Racing as a sport presents an interesting dichotomy. On the racetrack, it’s a cutthroat, every-man-for-himself brawl. You’re on your own. Having a problem? Tough luck, figure it out. You won’t get help from anyone else.
Off the track, each driver has a crew backing him up, and it’s very much a team sport. The engineers help figure out how to make the car go fast, the mechanics make sure it stays together, and teammates look at squiggly lines on computer screens, figuring out where the other is going faster and how they can match them.
As the season approaches, I keep telling myself that there’s nothing coming up that I’ve never done before. I’ve competed at levels equivalent to Formula Ford, and indeed even higher. It’s possible, despite my 4 year sabbatical, that I may even be one of the most experienced drivers on the grid. But there are several challenges that I am facing that are unique in my career.
When I raced in the Skip Barber Race Series, they would place instructors at each corner. During every session, whether it’s practice, qualifying or race, they would take notes on each driver’s performance. After the session was over, we would get out of our cars and meet with each instructor and go over ways to improve. I was always impressed with the instructors’ ability to diagnose even very subtle mistakes from ~30 yards away, and it was a surprisingly effective way to learn how to drive.
In Star Mazda, we had even more coaching tools. While my engineer looked at hieroglyphics like shock histograms, oversteer/understeer graphs and what-is-this-I-don’t-even graphs, there were several tools that I used regularly to diagnose driving mistakes and make myself faster. The most important tools were my teammates, speed trace, throttle position, video, and C-time.
After each session, data from the cars would be uploaded to wireless servers and subsequently downloaded into our engineer’s computers. After writing session notes on a track map, all the drivers and engineers would get together, and we would overlay the speed and throttle position traces from our best laps. This would give us a visual representation of how we were driving compared to each other, and which technique was faster. For example, in a particularly fast corner, driver X may be lifting off the throttle later, but that causes the car to be unstable and they can’t get back to power until well after driver X. Although driver X has the higher minimum corner speed, he loses momentum and driver Y makes up that time and more down the straight. That sort of thing is very easy to see, especially with C-time. C-time (comparative time) is a graph that uses one driver’s time (let’s say driver X) as X=0 , and traces driver Y’s time along the X-Axis, with the Y axis being the time difference between each driver at any point on the track (Look at me using all these math terms! My high school pre-calc teacher would be so proud!). This may sound complex but it gives us a very simple visual comparison of our technique in each corner. In the example described above, you would see driver Y’s graph bend up as he “overslows” the corner, but then as his momentum continues, it would slope down. This would suggest that in that particular corner, driver X should lift sooner and work on carrying more momentum. We then dissect each corner of the track in a similar way. Despite my life-long hatred for math, these tools are extremely helpful and actually a lot of fun to play with.
But guess what! This year I won’t have any of it. No coach. Extremely limited data. No throttle position sensor and no speed sensor. I won’t have a teammate to compare to anyways. We’re kickin’ it old-school. So, as a driver, the biggest challenge I’m facing this year is to self-diagnose my mistakes, and the only tool I’ll have is in-car video. I’m not sure what the solutions are, but I know they’ll come. I’ll have to watch the video very carefully. I’ll have to observe what other drivers are doing when I’m behind them. It’ll be difficult, but it should definitely make my mind sharper and a better driver. The owner of the Star Mazda team I used to drive for said once, “it seems you like to be really busy when you’re driving.” It may sound like a paradox, but the more I have to think about, the less I over-think things. So maybe driving without the crutches of data and teammates and coaches will keep my mind from thinking too much.