How to Drive Fast on Track

Clearly working out how to drive fast is fundamental in motorsport. But is it all about reaction times, or is their something else going on?

This article starts to unravel some of the mystery of how to drive fast by helping you understand what is most important to focus on…. Luckily (!) it’s all in your head.

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More Than Fast Reaction Times

Many people believe that top-level racing drivers have superior reactions to others and that is why they can drive faster.

My view (and research) would indicate that this isn’t quite the whole picture.

So… Is there hope for the rest of us?

Yes! I believe there is.

But you need to be improving something different.

What Is Driving Fast?

What driving fast means is being able to “pilot” a vehicle around a track in less time than your competitors.

To complete the course in the least time, you need to use all the available potential your vehicle can give.

There is a lot to determining vehicle potential but, fundamentally, driving a racing car fast is about maximising acceleration – if that is a new idea, you can read more about the Traction or Friction Circle here [link].

In summary though, your vehicle and environment define what is physically possible. And, if you understand the important dimensions well then there is an opportunity for you to gain significant advantages – read more on race car setup here [link].

For this article, I just want to focus on the driver. And specifically, on how, I believe, fast drivers manage to extract more potential from their cars than others.

Reaction Times Compared: F1 Driver v You!

There has been a lot of research and study on reaction times. Most people are between 150 and 300 milliseconds.

A while back their was a video showing (former) Formula 1 racing driver Jenson Button using a kind of reaction training machine (Batak.)

What you could see is that his (poor!) engineer is not as good as him. But what it didn’t prove, was that Jenson had better reaction times than his engineer, even though that is the message they were looking to get across.

What it showed was Jenson’s engineer is not as good at finding the lit button.

From what we could see at the time in the clip, once the engineer does see the button, his reactions were pretty close to Jenson’s – well, in my opinion.

The Batak machine is trying to develop peripheral vision, awareness and, to some level, hand-eye co-ordination. No question, important skills to drive fast, but I don’t feel it proved F1 drivers have some meaningful amount better reaction times than the rest of us.

And, even if they do, are all fast drivers flying around only reacting to the car?


Do faster drivers have something more than fast reaction times to help them?

I think so.

What Does Help To Drive Fast?

If it is not pure reaction times, what is it that makes someone able to drive faster than someone else?

In part this is about visualisation. Something you might have heard my good friend Ross Bentley talk extensively about.

This is where you spend time off track, with your eyes closed, visualising yourself driving the lap.

How to drive faster - Image result for racing driver visualisation

You can do this in the comfort of your own home, like (a young!) Max above.

Or, you can try this with some pedal practise, sitting stationary in your car.

Bonus points to you, if you can visualise the lap, sitting in your car, doing pedal practise AND describe out loud what is going on – oversteer and everything – whilst recording yourself:

Listen to an example of my lap visualisation audio here.

But, in my humble opinion, visualisation is only part of the puzzle.

Visualisation Whilst You’re Driving

I believe you need to be able to imagine the experience, during the experience.

The better and faster you can get at doing this, the less effort and less reacting you need to do.

In the end, your reactions should only be to the differences between what you believe you’re about to experience, and what is actually happening.

That is quite different but makes things easier.

Not only are you having to react less often, but you’ll be able to push more in the car, confident in what it will do.

It is perhaps one of the reasons why people who train deliberately give themselves a better chance of repeatedly doing well – they have so much more clarity of what will happen in different situations, that they almost don’t have to instinctively react to anything.

Putting Some Numbers On This Idea

My feeling is that a newbie driver is relying on reactions say 80% of the time. Everything is new. They’ve never been on track before. There is a lot to remember. They’re really feeling the speed.

Where as a pro race driver is perhaps reacting only 10% of the lap. Everything is familiar. They know what is coming up. Everything is calm and slow. Speed is just a number on a dial.

Maybe for the pro this is even less? (if you know of any good studies on this please let me know.)

Either way, your challenge to drive faster becomes:

What can you do to reduce your need to react to anything?!

Sit with that a minute.

Rather than training better reaction times, I’m suggesting you want to train so you don’t have to react at all!!

And to achieve that, I’m suggesting you want a better mental model for your car, on each track you drive.

So what can you do?

My Top 6 Suggestions For Building Your Mental Models

Whatever tool you choose, to become a faster driver, I believe you need a high quality mental model of what is going to happen – as you’re driving.

The better you can imagine what will happen, the better you can predict what the car will do and the less actual reacting you’ll need.

Hope that makes some sense?

Sound easy!?

Clearly its not… but that is the fun.

How to drive faster: In summary

In summary, to be able to drive fast you need to be able to imagine the whole experience you will feel behind the wheel.

This involves visualisation before the event but also, critically, in my opinion, the ability to refine this imagined experience, during the actual event.

Commonly the ability to do this is understood to be because of superior reaction times. In my view, this isn’t the case.

I believe the fastest racing drivers are reacting to their imagination of what they think will happen, based on their continually adapting mental models and on previous experience.

If they do this then they only have to react to differences between what is happening and what they believe they’re about to experience; it is more a case of trimming than some superior “talent” or reaction ability.

You often hear “Seat time, is lap time” mentioned in racing circles. I tend to agree with this, as long as you’re building an appropriate experience set. That is why I talk all the time about deliberate practise.

Don’t make this complicated. Just start with making sure each track session you do has a clear goal (and “Dusting the cobwebs off” is a perfectly valid one!)

Ask yourself:

How can you develop a better ability to predict your cars responses in your head?

Can you improve how quickly you can recall and modify those imagined experiences based on actual events?

How can you work on the quality of your responses – say under pressure – based on your reaction to the differences between your imagination and reality?

Good luck and remember to have fun out there!

Have a different view? What do you believe it takes to drive fast? Sign up to Ahead of the Curve and let me know.


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