up, and then stomp on it hard. Both ways can be fast in Andretti Hairpin. I would wager the "stomp on it" technique would be more suited to a high horsepower car. Beware of staying in too tight in the middle. Let the car be free, and roll out to the center of the track. It will make the second half much easier.

Turn 3's exit, looking back.

 Turn 3 is a very fun corner. It's blind due to the wall, so as you approach it looks like a 90 degree corner, but it's much faster than that. It's quite flat, with no bumps. The only real trick to this corner is choosing a brake pressure, and a proper approach.

The approach will be somewhat curved, almost no matter what line you take. As you cross back over the track after exiting turn 2 in preparation for turn 3, keep in mind that you don't want to rush it. Let the track come to you. Point the car at your chosen brake marker, probably between the 3 and the 2 board, and just let it come to you. Turn the car a fraction before braking, and then apply a very light, trailing brake pressure as you enter the corner. The whole thing from braking to the exit is one big sweep.

In your average road sports car, braking is probably between 20 and 40%. It's just a moderate brush. Turn 3 is big on initial rotation. Get the car to the angle you want soon, and it will carry it through the corner very easily. It's easy to over-slow, because it looks tighter than it really is, so be sure to work on really carrying the speed through.

There is a lot of track to use, because it's wide. Make sure you use all of the inside rumble strips. Whether or not to use the rumble strips on the entry depends on what you want in the car. All of the entry rumble strips will destabilize the outside of the car if you turn-in while using them. So if you don't feel like the car is turning into the corner with enough gusto, try using the rumble strips on the entry. It will help get to that ideal angle early.

Turn 4.

Turn 4 is great for spectators. It's always a crowd favorite. It's high speed, the grand stands are nicely positioned to see everything, and there are always porta-potties right nearby.

Turn 4 is probably my least favorite turn on the track. For a driver, the rest of the course kind of spoils you. Mazda Raceway is flattering for a driver. The banked, flowing turns really make you feel a bit invincible.

Turn 4 brings that all crashing down. It's flat, just like turn 3. It's the highest speed flat corner on the course, and that really brings home how much you're gaining with all the banking in the rest of the high speed corners.

It's really similar to turn 3 in many respects, just faster. The same rumble strip destabilization trick applies, as does the light braking (if any). It's really got no foibles beyond that. It's flat, it's smooth, it's fast, and it's unflattering. Turn in can be a bit snappy if you like, just a little bit, and that seems to help set the car fairly well. Setup permitting.

Turn 5.

Turn 5. Back to flattering. It's lying straight to our face, but we don't care - we like banking. Turn 5 begins the mainstay of Laguna Seca: the hill.

Braking for turn 5 is lighter than you'd expect. It's not a threshold braking corner like turn 2 at all. Turn 5 relies on huge entry speed which will later be useful as we transition to the banking. Braking later and harder just doesn't allow us to maximize that entry. So I brake with about 70% force, and really roll the car into the corner. There isn't much trail brake action in turn 5. If you're braking for turn 4, you'll probably have a similar brake release as you begin turning for turn 5. The car always seems to turn in really well on it's own here, so it's not even required.

You're going to want to shoot for an early apex here. At first glance it looks like a late apex corner, but remember that we're transitioning onto that huge banking. As we do so, the front end is really going to hook up and respond with renewed enthusiasm. So to maximize that effect, we're gonna want to apex a bit earlier. That, combined with our early brake release, should have us at a pretty good clip going into the corner. If you really hustle into the corner, you'll probably feel a wash of understeer as you apex, which will quickly dissipate as you reach the banking.

From there the exit should be pretty automatic. Most cars should be finding the edge of the road just as the white part of the rumble strip is beginning, or thereabouts.

Turn 6. My favorite.

Turn 6 is undoubtedly my favorite turn on the circuit. Tons of banking, very high speed, quick and dirty.

The approach is fast and blind. You're going uphill, so your acceleration won't be too killer, but you'll still be hustling along pretty good. You'll see the brake markers on the right before you see the corner. If you've got a lot of power you'll even be braking before you see it. In fact you won't be able to pick up the apex until you are just about ready to turn in.

The turn in is definitely early. I turn the Miata at about the 1.5 board. Most cars probably won't be much later than that, some will definitely be earlier.

The key is to get your eyes transfixed on the apex absolutely as soon as possible. Memorize that point and look to it before you even see the corner, look straight through the ground. The car really needs to be eased into the corner and the earlier you can lock on to your reference points the smoother it will be.

The other key is to completely use that inside rumble strip. In the picture above, if you look to the rumble strip just behind the rider's inside knee, you'll notice it's irregular relative to the asphalt. All of the rumble strips at Mazda Raceway are like this. Almost each and every one slopes away from the race track. That's why the destabilization effect works in turns 3 and 4, and many other corners (including turn 6).

If one accepts that banking is good (yes, it is - banking is our friend, we like banking), then one can only conclude that this slopeage is helpful. So use it.

Also, due to the relative increased banking afforded to the inside wheels from the rumble strip, the further to the inside you run, the more banking you get. So use it all and get to where your inside tire is just skirting the edge of that big nasty red hump on the apex.

One other thing to keep in mind is that this is the first corner we'll encounter during that lap that features a road that falls away from you on the entry. That's the biggest reason for the early turn in. The car is going to understeer as you drop into the bowl of the corner. It's going to feel like you're going to crash, but you have to trust the banking to catch the front end and spit you out right where you want to be.

On the exit, you'll want to fight the tendency to come over to the left to set up the Corkescrew. Stay to the right. The race track will come right to you. You don't have to do a thing.

The Corkscrew.

Here we go. This is it. This is probably the reason why you're here - to experience the mighty, jaw-dropping, ball-clenching, roller-coaster-impersonating Corskcrew.

From the track-side, this thing looks unbelievable. When you really just sit and marvel at the beast, you can't help but wonder how the cars go through it so fast, and so reliably with such little drama.

From the passenger seat it is a unique experience to say the least. Your body feels weightless as you crest. The wind shield practically fills up with road as you begin the descent. To your right is a wall of gravel and sand. Behind you is nothing but sky. To your left, a driver who looks as calm as is he was simply negotiation a particularly vertical driveway.

Why?

I'll tell you a little secret. The Corkscrew is just a chicane.

Armed with this knowledge, anyone can tame the beast.

Oh, and don't forget the tree. No, not the big one with two trunks, the smaller one, on the right. Aim for it and stomp the gas. You'll be fine.

Other than that, just remember to mind the crest as you brake, and just like turn 6, pick up those reference points as soon as possible.

Turn 9, Rainey Curve.

Turn 9 is the real roller coaster ride. It's also the most nuanced corner on the track. It's the bumpiest, it's the vaguest, it's most definitely the longest, and, depending who you talk to, the most ununderstandable. If you ask 5 different drivers about it, you'll get 5 different techniques to nailing it.

My technique is to not enter it from the edge of the road. Rather, I'm about 1 to 1.5 car widths off the edge. The banking seems to work better on the inside, and I'm pretty sure the bumps are worse "out there". The turn-in point is a bit of a guess. There are some patches and seams in the road that you can pick up on for cues, however. The whole thing is one big sweep, and the actual "legitimate" turn in point is really just a slight increase in the amount of steering you're doing.

The apex is earlier than it looks. You'll want to pick up the rumble strip as soon as it begins. There's a tiny bit of transition to help you down here. The car will hook up slightly, somewhat similarly to turn 5, except you're coming off the banking rather than going onto it.

Be careful on the exit, as the road falls away slightly. And it's a bit bumpy. If you're off line, things can get a little hairy. I've seen cars doing full lock drifts through the exit. As I said, it falls off, so the car is easy to save. Even a slow turn 9 will probably see a lot of wheel action, so don't take it as the limit of the car just because you corrected the wheel slightly. It's probably a false limit incurred by bumps. Don't take too much heed of your hands. Your butt is much more useful here.

Throttle control is everything in Rainey. You'll be playing with it the whole way, trying to get the back end to do what you want. Unless your car has entirely too much horsepower, you'll probably be flat by the time you apex.

Rainey is scary. It takes big guts to keep adding throttle going this steeply downhill. Corkscrew is a great lead-in for the corner because it's a confidence builder. Try to carry that confidence into turn 9. You'll need it.

Turns 10 and 11.

Turn 10 is like a big turn 6 really. You're going to have to brake a little but the basics are the same - early turn in, early-ish apex, the track falls away as you enter and the banking will pick you up as you exit.

Don't be too eager to get back over for turn 11. Stay on the left side of the road until the white rumble strip ends. Really let the track flow to you. If you drop a wheel (easily done), and you try to get back over in a rush for turn 11 out of habit, you'll probably spin out.

Braking for turn 11 is a full on affair. Completely shut it down with full threshold braking. Turn 11 is a fairly typical corner. There is an odd dip in the middle which you probably won't feel unless you know it's there, but it doesn't seem to mess with the car much. When you're on the lookout for it you will probably feel the car kind of give a little scoot as you go over it. I'd imagine in higher horsepower cars that dip is more troublesome.

Now all you gotta do is avoid the astroturf on the exit past the rumble strip and you've completed a lap at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. That wasn't so bad, was it?