Formula 1. The pinnacle of motorsports. Hundreds of people employed by teams to put two cars on the grid. What do they do? How are they approaching their racing? What can you adopt – say for your race car testing and setup – given that you don’t have a few hundred staff?!

In the first series of the Your Data Driven Podcast I was fortunate to have many guests from Formula 1. I started seeing patterns in what they suggested. Common themes, ideas and approaches in how best to go racing. Not only people from F1 to be honest, but from all the professionals – drivers, coaches and engineers.

I decided to distill these pearls-of-wisdom so people could remember them and The Motorsports Playbook was born. I thought I would share with you some of what I learned so here is an approach for your race car testing and setup.

Prioritising The Driver

Imagine you are driving the perfect racing car. The sound. The smell. The speed. Effortlessly balanced. On the pace. Completely in control. You and the machine flowing as one.

Would be great wouldn’t it! 

Extracting all the potential speed from your car – and your DNA! – is success in motorsports. How do you get there?

Two things are in your control. Adapting your driving to your car. Adapting your car to your driver. Which should you prioritise? Is one more important than the other?

“We’re trying to manipulate a setup to do what the driver wants it to be. To me, as a race engineer, that’s the main goal. You can have your simulation, you can have your data, you can have everything that you think the vehicle should do, but if the driver doesn’t like it, he’s not going to go quicker. Ultimately you need to suit it to the driver so he can use it to go quicker. That’s the race engineer’s job – to find a setup the driver likes.”

Jeff Braun

“In the past, I’ve been convinced that something would be worth lap time but the driver just cannot get on with it. So in the end, it’s not worth the lap time because if he’s not happy with the car, then he’s not going to push to a hundred percent.”

Dave Devine

When it comes to setup then, driver confidence takes priority over ultimate speed. Typically, the fastest car is the most agile, unstable and nervous. If you accept this, then your goal becomes finding the fastest setup your driver is comfortable with.

For the non-drivers in a team, this might be frustrating – “Why make a car slower than it could be?” And yes, to compromise potential speed because your driver is not happy is not intuitive to everyone …

The logic though is that car and driver will be quicker overall – if you find a setup the driver likes.

So how should you go about finding this?

Learn What Setup Works For You

Testing gives you the opportunity. You can use testing to learn and experiment. To adjust your setup and to find the best balance between speed and driver confidence.

My guests gave a lot of great advice on testing. Such as:

  • The importance of planning,
  • The art of great note taking,
  • Taking your settings to their extremes to better understand their impact,
  • How to prioritise setup for the most important parts of the track, etc.

But the tip for today is one you can try at your very next test session.

An approach that kept coming up again and again. But one I have rarely seen done outside pro racing. It is called “ABA Testing.”

Race Car Testing With ABA Testing

Think about how you approach testing. Many decide that the best use of their time is to work through one or two incremental changes at a time. Try something. See if it improves things. Change another thing. See if you go faster. Rinse and repeat until you get to the end of the day with a “better” setup than you started with.

It is logical and many people go testing this way.

Unfortunately, this approach is flawed. Flawed in the sense that you don’t honestly know why you got faster during the day. You don’t really know if a non-setup related change influenced your results – like weather, tyres or driver. This makes everything more complex and can have a big impact on your conclusions. When you are trying to decide if a setup choice is right, the last thing you need is uncertainty.

If that is not the way to do it, then what is a better way?

“[Setup] changes will always be ABA changes. So you always need to go back again, to make sure that the driver isn’t just improving in himself and that the changes you’re seeing are genuine.”

Dave Devine

“You do have to understand the car. If you can go testing then, when you do, change one thing at a time. Before you change something else, change the other thing back to where you were so you can feel the difference.“

John Kirkpatrick

“The other important thing to do is always go back to what you think is your baseline. Track conditions change, everything changes! If you’re testing three brake pads, for instance, put your first one on then go and do 10 laps. Change it to the next one. Go and do 10 laps. Do the third one and then come back to your first one. Yes, it’s an overhead doing that mechanically but you’ve just got to plan out your day.”

James Williams

It might be hard to get over the mental resistance that you are “wasting time” repeating a run on the same setup. As a result, it is perhaps not surprising this approach is not common.

The thing is ABA testing is the most precise way you have to learn about setup influences on your car. To not adopt even some form of ABA testing greatly increases your potential to get confused. The great thing is that it is simple to do and makes your results easier to understand.

ABA Testing In Practise

Race car testing is not cheap. To make this work, what you need is to set your expectations beforehand. Decide that this is the way you are going to run things for the day and see how it goes.

Whilst not 10/10ths every lap, your goal remains the same, to find the fastest setup the driver likes.

Plan out your sessions with the aim of learning what you can – not only going as fast as you can.

By using ABA testing you will start to build-up your knowledge base. In the future you should then be able to better predict the best settings for any given track condition.

“You just need to try and analyse it as best you can. Try and make it a bit less exciting and a bit more of a science experiment really, is the best way I could suggest for a club racer. It gives you a more structured approach to [your] motor racing.“

Dave Devine

Having invested today, you are giving yourself confidence in your setup choices tomorrow.

Hopefully this has given you some food for thought. Let me know what you think and if you try ABA testing. I always love to hear from you with your questions and suggestions so drop me a line if you like.

Here are some links if you would like to know more about the Podcast or The Motorsports Playbook.

Good luck!

Samir Abid

About The Guests Quoted In This Article:

Jeff Braun: Pro race engineer & coffee business owner!

Dave Devine: Aston Martin F1 suspension eng & racer

John Kirkpatrick: Ex-pro driver & coach – Jim Russell Racing School

James Williams: Mercedes F1 transmission engineer & racer