Race Car Setup – A Proven Approach For Success

Determining Your Optimal Race Car Setup

Given all the things you can change on your race car (camber, caster, toe, ride height, dampers etc) how can you be sure you are running the optimal race car setup?

It is intuitive to think that some combination of your racing car chassis settings will be either better or worse than others. It follows then that there must be one “perfect” setup that is the best of the lot.

One perfect combination of settings that is better than all the other possible combinations.

One perfect race car setup that would enable your racing car to be the “very fastest possible” given any conditions and at any track.

Once you dial in these settings, you will be giving your driver the best chance to perform.

Do that and you have the best chance for your team to get podiums and wins. 

It is logical and highly 😎 desirable.

So how can you work out what the these optimal settings are?

Simple Question. Non-Simple Answer

As you will likely appreciate, the answer to this simple question is (unfortunately!) not that simple.

In fact, if you have ever started to look into it in any detail you will know that it gets so complicated, so quickly that I totally understand why many people are put off by the very thought.

For example, here is a nice summary of the generally held advice for racecar tuning.

Like Pandora’s Box, once opened you rapidly end up with more questions than you started with:

“Is it better to change the springs?”

“What happens if we add more camber?”

“Should we add more damper clicks?”

“Looks like rain. What should we do?”

etc …

Your resident paddock cup champion will (as ever) give you confident answers to all these questions (and more!) but are they right?

Highly Interconnected System

One of the main reasons this is complicated is that lots of things on your racing car are so highly interconnected.

For example, change your racecar setup to try to improve your grip in, say, left-hand corners and you might totally upset its stability under straight-line braking.

Not only that but so many influential things change in parallel (on the racecar, within the racing environment and even with the driver) that it makes the problem so much harder.

Frankly it is no wonder people become easily confused and put off by it all.

And yet …

And yet, that nagging feeling of “Could we set the race car up better?” does not go away.

My suggestion is that if you get organised you can find great settings for your racing careven if you are not an engineer.

To be honest, without a methodical approach, you (or anyone) will have a hard time working out what will make your racing car better.

In the rest of this article, I am firstly going to suggest what you should be aiming for in terms of a racecar setup. Then I will give you a proven step-by-step approach you can use to methodically improve your own racecar.

Your Race Car Setup Aim

Begin With The End In Mind: Stability

Whilst it is tempting to get absorbed into all the settings you can change, I have found it is helpful to first be clear on what you are aiming for.

Despite it being implicit (i.e. the fastest racecar setup) there is actually quite a bit too it.

Keeping it simple, there are two things you are looking to “optimise” :

  1. The racecar chassis setup
  2. The drivers confidence

My experience is that the best way to optimising both is to aim for a stable (neutral) racecar setup.

If you do not know what that means then before going any further, I suggest you have a quick read of my article on understeer and oversteer.

Yes, it might be that a neutral balance is not possible to achieve all around the lap. In that case, prioritise the most important corner – the most important corner is typically the corner leading onto the longest straight.

The point is that before changing anything on the car, you should have clarity on what success looks like.

Step-by-Step Approach To Race Car Setup

Below is a methodical, step-by-step approach that you can try. My aim is not to tell what settings to run but how you can start to determine them for yourself.

It is a practically-led, empirical approach, rather than a more technically-led, maths-based approach. This is because a) the maths is heavy 🙂 and b) what happens on the race track is what really matters.

Even if you later decide to take more maths, modelling or simulation-based approach to this, it still all comes down to how the race car performs for real.

This approach, therefore, remains valid no matter what level of resources and expertise you have behind you.

1. A Mental Framework

My suggestion is that you think of the optimisation of your racing car setup as a kind of science experiment.

With a science experiment you have a question you are trying to answer, a method, some data, an analysis, and from that you can draw conclusions.

In our case:

  • Your question is – “What are the best settings for your racing car?”
  • The method is: you changing settings and driving your racing car on a race track
  • The data is: the car settings, the environment and various performance outcomes
  • The analysis is: your understanding of how the settings affect the outcomes
  • Your conclusions will be: what changes positively affect performance

This is likely something you do intuitively all the time.

The difference here is that I am suggesting you consciously treat each and every time your racing car is running on the track as a SETUP learning experience.

Effectively I am suggesting you start getting more professional in your approach to recording information and analysing each run.

2. Changing Your Race Car Settings

Now that you are thinking like a scientist 😎 your primary concern is the quality of your experimental data.

There are two things you can do to make sure you have great quality data you can draw conclusions from:

A: Change one setting at a time.

Whilst it can be tempting to try a few different settings changes together to save time, you will be giving yourself a headache.

This is due to that high interconnected nature of a racing car suspension system discussed earlier.

Even if you are taking a more maths based approach to all this, it is still not recommended to make multiple changes at the same time.

The simple reason is that if you make one change and then the performance outcomes change you have some evidence to say that the two things are related. If you change more than one thing then you cannot be sure which changes had most influence.

Keep things simple. Just change one setting at a time.

B: Record Race Car Settings (and Environmental Data)

It is important to record the status of the racing car (and the environment) for each run. This is so you do not forget what settings you ran (humm 😀 ) and the weather affects things.

One way to make this easier, especially when you are pushed for time, is to only record the changes.

What I mean is at the beginning of the day, before any running, record ALL your racing car settings (and here is an example of the typical data you might record).

Then, during your testing or practice session, record only the setup changes you have made for that run, together with the weather and the time of day.

Recording only the changes is more more efficient and also makes your later analysis easier.

3. Performance Data. What should you record?

The performance data you collect has to be something that helps you answer your science experiment question.

The data you could gather is overwhelming. Therefore I suggest you start with the following 4 pieces of information for each run:

1: Lap Times

Fairly obvious why you would want this, and likely something you already are doing – either manually or automatically. If you can get some reference times (i.e. lap records) for your category that will help give the times context.

2: Tyre Data

Tyre information tells you nearly everything you need to know about how your racing car is performing. If you have not done so before then have a read of my article on how to interpret tyre temperatures. It has links on what you can learn, how to measure it and why it is important. You should expect to see differences in your tyre data for nearly any race car setup change.

3: Driver Performance

The driver could be the issue your racing car is not winning. There. I said it. An average driver is not going to win in a competitive race series, no matter how well the chassis is setup. You need to understand if there is more to come from the driver before changing the racecar. Install a datalogging system on the car (ideally with video) so you can assess the driver’s performance. Good, cost-effective datalogging systems that can adequately measure driver performance are readily available – you can even turn your GoPro into a video datalogger these days.

4: Driver Feedback

Despite what I have stated above, the best driver in the world will not be able to perform to their best if they do not have confidence in the car. Ask the driver to tell you how the car is performing after each setting is changed. It might be their poor performance was because you changed the car and made it hard for them to drive. It is good practice to have them draw on a track map how they feel at each section. Even if you are the driver too, it is good practice to do this. Have a read of my article on learning a race track – particularly step 2 on why drawing your own freehand map is important.

4. Interpreting Your Data – Be Cautious

If you make a change to the settings of your racing car and your lap times are faster, you can be fairly confident the change was a good thing to do. What you really want though is certainty.

The empirical way to achieve more confidence in your data is through repetition. That might not be possible, given limited track time and the time it takes to make some settings changes.

Make This A (More) Controlled Experiment

One method you could consider is to add a “control” element to your experiment.

There are lots of ways you could add a control. One method I have found useful is put the racecar back to its initial settings for the last run of your practice session.

Whilst that might see odd, by adding this “experimental control” you get the ability to “normalise” all the rest of your results i.e. double check that the data you ended up with is representative.

In theory, if you do put your race car back to its initial settings you should get exactly the same performance data as you got first time out.

If you do great! If you do not then, in your interpretations, you can consider why that might be – for example, has the driver improved, has the track changed, has the weather improved etc.

This is important because you might have concluded that one setting was better than another when in fact the improvement was down to something else – i.e. the track changed.

Race Car Setup In Summary

In fairness, the interpretation part is really quite difficult sometimes.

The purpose of this article is not about that though nor the technicalities of what you can expect all the different settings changes to do. This article is about encouraging you to treat your racecar setup as a practical science experiment.

In my experience, this approach will give you the best chance of learning and understanding how to best setup your racing car.

The benefit of you taking this approach is that you will have a objective record of what you did and what the performance outcomes were. Even if you cannot work it out what is going on today, you (or someone working with you) could work it out tomorrow. Remember even the professionals get lost sometimes.

Next time you are heading to the track, start to think of the event in terms of one large (hopefully fun!) experiment.

Get organised, record what you do and what happens.

You will give yourself the best chance to learn not only on today’s track but in fact, the learning should carry over to ANY track you race at.

Best of luck!

Further Reading:

Race cars are all about tyres –> https://www.yourdatadriven.com/guide-to-interpreting-tyre-temperatures-in-motorsports/

Take the mystery out of Gear Ratio selection –> https://www.yourdatadriven.com/how-to-use-the-gearing-optimisation-spreadsheet/

How to measure the impossible –> https://www.yourdatadriven.com/how-to-measure-the-impossible-and-the-inferred-metric/

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