The following is a excerpt from the book "Motoring - Getting the Max from your MINI"
Track Day Driving Techniques
With some practice on the track, or on the autocross course, or prefereably both, and some focused attention to your driving techniques while on the road, you should be getting a feeling for driving a high-performance automobile well. So, now we’ll start playing with your head a little more by adding some complications to the simple process of getting your car around the corners without fuss or muss.
Types of Corners
Let’s start with the fact that, once you get out of the artificial blocks of city streets, very few corners occur as neat 90-degree angles with the same width from curb to curb on the exit as on the entry. Curves can consist of long, gentle sweeps that allow high speeds but reward patience, tight turns that require heavy braking and a very slow entry to avoid running out of road, or combinations of the two that start out tight and then open into sweepers, or worst of all, corners that start out as fairly high-speed sweepers and then surprise you by tightening up. Add to that corners where the pavement slope helps your turn, or at the opposite extreme, seems to slope the wrong way especially just when you want to increase your speed, and you’ve got a fistful of new concepts to learn.
But don’t despair. The concepts you’ve already been working on mastering, including controlled weight transfer, slow-in and fast-out, braking and downshifting, selecting your turn-in point, apex, and exit, will continue to apply. The exceptions we’ve just mentioned, and will now discuss in more detail, are just actually just variations on what you’ve been doing.
Let’s start with the corner that is potentially the most fun, the long sweeper. The major difference between this and the basic corner we discussed in the last chapter is that you don’t have a specific apex point where you get off the brake and then roll hard on the throttle. Instead, after completing your braking and making your initial turn, you will find yourself holding the wheel at one angle for what seems like a long time.
Actually there generally is an apex to this type of sweeping curve, but it is a long way after the turn-in point. You can tell when you’ve reached the actual apex, because you realize that the track or road is starting to straighten out. At that point, you can start to straighten out the wheel while beginning to press the throttle harder to start accelerating.
Tight Corners and Hairpins
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the very tight, continuous-radius corner, which might vary from something greater than 90 degrees to a tight 180-degree “hairpin” where you will be completely reversing your direction within a fairly short distance.
Needless to say, this transition takes a lot of practice, but these types of corners reward the good driver with excellent equipment and solid driving experience. At almost any track, this corner will see the greatest number of changes of position, since the corner is often almost a game of chicken, with the drivers seeing who can wait the longest before hitting the brakes, knowing that the driver who brakes last will be the first out of the corner, provided he or she has left enough room to slow the car sufficiently to be able to get around the corner.
Typically in these corners, the turn-in point will actually be past the apex point, and the apex point itself will be well past the geometric turning-point of the corner. All of this is necessary so that the driver has the maximum distance over which to accelerate. The drivers who turn in early have to wait until they are completely around the corner before they can begin that drag race to the next corner. Such drivers are generally passed by the driver who turns later, but gets back up to speed earlier.
On these turns, the trick is to look around the corner, and wait until you can see well around the track before making your turn. It is not unusual to feel as if you’re looking over your shoulder in an open car before you can see your line out of the corner and begin your turn. In a closed car, you’ll probably be looking out the side window for your cornering line before beginning the turn.
Changing Radius Corners
In our modern world of carefully-engineered highways and geometric city streets, most corners have the same curve from the beginning to the end. For these corners, once you’ve turned the steering wheel, you can usually hold it at the same angle until you are through the corner. However, on back roads which were probably laid out to follow the contours of land or the boundaries of some farmer’s property, it is not unusual to encounter a corner that surprises you half-way through by changing its curvature.
On road tracks, such corners are much more common. Track designers delight in making things difficult for the driver who is new to the track, or new to track driving, and the folks who lay out autocross courses positively delight in making things as difficult as possible. Two such corners are typical, ones that become more open as you go around them, and ones that become tighter as you go around them.
The first types are called “increasing radius corners.” On public roads, these are usually a positive surprise, since you find that you can get on the accelerator earlier and harder than you had expected when you entered the corner. On the track, they can be disconcerting because it usually means that you didn’t need to have slowed down as much as you did on the entry and could have been going even faster on the exit.
But in general, they’re not of too much concern for safe driving since it isn’t likely that you’re going to find yourself in an unexpected precarious situation coming out of the corner.
By contrast, corners that become tighter, with progressively smaller curvature, as you go around them can be quite dangerous. These corners, called “decreasing radius” corners, can deceive you into carrying too much speed on the entry. As the corner begins to become sharper, you realize you are going to have to turn the steering wheel tighter in order to keep from running off the road, but realize that if you do you may lose control of the car.
When driving an unfamiliar road, the best way to avoid this situation is to go more slowly, of course, and particularly wait until you are further into the corner before making your turn. That way you can see more of the exit and be able to gauge your speed more accurately.
However, if you do find yourself in the situation of having to turn the wheel more tightly after entering the corner, the worse thing to do is to follow your instinct and try to slow down by abruptly letting off the gas and hitting the brakes. If you do this, the car’s nose will go down, making it even harder to get the car to turn, and you may very well find yourself going straight off the outside of the curve.
Few people outside the realm of professional high-speed driving ever push their cars anywhere near their limits of adhesion or roll-over potential and all that will happen is that the car will scrub off speed as the tires slip a little. The car will make it around the corner without any problem, though you and your passengers may find your hearts beating a little faster when you’re through.
It’s the alternative that’s usually where trouble arises. When you see a car off the road, or worse on its side or top on the side of the road, you can pretty much assume that the driver got into a difficult situation, started to slide off the road, then either jerked the steering wheel hard or jammed on the brakes, or both, and wound up putting the car into a skid or roll.
It’s worth remembering as you mentally prepare for decreasing-radius corners, that you are driving a MINI with its front-wheel drive. On the positive side, you can usually power your way around a decreasing radius corner by using the throttle and front wheels to pull you through. On the negative side, the MINI is more likely to bite you if you take your foot off the throttle, or worse, hit the brakes. This action will cause the car’s weight to transfer to the front wheels and off the rear wheels, and it’s very likely the rear end will skid out to the outside of the corner, leaving you facing the wrong way or worse.
Learning to handle tight and decreasing radius corners is where some practice in advance can pay dividends, and one of the reasons why some track time or autocrossing is a good idea even if you never expect to do any competitive racing. The first time your tires start to squeal, you’ll be startled, but you’ll begin to get some confidence in the car’s ability to hold on to the pavement at speeds well beyond what you would have expected. You will also get a little more confidence in your ability to catch and correct a difficult situation without panicking and making it worse.
Of course, if you’re working on improving your line around a track, and you’re going to be taking the same decreasing radius corner again in two or three minutes, it is a simple factor to adjust your speed and turn-in point so that you start your turn a little later, and a little more slowly the next time around so that you can take the corner without scrubbing off speed and be able to accelerate more quickly coming out of the corner.
Stitching the Corners Together
If driving fast were a simple matter of braking, downshifting, turning in, hitting the apex and accelerating out as you released the wheel, then speeding down the straightaway until you got to the braking point of the next corner, racing and autocrossing would be a lot easier—and probably not nearly so much fun—as it is.
In fact, most race courses and nearly all autocross courses have only two or three places where you are simply driving straight down the course while accelerating and up-shifting. Instead, most corners come in groups. No sooner are you out of one corner than you have to prepare for the next one. In fact, in many situations you may find that you need to begin preparing for a corner before you’ve had the chance to complete the last turn.
It’s in these combinations of corners that less powerful cars can often overtake more powerful cars, and where the better drivers can improve on their lap times and overtake the less-skillful drivers. What’s necessary is to be able to think of the entire series of corners together. Your choice of entrance line into the first corner should be determined by where you want to be when you come out of the last corner, and each of the in-between transitions in speed and direction should be made as smoothly as possible.
We can start with the most obvious situation first, where a right-hand corner is followed immediately by a left-hand corner, or where the opposite is true. To drive this two-corner sequence effectively, two principles need to be kept in mind. First, you should “use all the track” as your instructor no doubt will remind you. Second, you will need to make your weight transition—from leaning in one direction to leaing in the other direction—as smooth as possible.
When discussing how to go around a corner in the previous chapter, we stressed going to the very outside of the track before beginning the turn, and then touching the inside curb on the curve, and finally going to the very outside of the track on the exit. Generally, this principle will continue to be true on most right-left and left-right sequences.
Thinking in terms of the right-left sequence, the additional factor in this situation is that, as nearly as possible, the exit point for the first corner should be the entrance point for the second corner. Since you can maintain more speed on a larger-radius curve, you want to go out to the outside to begin the first corner, then go all the way across the track and stay on that side until you’re ready to make your turn-in into the second corner.
If you just drive down the center of the track around both corners, both turns will have to be sharper. If you don’t take advantage of all the track on the entry to your first corner, you will be entering more slowly than necessary into the second corner.
In the situation where two right hand corners, or two left-hand corners, are taken in a row, the same rules apply. As usual, you go as wide as possible before making your turn-in, generally waiting until you can see your apex before turning. Then you complete the turn by going as wide to the outside as possible and stay on the outside of the track until you are ready to make your turn-in towards the second apex.
The second factor in a combination turn is the weight balance of the car. Essentially, the principle here is that you want the car to be upright and moving in a straight line after completing the first turn and before beginning the second turn.
Instead, try to be conscious of how the car’s center of gravity first moves to the outside of the car as you begin the turn, then moves back over the center of the car as you unwind the steering wheel after passing the apex of the turn.
In the instance where two turns in the same direction follow one another, you still need to be aware of how the car’s center of gravity is shifting. The car will progressively tilt away from the turn as you turn the wheel into the turn. Then as you gradually unwind the steering wheel coming out of the turn, the car will come back into balance, just as it did on the left-right and right-left sequence.
Sequences of Corners
The corners on a track or autocross course that really show off a driver’s skill and experience are those where several corners come in a row. In these circumstances, taking the optimum line around one corner may make it impossible to take the best line around the next corner.
For example, many tracks have a situation where if you go all the way to the outside of the track to prepare to enter the first corner in the sequence, the result is that you wind up exiting that corner way beyond the point where you can get a proper line into the second corner.
The key to these situations is to think about where you want to be when you come out the other end of the sequence of corners and are back on a straight section, whether that sequence is two corners, or five corners. As a general rule, the driver with the best lap time is not the person who goes through the corners fastest, but the one who gets from the beginnings of the straighter high-speed sections to their ends fastest.
To get the highest speed on the straighter sections depends on coming off the last corner before that section on the best possible line. Sometimes this is impossible unless a less-than-optimal line is selected through one or more of the earlier curves in the sequence. This principle is sometimes called “sacrificing a corner” for speed.
Obviously, you aren’t going to get this right the first time you drive the course. In fact, you have to find that line through the sequence of corners one step at a time, starting from the very last corner before the straight.
As you start to learn the track, or begin working to lower your times, start by driving relatively slowly through the sequence so that you can set up the last turn as effectively as possible in terms of how fast you’re going when you exit. Once you’ve figured out where to begin your entry into that last corner, then you can do the same thing by determining where to turn in and how fast to enter the second-to-last corner in the sequence.
By following this process back to the first corner in the sequence, you may very well find yourself starting the first corner at a point that wouldn’t make any sense at all if that corner were the only one, or you may find yourself going relatively wide and slow around a corner in the middle of the sequence in order to finish the sequence at the highest possible speed.
We grant that it is much easier to explain this process than to follow it. Nevertheless, if you were to watch a professional driver who was learning a new course, or mastering a new car on a known course (nearly the same thing), you would see that their lap times get progressively lower, one step at a time, as they continue to practice.
It isn’t that they are getting better and better at the whole course. Instead, what is happening is that they are finding a good line through one corner of a section at a time, and then progressively learning the corners leading up to it.
Whenever given the chance, those devious track designers will generally take advantage of terrain changes, or geographic characteristics to make the driver’s task even more difficult. If they do very well, they will be rewarded by having their track called “technical.” In our terms, a technical track is one that calls on all of the driver’s skills to get good times.
To drive these blind corners well, two tips are in order. First, try to see the entire corner, including the part you can’t see, in your mind’s eye before entering it. Second, help yourself by finding visual landmarks that you can see in order to take the corner well.
The idea is that as you come up to a corner that is obscured by a rise in the terrain, or other barrier, that you try to see through the barrier in your mind, picturing what the corner will look like as you clear the barrier. Do this several times as you begin driving a new track and fairly soon you’ll have a clear picture of what the corner looks like in your mind. At that point you’ll find that your confidence has been built up so that you can clear the barrier without slowing down more than is justified by the actual characteristics of the corner.
This is probably a good point to discuss one of the important roles that corner workers play at race tracks. All sanctioned race tracks will have at a corner-worker station at each blind corner. Two workers will be posted at each of these corners.
The other worker will be standing with his back to the first worker, looking further down the track. That worker is your eyes into the area that you can’t see, but which you are about to drive into at high speed. He has only one flag under his arm, the yellow one.
We can’t emphasize too much that you must look at the flag station before you drive into a blind corner. If the flag workers are standing there with their flags tucked under their arms, you can safely pick your line into the corner and take it with all the speed that’s appropriate. If, on the other hand, the course worker is waving the yellow flag, that’s your warning to slow down and be ready to even stop, if necessary, becauuse there will be an obstruction to avoid on the other side of the blind spot.
Wet Tracks and Slippery Pavement
Whenever we visualize ourselves driving at speed on a racetrack, the sun is always shining, and the temperature is comfortable, but not too hot or too cold. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the situation. It can be rainy and it can be cold and the track day will still take place.
With the high costs of track rentals these days, and the complicated logistics involved in putting together a track day, cancellation due to bad weather is just not an option. It’s only at the Indianapolis 500 that they wait for the rain to stop before running.
Obvious point number one: slow down. You’ll have more time to react to unexpected situations should they arise, and be carrying less momentum should you find yourself in trouble. Leave more room than normal between yourself and the vehicle ahead, and look well down the road for developing problems such as a car skidding out of control.
Obvious point number two: be alert. When you find yourself on the wet, or in the middle of that unexpected shower, narrow your focus of attention to your driving. Make sure you’ve got both hands on the wheel in the proper eight or nine o’clock and three or four o’clock positions. Use your hands to feel for any loss of traction in the front wheels. If the steering wheel starts to feel as if it isn’t quite connected with the wheels, then you may be hydroplaning on top of the water, instead of moving through it with your wheels in contact with the pavement.
Be smooth in your response. Any slickness in the pavement is going to multiply your reactions. You want to be even smoother with your direction corrections, acceleration and braking that you would otherwise be. Be sure that you are going straight before making any braking or acceleration changes. If you do need to make any changes in direction, do it slowly and carefully rather than abruptly.
On the highway, your best bet is to stay in the slow lane which will be slightly less slick, keep you out of the way of those who think that rain can be ignored, and will give you run-off space if you need to avoid a problem.
Track Day Safety
Track days can be an excellent way to improve your driving skills and become more familiar with your MINI under reasonably safe circumstances. However, there are some good rules to keep in mind whenever you are out on the track with other drivers.
You always need to be very aware of the drivers around you. Those in front may create situations to which you will have to react, and those behind you can startle you in unexpected places. Try to concentrate on everything immediately around you, but focus only on what is going on at the moment. This is no time to be thinking about where you’re going for dinner after the event.
For example, areas of the track where you can pass, and where you can not pass, are likely to be specified. Procedures for passing, such as that the overtaking car is always to go to the driver’s right or driver’s left of the car being passed, are also likely to be specified. These rules are not suggestions or simple courtesies. They are mandatory, and if the supervisors are doing their job, breaking them will bring a strong warning, followed on a second occurrence by immediate expulsion from the event.
Watch your mirrors. Even more than in everyday traffic, you need to check your mirrors frequently to be aware of cars behind you, especially those that are overtaking you. Try to develop a habit of checking your mirrors at least once and preferably twice on each straight portion of the track.
Check your mirrors first just as soon as you complete the corner to see if there may be a car behind you that will want to take advantage of the straight portion to go past you. Check again just before you commit yourself to the next corner to make sure that no one is going to try to get around you just at the point when you are coming across the track to apex the corner.
Allow others to pass safely. During your first few track days, when you’re feeling a little tentative about your car and your driving ability, and getting to know the track, it will seem as if everyone in the world is going faster than you are and is crowding your bumpers.
Typically, you’ll find that you’re being crowded on the corners, since you’re likely to be slowest in those areas. Don’t let that worry you, but be ready to let the faster cars go around you as soon as you’re in an area where passing is permitted.As soon as you’re in a safe passing area, point in the direction you expect the driver to go as he passes you. The point lets the driver behind know that you know he or she is there and that they can pass you without causing you to do anything unexpected.
Don’t try to move over, or move off the line that you would otherwise be traveling. The driver overtaking you needs to know that you aren’t going to turn abruptly in one direction or the other as they’re trying to pass. It is up to them to make the pass safely.
It doesn’t hurt to slow down just a bit to allow the car behind to get completely around you before the next corner. Typically at a MINI track day, the cars will be fairly evenly matched, but driving abilities will vary. As a result, you might be able to hold your own on the straight, or even outdrag the overtaking driver, but that proves nothing. If they can stay on your bumpers through the corners, then they’re probably driving better than you and should have the right to practice their cornering without having to slow up for you.
Just don’t be disconcerted by being passed. If you’re courteous and predictable in your driving style, no one will mind that you’re driving more slowly than they are.
If you’re the overtaking driver, make your passes safely. As you gain a little experience, you may find that you are overtaking other drivers. In this case, it is your responsibility to make the pass safely. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about this. The safe pass is solely the responsibility of the overtaking driver.
After you’ve gotten near the car ahead, wait for the next safe passing zone and look for their signal to pass. If you are not sure the driver ahead knows you’re there, or not sure there is enough room to make a clean pass in the safe passing area, then wait until you can make the pass safely.
Be careful to completely pass the car ahead before you change direction. If you don’t think you can pass them before the turn-in point for the next corner, then wait until the next passing zone to make your pass.
If you find that you simply can’t get around a driver safely on the straights, even though you know you’re faster on the corners, then the best thing to do is to back off. Track days aren’t races, and there are no prizes for proving you’re faster than someone else. You might even pull into pit lane and then go back out on the track to give the slow car as much room as possible. Pausing for even thirty seconds is usually enough to get enough track space for yourself so you can go back to practicing at the speed that suits you.
Obvious point number three: If the program in which you’re participating offers to provide a coach or instructor to ride with you on your hot laps, take them up on it. This is no time for a macho “I’d rather do it myself” attitude. Once you’re out on the track, you’re going to discover that there is about twice as much going on as your mind can process and your memory store.
Having an instructor or coach in the car will make sure that if somethine starts to happen that is beyond your power to control, there will be an experienced driver in the car to holler or grab the wheel to help you avoid the problem. More likely, having a quiet voice next to you saying, “brake now” or “turn-in here” can help you stay focused.
Best of all, the instructor/coach can store up all the little data that you might miss or forget in the sensory overload on the track, and help you put it all in perspective once you get off the track. Having someone who can say, for example, “You’re coasting into the corners by pausing between brake and throttle,” can make everything suddenly make sense.
When You Get in Trouble
Sooner or later on the track, everyone has that moment when they believe they have just exceeded their ability to drive the car, or the car has just been pushed beyond its limits.
Running Out of Road
On a fast corner, you find that you’re going faster than you expected, and it looks as if you’re going to run off the outside of the track before you complete the corner. Or in the middle of a turn you find that your front or rear end is sliding and you’re not sure you can get the car under control. What do you do now?
By now, we think you know the answer. In your MINI, you are going to keep your foot on the throttle and use both your steering and your power to pull you through the corner. But what happens if you forget, or do find yourself in a spin. To answer this question, a little rhyme is often quoted in driver instruction: In a spin, both feet in.”
Once the car has gone into a spin, and you realize you’re just along for the ride, you need to do exactly the opposite. Now is the time to get your right foot off the gas and push the brake pedal in as hard as possible in order to lock up the wheels. At the same time, your left foot should push in the clutch so that the engine won’t die.
Locking up the wheels will generally keep the car spinning in a reasonably small area. Having the clutch in means that no power will get to the wheels that could cause the car to go shooting off in a different direction as soon as it regains traction.
In addition, the engine will still be running when you finally come to a stop. That will allow you to immediately shift into a lower gear and get the car to a point where you’re safe or where you can get back on track and into the flow of traffic.
Dropping a Wheel Off the Edge
It’s more likely that you might turn in a little too early, get too close to the edge at the exit, and have one or both of your outside wheels go off the track. Dropping one or two wheels off the track can be fairly benign, or the prelude to disaster.
If you do take a corner too fast, and can’t turn the car enough to stay completely on the track, you may find yourself with one or both wheels on one side of the car dropping off the track. Usually you’ll have a pretty good idea that this is going to happen before it actually does, so you can prepare yourself for it.
Just as soon as a wheel goes off the track, the car is going to get pretty squirrelly (No, that’s not a technical term.). The wheels in the dirt are going to have very different traction than the wheels that are still on the track.
At that point, the worst thing you can do is try to wrench the car back on the track. If you do try to do that, just as soon as the off wheels grab the pavement again, the car will start to spin with a vengeance, generally sliding across the track and off again on the opposite side. That is, if you don’t encounter other cars as you slide across the track.
Instead, when you realize you’re about to drop wheels off, you’re better off continuing in a straight line until you either drive completely off the track, or slow down to the point where you can consider driving back on to the track.
If you can get the car back under control, before you drive back onto the track be sure you look behind you to make sure that there aren’t any other cars coming up on you. Only after you’re absolutely sure you can get back on the track without getting in anyone else’s way should you actually turn back on the track.
Completely Off the Track
What about going off the track completely? In the event you do slide or drive off the track, the first thing to do is to come to a full stop to make sure that the car is still running all right and you haven’t broken something or sprung a leak.
Once you’re sure that everything on the car is still connected to everything else, and you’ve had time to catch your breath, then you can consider getting back on track. Before you do that, however, be very sure that you are entering at a point where oncoming traffic can see you, and be very sure that there isn’t any oncoming traffic.
Then, and only then, should you move back on to the track. Remember that you’re going to be moving slowly at first and allow for that when gauging how much space will be needed. Remember, there’s no rush. This isn’t Sebring and your racing contract doesn’t hang in the balance if you lose a few minutes.
Once you do get back on the track, most track day organizations will expect you to come back into pit lane immediately and check in with the chief steward. At the least, the official will want to check to make sure that there’s nothing hanging off or stuck to your car. They also may want to have a few words with you about why the car wound up off the track to make sure that you can be counted on not to be a hazard to yourself or others when you go back out again.
If you’ve gone off and you think something may be wrong with the car, you’ll need to wait for the crash truck to come and get you into the pits where you can figure out what’s wrong. If the car is in a safe place, well off the track, the best thing to do is wait in the car until the truck comes. Keep your helmet on and your seat belts fastened. That way you’ll be as safe as possible while you’re sitting there, and ready to have the car towed in when the truck arrives.
Even if the car isn’t in a safe position, you are still likely to be safer if you are in it, belted securely and with your helmet on. You wouldn’t want to be half in and half out of the car and then get hit by another car. Wave an arm and flip up the faceplate of your helmet so they’ll know you’re all right and don’t require immediate medical attention.
Stay in the car until the corner workers tell you to get out. Most likely, they will push it out of harm’s way, or keep the flags waving until the safety crew can get to you and move the car. Either way, they’ll need to have you at the wheel to steer the car.
Only in the event of a fire should you make the decision on your own to get out of the car before the corner workers or safety crew tell you to do so. In that case, don’t waste any time; just get out as quickly as you can and then move away from the car and over the wall off the track.
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