Welcome to tutorial #17 in Driver 61’s University series: Driving at the Limit. Our professional driver and coach, Scott Mansell, will cover:
- What is driving at the limit?
- Why do we need to drive at the limit?
- Is the limit really the limit?
- How to drive at the limit
- Finding the limit as efficiently as possible
What is Driving at the Limit?
Firstly, let me define what I mean by ‘driving at the limit’. It’s getting the most out of yourself and car at each point into, through and out of a corner and using all traction available from each of the car’s four tyres at all times.
Driving at the limit is travelling into and through the turn as fast as the car can possibly go.
If you are not moving through the corner at the optimum speed, then you’ll be losing lap time to a driver who has. Not driving at the optimal speed through a corner can also be labelled as a mistake.
Note that we classify a mistake not as, for example, braking too late and running past an apex, but rather anything that isn’t driving at the optimal speed. Taking this attitude means that you’ll always be looking to improve and find a little more speed.
It’s also important to understand that the limit is a fluid concept. A driver with sharp inputs into the steering, brakes and throttle will have a lower ultimate limit than a smooth driver.
The reason is weight transfer. As I’ve explained in previous tutorials, the more weight transfer we have – which is amplified by harsh inputs – the lower the ultimate grip levels are, resulting in a lower cornering speed and slower lap times.
We visit this topic in more detail later in the article, as it’s important we understand how to push this grip threshold limit as far away as possible, so we can carry maximum speed.
Why do we need to drive at the limit?
I’ve already touched on this, and it’s simple to understand that if we’re not driving at the ultimate limit, getting the most from the car, then we’re leaving lap time on the table.
What’s interesting in this section is understanding how drivers go through varying levels of using the limit as they become more and more experienced.
The diagram below describes the traction used v the amount of sliding (slip angle) for four drivers of various experience levels.
As you can see the curve rises – showing the increasing of cornering grip used against the growing amount of sliding – before the grip tails off as the slides become too large.
A little bit of sliding is fast. Too much is slow.
Plotted on this graph are four drivers, A, B, C and D. Driver A is new to track driving, always below the grip threshold and so never sliding the car. He is safe and focusing on improving racing lines and vision.
Driver B is more experienced and more confident. He sometimes has the car sliding but is mostly surprised when the car breaks away as he’s not expecting it.
Driver C is quite fast. He is happy with the car sliding around, in fact, he thinks driving the car like this is quick – pushing like this often feels like you’re pushing the limit.
Driver D is very experienced and quick. He has the car sliding a little and is well balance. He has a smooth style and is very refined with his inputs.
As drivers develop their skills on the circuit, they’ll go through each of these four stages.
- Confidence building
- Finding the limit and breaking it on occasion
- Confidently surpassing the limit and often overdriving (sliding too much with harsh inputs)
- Refining inputs and consistently being a little under or over the limit
Moving through each of these stages cannot be rushed – if you try and drive the car beyond your experience level, there’s a high chance that you’ll end up in a shunt.
You’ll need to take your time, but it’s important we’re as efficient with our time on track as possible – we’re going to examine how to move through each stage a little later in the article.
Is the limit really the limit?
I touched on this briefly at the beginning of the article. Just because you have the car sliding around at various points in the corner, doesn’t mean that you’re driving through it as fast as possible.
When you’re at stage two or three of the list above, the car will be breaking traction, but you’ll likely not be lapping as fast as possible.
In fact, I’ve coached drivers who have had their car at ‘the limit’ all the way around the circuit and have still been three or four seconds off the pace.
As I spoke about in our grip and weight transfer articles, we want to move the grip threshold – the point at which the car begins to slide – to as high a cornering speed as possible.
Maximising your cornering speed is all about being smooth with your inputs and making the most out each section of the corner. You can see our lessons about optimising each phase of a corner in tutorials 12, 13, 14 and 15.
In general, to be very fast, a driver needs to reach the ultimate limit of grip through all stages of the corner.
This is not to say that a fast driver will not make mistakes. I make mistakes all the time; it’s just that they don’t cost me in terms of lap time. The mistakes are fluid, meaning that if I lose a little on corner entry, I’ll change something minute and make the time up on the exit.
For example, perhaps I brake a couple of metres late for a hairpin. I’ll carry a tiny amount of extra speed in and maybe have to turn in very slightly later.
However, with this later turn in I can get the car turned a little earlier, get it pointing out of the corner sooner and get back on the throttle sooner, thus making up the time.
The point is you can make small mistakes – being right on the edge of grip is a fluid thing. You win a bit here, lose a bit there.
What’s important is that your driving adapts as you feel these slight inconsistencies in your technique.
How to drive at the limit
The first thing to say about driving at the limit is that you must not rush into it. You need to get the basics right first.
If you’re still making mistakes with your vision, racing line, and trail braking, don’t start trying to find the limit. Instead, first get these fundamentals of track driving right and then move on to pushing the limit.
Remember that pushing too hard, too soon can quickly turn into an accident.
You’ll want to be able to check off all the following techniques – without needing thinking about them when driving – before you start pushing the limit:
- Vision is long and broad, a few second ahead of yourself
- You know the circuit well
- Your racing line is consistent
- Your inputs are smooth
- You have the capacity to think about other things when you’re driving at a reasonable speed
It’s essential that you have some mental capacity available when trying to find and push the limit.
If you consciously have to think about racing line and so on, then you probably won’t have enough computing space available to think about what’s happening with the car when it slides beneath you.
Once you’re happy that you have some capacity remaining to think about driving at the limit, you should try the following steps:
- Build up in each area of the corner gently – build up too fast and you could overstep the mark and spin
- At some point, the car will begin to slide – take note of which section of the corner it happens and whether it’s the front or rear of the car that breaks traction
- Try to have the car just breaking traction at all four sections of the corner
- Analyse where you can improve: braking, entry, mid or exit
- Improve over the next laps or session
- Repeat to improve and refine
As you can see, driving at the limit is an ongoing process of feedback and analysis – this will continue every time you go on the circuit. Continual improvement is what we’re after.
The important thing is to be conscious of what’s happening and be open to changing your technique so you always get most from the car.
Finding the limit as quickly as possible
Every time we go out on the circuit – even if it’s on the same day – the grip levels will change slightly.
Track temperature, air temperature, circuit condition, the wind and the age of your tyres amongst many other variables, means that no two laps are the same.
To be truly fast, you must be adapting all the time.
If you drive in the UK, you’ll also be accustomed to the dry-wet-moist-wet-dry-moist kind of test days that we always seem to have at circuits like Donington Park and Silverstone.
Finding the limit as efficiently as possible is something I’ve been recently working hard on with one of my clients, and it’s a fascinating topic.
If you think about it, it’s all about using every opportunity to get some data from the circuit regarding grip levels.
Miss out on a data point and you’ll have less knowledge concerning the track grip than someone who is maximising his opportunity.
To get information about the grip levels on track, you must break traction or drive slightly over the limit.
If you drive around a corner and don’t break traction, you’ll only know that you can drive at at least ‘x’ mph, but you won’t know what the ultimate cornering speed and grip level are.
This is especially important in changeable conditions, where understanding grips levels at each corner can significantly improve your chances against drivers who are unsure about the grip limit.
There are a few techniques you can use to find grip levels quickly:
- Inducing understeer when cornering
- Braking until locking a tyre
- Accelerating until wheel spinning
INDUCING UNDERSTEER TO FIND THE LIMIT
For me, the best way to understand grips levels is to artificially induce understeer. This is best done in a long corner, where the car is loaded up laterally for a long time. We can then accelerate up to the edge of grip safely, go just beyond and receive some important data.
You’ll need to arrive at the corner at a reasonable pace, around 95% of your expectation speed needed to break traction.
Come off the brakes early and roll the momentum into the corner. This allows the front of the car to rise and create understeer.
If the car doesn’t understeer at turn-in, gently get back on the throttle and increase until it does. It’s why we require a long corner for this technique, so we have time and space to accelerate up to the grip limit of the front tyres.
When you feel the steering go a little light and the car isn’t turning as it should, you’ll know you have a understeer. Then, gently release a little throttle and the front tyres will regain their grip.
You’ll then know the general grip level for this corner. Always bear in mind that the ultimate grip level will be slightly higher than this, and when you drive the car with proper technique, keeping it balanced, you’ll push the limit a little further away.
LOCKING A TYRE TO FIND THE LIMIT ON THE BRAKES
When I first get in a car – especially if it’s a high aero racer – I’ll find the braking capabilities as soon as possible. Once you know how quickly the car decelerates, you can extrapolate that to the rest of the circuit, and get up to speed very quickly indeed.
So here’s what I do. When it’s safe to do so – when there’s no one behind me – and I’m travelling at a reasonably fast speed but long before any corners, I’ll get on the brakes and quickly increase pressure until I lock a tyre.
As soon as the tyre locks I remove the pressure, as we don’t want a flat spotted front. I then have some excellent data about grip and braking capabilities for the car in question.
Very quickly I can estimate braking points for all the big stops around a circuit. Yes, I’ll still give myself a little wiggle room and initially brake slightly earlier than needed, but I’m in the ballpark straight away.
This technique is especially important when you’re driving in the wet – a topic I’ll cover later in this series. When driving in the rain, it may or may not be faster to driver off the regular line – away from the slippery rubber.
Braking until you lock a tyre is an efficient way to back-to-back the grip levels. Just make sure you give yourself a little room for error, as it’s easy to fly straight past the next corner.
ACCELERATING TO FIND TRACTION LIMIT
It’s also important to find the grip limit when we’re accelerating out of a corner – we can then use this information for each traction zone on the circuit.
The trick here is to be already close to the edge of traction as you accelerate. The closer you are to the limit, the smaller the spike in the throttle pedal will need to be.
Exit the corner at 90% or 95% of what you expect the optimum speed to be and increase throttle position quicker than you normally would.
We want to overload the rears a little, but no so much that we spin. When you do this, you’ll break traction a little and receive some information about the grip levels. Again, you can extrapolate this across all the other traction zones on the circuit.
Good driving at the limit can make the difference between the top step of the podium and being an also-ran.
Even for professional drivers, it’s difficult to drive at the limit on every corner and every lap, so it’s important to say that if you’re learning, don’t push yourself too quickly – it takes time, sometimes years, to become properly refined.
Your focus should be on ensuring the basics are correct; good vision, smooth inputs and consistent racing lines, then work on a feedback loop of breaking traction and refinement.
So that’s all for this week’s tutorial, thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, please help us out and share. I’ll see you next week, Scott.