Q: How do I brake lighter while heel & toe downshifting?

Q: “I’m having issues with light braking while downshifting before a fast-ish corner. I drive a Spec Miata so over-braking can be a significant problem. Specific examples:

  • “Turn 6 Road Atlanta & Turn 3 VIR – I can carry more speed (+5mph) if I stay in 4th gear and shift at the next (slower) turn, rather than downshift before 6/3 which is the norm.
  • “Turn 10 VIR – I can carry way more speed through turn 10 if I bounce the rev limiter in 4th up the hill then barely touch the brake into 10 rather than shift to 5th up the hill and then brake/shift back down to 4th into turn 10.

“Do you have any advice on how to improve/practice lighter braking while heel/toe downshifting?”

A: There are a few different things to consider here. The first is whether the positioning of your right foot is ideal for heel and toeing. Miatas are pretty darn good with their pedal placement, so you shouldn’t have a problem unless your foot is very small or large. The key to heel and toeing and being able to modulate the pressure on the brakes the way you want is having your heel stay on the floor. I see a lot of drivers pick their heel up off the floor when rocking their foot to blip the throttle, and that means they don’t have the same level of fine control over the movement. If your heel stays on the floor when rocking your foot to the side to blip the throttle, it now pivots with a good anchor. That can make a big difference.

I’ve mentioned this to a lot of drivers who then tell me they keep their heel on the floor, but when we either use a GoPro to video foot movement, or I ride in the car with them, we see that they actually lift their foot. Again, that means that now they’re trying to control the movement of their foot with the big muscles of the thigh, and they don’t have the sensitivity and subtle control that the ankle and calf muscles have.

So, look at the positioning and movement of your foot first. You may find that if you have to change how you position and move your foot that it will take some time to re-program how you heel and toe – and it’ll feel awkward at first. But it’ll be worth it in the long run, as you’ll be able to brake lightly while heel and toeing.

If you practice heel and toe when driving on the street, that will help, too. Why? Because you rarely brake really hard on the street, so you’ll be building the muscle memory/programming for braking lightly while heel and toeing.

The subtle feel of a light pressure on the brakes while heel and toeing is something that takes practice. Work on it while driving on the street. After all, that’s the only reason we ever drive on the street, right? To practice our track driving!!! 🙂

I find that if I put a 1-10 rating on brake pressure and then give myself a target that I want to use, that helps. For example, if I want to use a “7 pedal” in Turn 6 at Road Atlanta (and right now I’m braking with an “8” or “9”), it gives my brain an actionable target. Rather than the vague notion of “brake lighter,” this is something I can work with. And you can even work your way down, let’s say starting with a “7 pedal,” then a “6 pedal,” and then a “5 pedal” over a few laps. If you think about just braking 10 percent lighter each lap, there’s less stress in that approach.

One thing I like from your question is you saying that you run the taller gear through the corner to help ensure you’re not over-slowing. That’s a great strategy, even if it’s just a temporary solution.

Finally, mounting a GoPro in the footwell and watching your footwork might be really helpful. It’ll likely either surprise you or make you feel good that you’re doing what you thought you were doing! But many drivers have been surprised at how their heel came off the floor, how they weren’t as smooth with the brake release as they thought, or that the timing of their heel and toe (comparing foot movement with engine sound) was not what they thought. And once you have the video, you can then start working to improve – it gives you the awareness you need to make a change.

By the way, I posted a video to YouTube a while ago where I talk about heel and toe. You might want to check it out here: https://youtu.be/K5Y2wb9ENR0

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