How To Choose The Best Lap Timer
Choosing the best lap timer is tricky. They all seem to do the same thing – that is until you dig a bit deeper and discover they don’t! Deciding which lap timer is best then becomes (another!) tech research project. Working out the best value features and functions for you today – and the potential you tomorrow – is hard.
This article gives you a head start. I share a structure to help you to decide the best lap timer for you. I have also included some specific “can’t go wrong” products for you to consider.
The goal is to help you work out how get the best lap timer for you. My assumption is you are starting out – or upgrading – your lap timer at the amateur level in motorsports. The primary focus of these systems is analysing your driving. But, as they say on TV, other systems are available…
Adding Value, Not Headaches
As a race engineer, I have used many data systems – from F1 telemetry to phone apps. Drivers I coach have run even more.
There is no question, some data systems need more manual intervention than others.
Your no.1 consideration for the best lap timer, especially when time is already at a premium, should be to get a lap timer that is going to be easy for you to use.
Many people buy a top end system and use 10% of its potential. Not because they don’t want too use more but there is already enough to do in the paddock.
A good laptimer is one that gives you the value of data, with the least addional hassle. You do motorsports for fun, not extra frustration. Right?
For me the best lap timers are the dedicated GPS based systems. These devices live with your car. They reliably record your lap times, every lap. Simple.
How To Choose Between GPS Lap Timers
There are lots of numbers in the marketing for GPS lap timers!
In short, you want one that checks your position at least 5 times per second (5Hz.) The better ones check 10+ times per second. There is more to consider but for now use that as your going in consideration.
Here is an article with more on how GPS lap timers work with some pros and cons.
How Good Are iPhone Lap Timers?
The best lap timer app for your phone are okay – I even developed my own track lap timer app years ago:
When you start looking for the best lap timer they can feel like an obvious and cost effective solution.
After all you already have the hardware – your phone. Plus, the specs can read like they are identical or even better than dedicate systems. See on Harrys Laptimer for example – an app I have had since the iPhone 4 edition.
In the UK, using your phone/iPad as a lap timer is banned in racing. My understanding is because of potential distraction reasons. So check your event regs…
More important though is…
The iPhone GPS Is Not Good Enough For Driver Data Analysis
The big issue with using your phone is its accuracy.
Unlike dedicated GPS lap timers, your phone will only check your position once per second.
At 100 mph you travel 45 metres or 148ft in 1 second.
Using clever maths (interpolation) you can still get a reasonable lap time accuracy.
Too much else happens within a second at track speeds (eg braking) to render the other info near useless.
But What About Bluetooth GPS & OBD Data?
Yes, you can add a separate bluetooth devices to log ECU and get better GPS data to your phone app.
A bluetooth GPS receiver can speed up and improve the GPS signal over the one in your phone. Here is a good one I’ve used from VBox.
The issue is not that you can’t do it.
The issue is that this is more kit, and more hassles, you are adding to your day – see point 1!
These devices need charging, syncing, setting up and checking every run. Plus, these extra bluetooth units can start to become as expensive as dedicate systems…
By all means, try. You can make phone lap timers work. But in my experience, you’ll find the hassle, lost track time, lost lap times and limited analysis fast become a false economy.
Two Considerations To Decide Your Best Lap Timer
There are several other factor to differentiate good from the best lap timers. These are software, usability, expandability and all manor of other advanced features.
In my experience it is worth looking at this from another angle.
Think, what would give you the best lap timer today?
To answer this I recommend you ask yourself two questions:
- Do you want an in-car display of your lap times?
- Do you want to take onboard video?
To get your lap times you can have either or both combined. That gives you the following three options:
Option 1. Onboard Video, No In-Car Laptime Display
If you are not bothered about having your lap times visible in car, did you know you can still get your lap times by video?
Some sports cameras can record onboard GPS – at 10Hz – together with video.
The GoPro is a popular choice for onboard video recording. Being able to use its GPS as your data logger without any other hardware offers a great first step.
Already have a GoPro? Have a read of this article on how you can use this software to turn your GoPro as a video data logger.
That software does take a little setting up so here are some tips. Plus a GoPro needs tweaking so you might want to try these GoPro settings for motorsports.
There are other options including the AiM Smartycam. The issue with the version 2 is that it is expensive for the quality of picture you get. There is a new version on the way (see here) so if this is for you I’d wait.
Option 2. In-Car Laptimer, No Video.
If you do want in-car display of your lap times but are not bothered about video, you can’t go wrong with an AiM Solo 2 DL.
This device gives you your lap times as you cross the line. It also has a predictive laptime feature.
The predictive times use data from previous laps and compares it to what you are currently doing. It then works out if you are going faster or slower. You can see this as you drive. In F1 they have this too and call it the lap delta.
Here you can read more about how “delta-t” is derived. It is pretty clever and very useful!
Ask any driver about predictive lap timing, and they will ALL tell you they can’t imagine driving without it!!!
The Best Lap Timers Are Also Dataloggers
An added benefit of the AiM lap timer is that it stores your GPS positions all around the lap too.
If you’re feeling brave (!) you can open up the laptop and start having a look at the squiggly lines it produces.
Why? Well with 100% certainty (honestly!!) there are secrets hiding in those lines that can tell you where you can drive faster.
Yes, data gets involved. But, if you are up for the challenge, you’re welcome to try one of my self-paced courses on data analysis.
Run The Lap Timer Your Friends Have
There are other systems than AiM but I’m also suggesting it due its popularity in the paddock.
The popularity gives you a high(er) chance of being able to compare notes with your friends. This alone might make it the best lap timer for you.
Yes, to compare with others you will have get the laptop out. But that can enable you to find (even) more opportunities to drive faster.
If you are not nerdy, and don’t want to be taking your laptop to the track, that is ok. The AiM solo works fine as a pure in-car lap timer.
Many (many) drivers never download the data from their lap timers. (Nodding? You? Did I mention my data fundamentals courses… there is lap time in that there data… haha!)
Despite not looking at data, you will still get value so the Solo could well make the best lap timer for you to start with.
Option 3. In-Car Lap timer With Video
Levelling up. Having an in-car lap timer display with synchronised onboard video is the complete package. Want the best lap timer at amateur level? Then this is where you need to look (sorry about the prices!)
I say that this could be the best lap timer solution is for two reasons:
- The data sees stuff the video can’t see – such as your speed, acceleration and predictive lap times.
- The video sees stuff the data can’t see – such as your line through corners, traffic and marker boards.
Together you give yourself everything you need to help you go faster – both inside AND outside the car.
The majority of my race driver coaching is remote. All my driver coaching is without me in the car. But with this package of data, video and good driver feedback notes you have all you need to help a driver go faster.
Unfortunately the price point does jump up. But if that is ok, then I’d suggest you look at these three options:
- An AiM lap timer with Smartycam
- The Racelogic VBOX HD2
- A Garmin Catalyst
The AiM Solo 2 DL Lap Timer With Smartycam
If you have bought the AiM Solo 2 DL version (“DL” standing for datalogger) you can plug in the Smartycam. The non-DL version you can’t so beware.
The latest version of the AiM software allows you to look at the data and video sync’d together on your laptop.
You can also look at only the video on the Smartycam (per option 1.) Plus you get the in-car predictive lap times with the Solo (per option 2.)
The AiM route is a good option. It is pricy – given the Smartycam v2 video quality – but one you can grow into it if you are starting out with a Solo. You can also expand to include other sensors (e.g. tyres, ecu data) should you get more curious about data. #nerdahoy
No… you can’t easily add video to your AiM data from other cameras such as the GoPro. It is possible (with Race Render and others) but, imho, this goes off the charts for hassle (back to point 1 again!)
Racelogic VBOX HD2
When the VBOX system came out it set the benchmark. There are now a range of VBOX systems with the HD2 with the OLED display giving you what you need.
Older VBOX systems are still good too, and cheaper on eBay, but the video quality is bad by GoPro standards.
Pulling the video and data onto your laptop is easier and quicker than AiM. The analysis software is also simpler. It does some unique nerdy stuff to better align your gps data. It is also available as a free iPad/iPhone app – a big bonus for many.
The system is robust and you can also expand the HS2 version with other sensors in future. With point 1 in mind, it does minimise hassle. Turns on and off on its own and is fit and forget.
The main issue is price. It is also hard to share your data with other systems, such as AiM. You also need another device (laptop/iPad/iPhone) to watch your video. The standard data analysis software is also limited compared to AiM.
The Garmin Catalyst positions itself as a different kind of video datalogger. The idea is that, as much as possible, it is automated – including the analysis and even in-car voice coaching!
The video is good quality, the display is large and clear. I run one and the Garmin Catalyst is an easy device to use. There is no other system where I’ve been able to do video and data analysis MID-session whilst still in the car.
Price point it is competitive against the AiM system and cheap compared to the VBOX.
The strongest point is that you don’t need the laptop. This is also its biggest issue. The unit is heavy and takes a big corporate company closed system approach to data.
Being a closed system means that you have no access to the data that the unit produces. The reason, Garmin tells me, is because they believe it is their job to add all the value to the data before you see it. I get it. But, given there is always more value to add, I find this a frustration.
The other datalogging systems enable you to look at what you’ve done, plus what you could do. With the Garmin you only look at the best of what you have done. The what you could do is not accessible.
For example, you can work out what you could do by comparing against your friends. You can also find hidden time by learning these data analysis fundamentals. The Garmin does not allow you to do this.
I like it though. Despite the lack of data export and backup (if the unit breaks your data goes) I do feel it will be the best lap timer solution for many.
Choosing The Best Lap Timer – In Summary
Working out the best lap timer for you is a personal choice but I hope this thinking helps you.
Use your personal real world hassle factor – “have I got time for this” – to guide you.
Your best lap timer might be no lap timer!
The value of having a laptimer and onboard video is the best, but at a price. It gives you all the tools to improve your driving – both on track and back in the paddock. It might feel like too much too soon so I’d caution rushing in.
They are not inexpensive, plus choosing the best laptimer can become overwhelming. The systems are often way more capable than you might feel you need right now.
Many people start out down the AiM Solo DL route as this hits the sweet spot of price, function and future needs.
The prevalence of this system in the paddock is also testamount to that.
The devices from Racelogic and Garmin are also well worth your consideration. New ones are always coming out. But try to think about what you can’t live without first and let that guide which option above you aim for.
Luckily the second hand market for these devices is strong. If you take the plunge and decide it is not for you, it is likely you’ll lose little.
Rather than outright recommending a system, my hope is that this framework for deciding the best lap timer is useful to you.
It would be great to hear your thoughts. Feel free to sign up below and let me know.