How to learn a race track – training your eyes and feet.
We are not born with an ingrained ability to learn a race track.
Knowing the race circuit well is essential to being fast. Yet learning takes time. Time you may not have for extra testing days or extended simulator sessions.
You can just hope for the best. Try to figure things out as you go along.
Or you can try some preparation beforehand – like reading written guides, studying track maps and watching online videos.
But how effective is passive study?
How accurate is the material?
How much are you really going to remember when you’re out on the race track anyway?
When you know a track, you can drive out pits and be straight on the pace.
You confidently know each sequence of corners. All the braking and reference markers.
You know which kerbs to cut, and which not too. Where to push, and where not too.
And you know this right from out lap.
I’ve written before about the benefit of developing mental models to drive fast, but driving is a physical experience.
So what can you meaningfully learn when you’ve only got a free 15 or 20mins, when you are away from the race car, away from the track or away from the sim?
Clearly there is little substitute for driving your racing car on the track. Seat time is lap time and all that.
However, in my experience, there are things you can do to try and at least short cut the learning.
Things you can do from nearly anywhere, at any time.
Quick shot of theory.
Deliberate practice is both an activity and a scientific theory.
Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practise requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.James Clear
You can read more about it here. Some of you may already be familiar with the concepts from when Fernando Alonso was famously reading “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu.
Deliberate practice is about helping you to maximise your potential.
Applying the theory to learn a race track.
Whilst the deliberate practice approach is clearly applicable to all practice you do, I’ve found it can really speed up the time it takes to learn a race track.
What you might like to try is using peoples in-car YouTube videos to develop your own track guides.
By developing your own guide, in the way I’m about to suggest, you are much more likely to be able to remember it when you actually get out on the track.
Getting on the pace then becomes more of a calibration exercise than a discovery exercise.
In fact, the deliberate practice method I’m going to suggest aims to reduce or negate the need to do most of the discovery learning.
3 step approach to learning a race track
Here is three step approach to learn a race track from anywhere.
Step 1 – Find a good video
Start on YouTube and search for a good in-car video of the track.
You only need 1 decent lap of the track, not a whole session.
Most times people include the circuit name in the title. Sometimes they don’t which can make finding good videos harder. Don’t forget to use the suggested videos on the right too.
Doesn’t really matter if it is a race or a solo lap. Ideally not a track day unless they have found a traffic-free lap.
Use this checklist to make sure you’ve got a good video of the race track:
- Camera with a clear view for video of the road and steering wheel
- Representative car
- Fast lap time (check online for lap records or previous results to discover a good representative time)
- Dry conditions (ideally a bright sunny day so you can see track environment well)
- Decent video quality and frame rate
- Decent sound of the engine
- Pedal cam
When you have found the video, watch the lap a minimum of 5 or 6 times at normal speed.
Step 2 – Be your own guide
Now you’re going to create your own guide.
Watch video again at 0.5x speed.
Start to draw (by hand) a sketch of the track as you go round.
Use this checklist and your own observations to note down things you see and hear:
- Braking points. These might be relative to marker boards, changes in tarmac or Armco barriers. Consider what will definitely be there for you to use
- Positioning. Where has the driver put the car? Where would you put your car? What would you be aiming for?
- Kerbs. How much kerb are they taking at apex and exit? Are there sensors for track limits?
- Acceleration. Listen to when they are getting back on the power. How early are they able to do this? At what point are they back on full throttle?
The difference between reading or watching someone else’s guide verses making your own is that you’ll be much more likely to remember this.
You are creating your own mental model of what you expect to see and happen around the lap.
By drawing it you actually learn the shapes of the corners in your mind.
Don’t draw whole track out at the beginning, do it bit by bit.
Your drawing might even end up back where you started! It doesn’t matter.
The value is in the action of your hand drawing and your eye observing.
You don’t even have to keep the track guide because after the next step hopefully, you’ll have memorised it.
Step 3 – Train your feet
Now this might seem a bit odd but personally I find it works really well.
The concept here is training your feet/ankle muscle memory to link with the visual and sound cues you’ve created from your track guide in step 2.
In this step, you are going to train your feet to brake and accelerate inline with the video.
Don’t worry about the hands. The hands follow the feet so focus on training your feet.
Play the video back at full speed.
This may seem like it is a lot faster than 1.0x now!
Don’t panic. You’ll adjust soon enough.
Now, when watching the video, try to brake and accelerate along with the video.
Use the correct feet movements. In a kart brake with your left foot, in a fully manual car operate the clutch, and so on.
If you make a mistake, start the lap again.
Repeat until you can match the video.
By focusing only on the feet you are deliberately drilling them to react to what you are seeing and hearing in the video.
You don’t even need to be seated in a racing position or anything.
Just at your desk or any chair is fine.
What you are training is the anticipation, the reaction and the rhythm of the braking and accelerating.
It might be that you even get to a point where you feel you can brake a bit later and get on the power a bit earlier than the video but don’t worry too much about that! save it for when you hit the track for real.
I would recommend doing this for at least 10 laps making no mistakes.
Remember, you are only doing it for one fast lap in the video, not the whole session.
You just want to be programming your muscle memory in your feet to remember what this one fast lap will be like.
Don’t do the whole session. Just do one lap.
When you get into it you can even practise trail braking and progressive throttle on exit and all sorts. But initially just try to get the anticipation of the braking points and throttle on points programmed.
Incidentally, compared to doing this on the sim or even for real, this has an added benefit of you being able to consistently practise a fast lap time, knowing you’ll definitely make it round the lap every time.
It is actually hard to do this at first but that is the point. You are more deliberately learning how to learn a race track.
On the race track for real
Of course the first time you go out in your own racing car it will be different.
The benefit you’ll have is a solid benchmark for a fast lap to compare with what you’re able to do.
It is like you’re your own data logger. Reading back a live data-trace comparing what you are doing to what you could be doing.
You’re likely to be slower initially, whilst tyres warm up and you’ve less grip. But as things start to develop, you’ll be already mentally dialled into all the braking reference points, how much kerb to be aiming to take, when to hold a tighter line, when to let it run out wider and when you should be getting back on the throttle.
If you can’t do it then it might point to a specific car issue you’ve got. Or you just need to keep building up the pace but at least you will have a feel for what fast feels like.
You’ll know all the corners, the ideal line and the best reference markers.
Post session you can even update your own race track guide.
Ideally by drawing a new one and trying to remember everything from memory.
Next time you come to this track you’ll have a head start.
Remember this is only about trying to speed up your learning process.
About trying to give you something you can easily do in a spare 15 or 20 mins during your lunch break.
Something that has really helped me and hopefully will help you too.
Enjoyed this? Check out these other articles:
Wondering what the tyres are actually doing? This article should help your visualisation: https://www.yourdatadriven.com/tyre-slip-angle-explained/
Want my perspective on how to drive fast? You might like this article: https://www.yourdatadriven.com/how-to-drive-fast/
Want to take the guess work out of setting your tyre pressures? Try this article including a free calculator: https://www.yourdatadriven.com/how-to-set-your-racing-car-tyre-pressures-perfectly-every-time/