How good a driver I believe myself to be depends almost entirely on how recently I sat next to someone who really knows how to drive. If it’s been a few months, I might by then have convinced myself that I am really pretty proficient, somewhat talented you might say, and feel fairly proud about it. And then I’ll get strapped in next to some hotshot racer in a long slung slice of automotive exotica and, five laps later, emerge wondering if I know how to drive at all.
MAY 12th 2017
Thank Frankel it's Friday: Why I'm not a very good driver
All things are relative and when I’m tempted to get cheesed off at the sight of someone so much better at a fairly large component of what I do than me I comfort myself that, unless your name is Max or Fernando, there is always going to be someone out there with more driving talent, whoever you are.
I have, for instance, been driven by Jonathan Palmer, in the wet, around the old Nurburgring, in a McLaren F1. As displays of genuinely heroic car control go, it’s one of the most astonishing performances I’ve witnessed. Despite the fact he’d not been there or 11 years and couldn’t quite remember which way it went, he was sideways almost everywhere, on a damp track and in a car that was notoriously unforgiving in such conditions. With talent like that, I wondered why he had he not been a multiple Formula 1 World Champion? So I asked him.
His reply was the most honest answer I’ve ever had from a racing driver. He explained that he thought he was doing ok in Formula 1, despite driving usually uncompetitive cars until halfway through the 1989 season when Jean Alesi joined him at Tyrrell. Data-logging was pretty crude back then, but enough could be recorded for Jonathan to be able to look at Alesi’s traces, compare them to his own and conclude that while he understood what his new team-mate was doing, he’d not be able to do it himself. He retired at the end of the season.
The interesting thing to me is that so little of any given lap actually requires any talent. There’s skill that can be learned about how to line up each corner, learn where the bumps are, which gears to use and so on, but you would be as good as me, Jonathan, Jean, Fernando or Max at pressing an accelerator to floor, which is actually what most racing drivers spend most of their time doing. Even on the approach to corners it is possible to learn where the latest sensible braking point is to be found and once past the apex, in an era where most racing cars have some form of traction control, jumping back on the gas is easy enough. And even if you have no electronic assistance, a car under power is fundamentally stable, and should things start to feel a little loose not only is there usually a straight ahead but easing off the gas or reducing the lock will usually rein in a tail threatening to go walkabout.
So the need for otherworldly talent is actually restricted to a rather small section of each lap, namely the entry phase into each corner. But it is crucial. Here, when the car is slowing down under the maximum possible longitudinal and lateral loads, it is at its least stable, and wherever it goes wrong you still have the rest of the corner to negotiate, so just stabilising the car by getting back on the gas will probably not be an option, because you’re already going too damn fast and you’re running out of road.
My solution to this is brilliant: do more of your braking in a straight line and enter the corner more slowly. And the only downside to this is that once you’ve multiplied the time lost by the number of corners on the circuit your lap time will look rather pathetic compared to those who just innately believe they know what the car will do and have the confidence to back themselves to sort it out, even if it turns out they’re wrong.
Twice in the last fortnight, I’ve driven very fast cars around race tracks and twice had a professional race driver sitting next to me. First was the McLaren 720S at Vallelunga near Rome, followed 48 hours later by the new Ford GT at the Utah Motorsports Campus in, well, Utah. And both of my passengers said the same thing to me: ‘you’re losing all your time between hitting the brakes and hitting the apex.’
Annoyingly, it’s not even as if I’m driving slowly through the corners – when McLaren overlaid my data with that of its chief test driver Chris Goodwin, our apex speeds were remarkably similar and we’re not even braking at radically different points of the track. But I’m braking harder and losing more speed sooner until I’m happy we’re travelling at a rate the car can take and then comparatively cruising up to the apex before accelerating away. Chris, by contrast, is braking more gently, keeping the car more stable, bleeding off the brake pressure minutely as the apex approaches and losing speed all the way until the apex and the precise speed at which the car can negotiate it appear at exactly the same time. Put more concisely, in this critical phase of the lap he’s going faster for longer. So he’s quicker, and always will be.
Back in Utah, I jumped into the passenger seat of the Ford while another driver took the helm, four times Indycar champion and Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon. And yes, he knew both car and track far better than me, but that doesn’t begin to explain why he was so much faster. To be honest, I was simply staggered by how deep into each corner he braked and, indeed, how willing was the Ford to tolerate such treatment.
So now I feel I’m a rubbish driver again and can console myself only with the thought that being a driving god is not an essential component of this job despite the fact that, in a couple of months time and so long as I steer clear of professional racing drivers, I’ll have kidded myself into believing I am one all over again.
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