When you start learning to drive fast on track, you realise there is more too it than meets the eye. There are also a number of conflicting approaches you might hear or be taught – particularly around corner entry and trail braking. These approaches can mean you might be encouraged to do the “wrong” thing to ensure everyone is safe(r) but is that the right approach?

This article on learning to drive fast was inspired by this excellent thread discussion on Rennlist. The general consensus was that trail braking should be taught from the start, the sooner the better, but in such a way as to be as safe as possible.

To contribute to that discussion, this is an exert from The Motorsports Playbook giving you the views of some of the best coaches and racing drivers in the world. It is a fascinating insight into some of their philosophies on how to develop drivers.

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Read the full excerpt below or listen to each guest speaking their own words here

For more info on who the each person is, see here.
You can also listen to each guest’s podcast show, for free, here.

The Best Skill Development Approaches 

How should you approach helping a driver learn or improve? Where should you start? Braking? Steering? Line? You can see they are not doing it right but how can you help? Is there a method which will deliver solid results?

This lesson is one of the longest in the book. There are many perspectives as it is a subject close to so many guests heart. Remember though that most of the guests have never met. They do not know each other, yet you will see the same things keep coming up again and again. This is a good one. One I again suggest you revisit a few times to get the most from it.

Being Open To Learning

John Kirkpatrick:   You’ve got to learn the basics before you start clowning about! [Editor: ?]

Ross Bentley:   Like anything it’s the old, “How do you eat an elephant? … One bite at a time!” 

Peter Krause:   The key is, as long as you’re open to learning and as long as you can demonstrate some confidence, you can do this well. You really can.

Andrew Rains:   I think so often we get caught in the rut of doing the same thing, because it’s comfortable on the track. Data can help you break out of that.

Approaches From Other Sports

Scott Gardner:   I can ask you, “What are you trying to achieve?”  I can ask you, “Why is that important?” “It’s important to me for this reason, but why is it important to you?” You start to own it. 

You then go into, “So what options have you got?” Usually, rather than me just tell you straight away, in that sort of coaching environment, I’m not going to tell you straight away, even though I probably know the answer. I know to hit the apex at that point, but unless I’ve actually asked you, “What would you do?” “Where do you think you need to be?” “What would happen if you had a car on the inside of you?“ “How would you handle that?” and get to the point of all the options that you’ve got [you’re not going to learn.]

Then [the athlete] asks you, in that sort of coaching sense, “What would you do?” And I’ll go,”What I would do if I was you would be do this … How does that sound to you?” 

Then they’re trusting you and you’ve got this co-creation and ownership that’s on both parts. Then you get into, “What are you going to do now?” rather than, “Do this.”

Scott Mansell:   If you look at other sports, they isolate basic techniques and repeat them many times. They build this kind of movement in your nervous system so that you can do them unconsciously and with the proper technique. Then [they] move on to the next layer and the next level of complexity. I actually broke all of that down and tried to understand what I was doing and how we could teach that in layers.

The Components Of Learning To Drive Fast

John Kirkpatrick:   Let’s say at Donington we’d probably have four or five instructors out at different points on the circuit. You would be watching for: approach, preparation, the way they change gear, the way they brake, the transition from braking to that constant in the early part of the corner and accelerating out. You were watching them through the line etc … so, just in that short sentence, there are a multitude of mistakes that you can make.

Perry McCarthy:   [My instructor] he’d show me, rather than maybe some of the things to do, he probably showed me the big things not to do. Sometimes, if you’re looking at your own driving, try to fill in those gaps – rather than trying to be mega. Just cover what and where you are going wrong, and that makes you better anyway.

Jeff Braun:  [Sometimes it is] Two steps backwards to go three steps forward. It’s going to be hard at first, and you’ll go slower, but we think that it will eventually help.

Breaking Driving Fast Down Into Small Chunks

Ross Bentley:   It is, “How do we increase our beliefs in ourself?” Knowledge helps and knowing that we’re prepared to do it helps increase that. So it’s the process and the more you can divide that process into little chunks, the more likely it is you’re going to do it.

Peter Krause:   When drivers think about break things down into simple equivalencies like that, then all of a sudden, they’re much more comfortable at getting a more consistent performance. 

Scott Mansell:   We isolate these very basic techniques. Build them up through repetition. They become subconscious and they’re in the driver’s nervous system, which is “a natural driver.” Then we move on to the next thing. For example, we start with vision. Sounds like a really simple thing but I’ve not met one driver whose vision we haven’t tweaked and improved, because they’ve never actually put any conscious attention on it.

John Kirkpatrick:   Then as you worked through the 12 sessions, the revs gradually increased. That was one of the things about the Jim Russell School: the discipline, a) of the gear change, and b) of the tachometer. It was everything. 

Before they went out on a session, they were given a rev limit and the hope was they came back inside that rev limit. Now, if you missed a gear, you over rev, so you got a spanking for that! It was the control that we had but it was also the discipline that the drivers learned about, how you go racing.

From Conscience To Sub-Conscience Competence

Rob Wilson:   You can do these lines. You can sit on the wrong side of the track. You can get a bit of diagonal out of the car. You can introduce the brakes and you can decrease them properly. You can do all these things with all sorts of cars around you. I think it’s quite hard. I think you need to have it ingrained in you before you do it. Not as a warning, but as a way to get the most out of it. 

Scott Mansell:   This is a capacity thing. It is about making sure that when you do train, it gets embedded into your nervous system – so it is natural. When you’ve got other cars around you’re using more mental capacity. You then fall back to your natural driving style. If that base or that core fundamental technique is only through you trying to be conscious all the time, about your vision or how you turn the car or how you trail brake, then of course, when there’s more mental load going through you, you won’t have the bandwidth to think consciously about where you should be looking on track.

Aristotelis Vasilakos:   You’re trying to find solutions. One of the solutions could be simulators. I think simulators, even if we call them games, have reached a certain level of realism that is so high that it can really be very useful. I think that if you’re trying to improve your driving and your knowledge for real racing tracks, one of the big jumps in realism happened when iRacing started implementing the first laser scan tracks and we followed with the laser scan technology.

Learn To Drive Fast Through Deliberate Practise

Scott Mansell:   My advice is that you do enough practice so that you commit these things, these core foundational techniques, into you. So that becomes your natural driving style. Then you’ve got some capacity when you’re racing to actually think about how you overtake somebody, and you don’t have to worry about all the other stuff that’s going on.

Rob Wilson:   It needs practice. I find this quite useful with training people because it brainwashes people. It’s a form of [doing things] just over and over again. So if we’re trying to do this we get that. It’s just having to do that in order to build that channel in the brain. [But it is] hard to do in a ten-lap test session, when you are first going out with cold tyres, in a car with lots of other cars around.  

Scott Mansell:   That’s just a question of proper practice. Conscious practice so that then these techniques get committed to memory properly.

John Kirkpatrick:   Motorsport is a very repetitive activity. What you need to learn to do is the same thing, at the same place and to the same degree, each and every lap. If you can do that, the likelihood is you’ll make a great test driver as well as a race driver. But you will totally understand what it is you’re doing. 

The Stages Of Learning To Drive Fast

Scott Mansell:   You have the different stages of a driver. You have the first stage of a driver who is just below the limit. They’re below the limit because they’re not confident in where that limit is. They drive around at probably 80 – 90% of what’s possible because they don’t know where the limit is. They’re scared of going over it. They might go over it now and then, but it’s a surprise and they feel like they’re lucky to keep the thing on the track. That’s the first type of driver.

The next driver is the one who is just on the limit. Maybe over it a little bit but they’re manipulating the car pretty well. They’re right on it and everything’s nice and smooth. 

Then beyond that is a driver who’s actually a slower driver than the previous one. You have this guy who looks like a hero because he’s all over the place. He looks super-fast because [the car] looks lairy but actually, he is still two or three seconds off the pace.

That is the most common driver that we work with – the guy who’s probably overly confident. He feels like the cars on the limit because it is on a limit but he is still two seconds off the pace. This kind of self-imposed lower limit comes through “lumpy inputs” into the car.

Rob Wilson:   Gosh, it’s so hard because you just want to go fast but use a road car because it amplifies everything. Feel the difference between a subtle brake decrease on the threshold, and just coming off to suddenly. Practice the difference.

Creating Training Environments

Aristotelis Vasilakos:   We try to implement as many variability into the simulator as possible. The weather is not always the same. You have humidity. Now you have temperatures. The sun might be covered by the clouds so the track is different in places because of the different temperatures. The brakes heat-up differently. The tyres might generate graining or flats spots. All that stuff that makes the car more alive, more of a living thing instead of a perfection.

Scott Gardner:   You’re seeing things in Olympic sports where, if I want someone to learn a skill or something new, we create a game where they’re rewarded for that new type of behaviour. Where the athletes have to work together to be able to problem solve together.

Ultimately the athlete, or the driver, is the one out there under pressure and who has to make those decisions. They don’t have a coach or their technical expert or their instructor or whatever, with them at that moment. So the whole thing is recognise that. Set the situation up so that you’re in the best position to be able to make those decisions under pressure. Like when someone’s right on your ass, pushing you around that turn.

Rob Wilson:   That’s right because it’s always going to tax your the brain learning something new. But then, after a while, it becomes a normality.

Learning To Drive Fast Under Pressure

Scott Gardner:   A hundred percent I can help you today to get around that corner faster. But will it help you in a race when you’re under pressure? Maybe not. 

What I want to do is make sure that in a race, and under pressure, that you get around that corner, and that you can make that decision for yourself, about what you need to do.

It’s not just about today, you doing it better. Today is about you learning how to do it better for when you’re under pressure. 

It is just that slight shift in the conversation that helps in the training process or in the instructing process. That actually makes a massive difference when it comes to learning and growing and improving and ultimately executing.

Samir’s Key Takeaways:

  • Effective skill development is about breaking things down into chunks and applying deliberate practise.
  • Be self-aware and think of skill development as a process where you include practise under pressure.
  • Sometimes its 2 steps back, to make 3 forward.

Get all the lessons on learning to drive faster, coaching and race engineering in The Motorsports Playbook here…