Performance Driving Notes
by John Norrington
1. Braking - mostly braking too much
Probably the biggest vice I have to fix is braking. Most people brake way too much. As you come up through the beginner levels, you are taught to get all the braking done before turn-in. This is mostly for safety. However, as you gain experience, the most time will be gained by adjusting this.
Many solos will brake hard in a straight line and then leap off the brakes just as they are about to turn into the corner. This hard braking will shift weight forward and compress the front springs. When you leap off the brakes, the front of the car will bounce back. This will take weight off the front wheels just as you are asking them to turn. The car will not want to turn, so you are forced to slow down even more the next time. The harder you brake, the worse it gets.
2. Trail Braking
The solution is to blend your braking into the corner. This is trail braking. Trail braking essentially means braking into a corner. Trail braking is not about slowing the car. It is more of a weight transfer tool – much in the way that balance throttle is a weight transfer tool. The goal is to keep the car’s suspension stable and planted. Trail braking is balanced braking. The more stable a car is, the faster it can go.
To effectively trail brake, you still do your deceleration in a straight line. However, at the end of the braking zone, you keep a little pressure on the brakes as you enter the corner. Not enough pressure to continue to slow the car, but just enough pressure to keep the weight on the front wheels as you enter the corner. Then you gently release the pressure as you approach the apex.
How do you know when it’s time to end the trail brake? Somewhere around a third of the way into the corner you will suddenly be overcome with a feeling of comfort. You will be comfortable with the idea of getting on the gas. This is when you transition to the gas.
When you start doing this, you will immediately realize you are braking too much. You won’t have enough speed left as you enter the corner. You will feel like you are going too slow. So…next time you enter the corner, don’t move the braking point just yet. Reduce the pressure on the brake pedal instead. By braking more softly into the corner, you will compress the springs less, and you will have less of a reaction to deal with (and the more comfortable you will feel). When you are comfortable moving to the gas, end your trail braking there.
As you enter the corner, focus on where you’re ending the trail brake. Work backwards from there to figure out where you are comfortable starting your braking. Isn’t it fantastic? You are now going in fast and braking not very hard. Both you and your car are happy.
3. Throttle – Too much gas, too early, sawing on the gas
After braking, the next big solo vice is too much throttle. Or inconsistent throttle. I suppose it makes sense. You slowed down too much and now you need to get that speed back. But getting on the gas too hard in a corner can actually slow you down.
Getting on the gas hard will pitch the car sideways. This increased yaw or slip angle will feel like a cornering force. But it’s actually a braking force as the tires slide sideways across the asphalt. It will also increase your tire temperature, contributing to your tires “going away” later in the session.
Similarly, some solos will get on the gas too hard in the corner, then realize it’s too much and lift off, then get back on, etc. – essentially "sawing" the car through the corner. This situation is terrible for car stability and kills any chance of going fast. If you find yourself getting on the gas too much, reduce it gently to find equilibrium. A bit too much or a bit too little is still better than on and off.
As with trail braking, your goal is to manage the stability of the car. Think about how the suspension feels and manage that feeling. As you open the wheel, gently add more gas until you can be full throttle. Beware that scrubbing feeling.
4. Shifting – Unnecessary downshifts
Don’t overcomplicate things. If you are having trouble with a corner, leave something out. Often the first thing to skip is a downshift. That downshift with the perfect blip really adds to the complexity. It can be hard to do without overslowing the car. Try leaving it out. You may find that focusing more on the line improves your momentum so much that you don’t need the lower gear.
If you find yourself downshifting into a corner only to upshift again before track out, you are probably losing time with that shift. Try leaving it out and measure your exit speed. Sometimes your butt lies to you. Try both and measure the result.
5. Cheating the corner
Sometimes people get a little ahead of themselves. You’re so excited about your favorite corner that you start creeping in before the turn-in point. But you’re only cheating yourself. By creeping in, you are only making the track narrower, making the corner sharper than it needs to be. Do not leave the edge of the track until it’s time to turn in.
6. Coasting – Don’t just sit there. Do something!
Another trait I see often in solo drivers is a love of coasting. You’ve probably been told that you should either be on the gas or on the brake. Coasting is the act of being on neither. When you are on the gas, the suspension is set and the car is stable. The weight in the car is controlled and the car feels good. Similarly when you are braking, the suspension also has a set. And again, the car is stable. But when you are coasting, there is no set. And the weight of the car wanders around arbitrarily. The car is not stable. It’s not necessarily “unstable” – as in dangerous. But it’s not planted. And this hurts your entry into the corner.
eing on the gas or on the brakes does not mean you have to be 100% on the gas or brakes. But you should be on something. You want to control that weight.
If full throttle is too hot for comfort approaching the corner, stay on the gas, but just be on less. Instead of 100 percent throttle, reduce it gently to, say, 70 percent throttle. Whatever you’re comfortable with. But stay on the throttle until it’s time to brake. The car will be more stable which will make you more comfortable. And if you are comfortable, you’ll be able to carry more speed in.
7. Charging the corner
Even if your braking and throttle are good, it is possible to carry too much speed in a corner. Charging a corner and generating big G-loads feels good. But it can also cause a lot of unnecessary friction. Not so much “in slow, out fast.” More “in not too fast, out fast.”
It’s often useful to break a fast corner into two parts. On corner entry and up to the apex, your priority is to get the car rotated – pointed toward the exit so you can get on the gas ASAP. More trail braking. Then once you have it pointed, get on the gas. You will spend less time scrubbing and more time accelerating.
8. Fighting the car, pinching, holding the car in
In an effort to go faster, many solos are fighting the car; i.e., trying to make the car do something it doesn’t want to do. Suspensions on modern cars are very well-designed. The car will tell you what it likes and what it doesn’t. Your job is to listen to what the car tells you. If you are fighting the car, it’s not able to do its job very well. If the car is happy, it will reward you with fabulous performance. Your job as the driver is to figure out what the car likes, and give it lots of that.
Listen to the car. If you come off a corner and the car says it wants to go over there…as long as it’s paved, drive it over there. If you pinch the corner or hold the car in, you are making the radius smaller and incurring unnecessary friction.
Similarly, if you come off a fast corner and the car says it doesn’t need to go over there, don’t drive it over there. You’re just adding distance.
9. Turning too much – Where are you on the traction curve?
As you turn the wheel, the grip from a tire increases. At some point, it reaches its maximum grip. If you continue to turn the wheel, it will start to produce less grip. You can drive a tire just below its maximum or just above its maximum. Both will produce the same grip. But one will do it with a lot less friction. Open the wheel as much as you can get away with.
10. Overdriving – aggressive, sloppy, trying too hard
A lot of solos have a tendency to try too hard. They are hard on the brakes, hard on the gas, make abrupt steering inputs, etc. The chassis is overpowered much of the time. It’s inefficiency in action. It may be fun. But it’s not fast. There is only so much work the tires and chassis can do. If you shock the car with your inputs, you are going to exceed the car’s ability and you will inevitably go slower.
A better approach is to underdrive the car. Blend your activities into each other. Braking becomes cornering becomes acceleration. Everything is slow, smooth, and controlled. Your top priority is to make the chassis happy. If the car is happy and stable, it can do more. And you can do more.
Do not try to go fast. Your goal is to actually go fast. To do that, you need to do everything perfectly. Program your brain through smooth perfect laps. If you overdrive, you are just programming mistakes, programming inefficiency.
If you are making mistakes, you need to slow down. One mistake is forgivable. But if you make two, you are programming those mistakes. Slow down 10%. If you continue to make mistakes, slow down another 10%. Do this until you can do it perfectly. Then practice. Speed will come on its own. You cannot force speed.
11. Mood – tension, not relaxed, anxious, death grip, being uncomfortable
If you want to go fast, first you need to learn. To learn, you must first be comfortable. If you are anxious, tense, fearful, etc., you cannot learn. If you are triggering your survival instincts you are not going to learn. You need to breathe. You need to relax. Race drivers are surprisingly calm people.
If you sense any of this in your body, your first instinct should be to slow down. Find a speed where you are completely comfortable and can do everything properly and without fear. Then practice at that pace. If you are comfortable, you will automatically go faster as you practice and commit your actions to muscle memory. Soon you will be performing at a level faster than when you were tense and anxious. And it will be easy.
12. The Line ‐ Driving too long a distance
Many corners have multiple solutions. Take a long, high-speed sweeper as an example. A wide entry with a late apex may seem a faster line. But a shallower entry with a longer slower apex might be a shorter distance. The difference could be 50 or 100 feet. Can a wide late apex carry enough extra speed to make up for driving an extra 100 feet? The answer depends. Ideally, you should try both ways and measure the result. It’s another thing for you to think about.
13. Camber – or not making optimal use of camber
The road doesn’t just go left and right. It also goes up and down. This is camber. Camber can be a hill. It can be the banking. It can also be the crown in the road. Positive camber is a good thing. Negative camber is not.
Braking into a hill works great. As the car compresses into the hill, you have a ton of grip. Braking off the back of a hill, you do not. Get the work done while you still have camber on your side. Or wait for the car to settle on the other side of the hill and do your work then. Even if it’s a gentle hill, camber has an effect. Don’t overlook it.
If a hill is involved in entering a corner, then camber is very important. If you try turning in after the crest of the hill, the car is not going to want to turn. Modify your line so you get the work of turning the car done before the camber runs out. This is a good time for trail braking. Keeping weight on the front of the car while cresting a hill will help with the turn-in.
Some corners might have a substantial crown in the road. That is, the center of the track is higher than either side. In this case, the inside of a corner will act like banking. But the outside will be more slippery. Plan a line that allows you to make use of the positive camber on the inside. The banking will also take some radius out of the corner.
14. Never stop experimenting
You were no doubt taught by instructors. And those instructors probably taught you the “school line.” Sometimes this is a safe line with lots of late apexes. Sometimes is just an easier line – walk before you run. Same goes for techniques.
At the advanced solo level, you should not bank on what they taught you as necessarily being optimal. Your job now is to experiment with different ideas, measure the results, and decide for yourself what works best. You may find yourself doing something completely different than the cars around you. And you may find yourself catching those cars. If that’s the case, keep doing it. If they are catching you, it didn’t work. Try something else. But never stop looking for new angles.
Sometimes drivers drive their home track so often that they are blind to new ideas. You’ve memorized it. But do you really understand it? Take a road trip and try a new track. Or two. Or three…. There, you will have no local knowledge. You will be forced to solve the geometry for yourself. See what you come up with. Then take it back to your home track. I’ll bet you will drive it differently.
John Norrington Experience
- 10+ years hands on teaching experience
- c.5,000 pupils to date
- Race licence holder over 40 years
- ARDS GRADE A Instructor
- MSA Level 2 Coach
- APDI member
- IAM member
- RoSPA member
- SDSA certified
- Pro Driver. Worked with many manufacturers/dealers, staff and customers on road and track driving, demonstrating and training.