Q: How do I learn to drive an aero car – deal with downforce?

Q: “I raced in the T4 class in SCCA for two seasons, sold that car, and now I have a formula car. I’m hoping you might have a few pointers for me in transitioning to an open-wheel car with wings. I know my cornering speeds will be much higher, but how do I go about safely getting used to taking advantage of the aero? I plan to get 3-4 track days before the season, and want to take full advantage of my practice time.”

A: The transition to an open-wheel car is all about the aero factor because whether the wheels are covered or not is only a concern if you’re banging wheels/fenders!

 The simple answer is, “Just go faster”! I know, that’s not much of an answer, but there’s truth to it. As you know, the faster you go in a car with aero downforce, the more downforce it has, which allows you to go even faster. The big challenge for a driver is trusting this. Just when it seems you’re about to fly off the track, someone like me comes along and tells you to just hold the throttle down and trust that you’ll be okay! It’s one of the most difficult challenges in driving.

Something important to keep in mind is that an aero car doesn’t do anything different from a non-aero car when it reaches its limits. It doesn’t stick to the track, stick to the track, stick to the track… and then all of sudden just let go and fling you off the track. No, it gives you the same type of feedback that any other car does about it reaching its limits. That’s a comforting thought, right? Some drivers think that an aero car is less forgiving, but it’s not. It just has higher limits, so it’s not as different as you might think.

The best approach is to find a corner that is fast enough to ensure aero downforce is a factor (something above 70MPH is okay, and the faster, the better), that has some good run-off room in case “things don’t work out,” and then work at carrying more and more speed, learning to trust the aero grip. In the perfect world you’d find a very large skid pad to do this on, but finding big enough pads are not easy.

An approach that works well for many drivers is to put an experienced driver in the car and have him/her set a baseline lap. That way you know what the car can do, so when someone like me tells you to trust the car’s limits, you know you can – if “experienced driver” can carry 80 MPH through that corner, and I’m only at 70 right now, I know I can push harder and the car will respond positively. Using the data, video and someone with the “right voice” over a radio will get you good results very quickly. This is an approach I use often with drivers.

If you’re testing when other drivers in the same type of car are on track, try this: Have someone with a radar gun set up to take minimum speeds through the fastest corner of the track; they compare your min speed with the fastest driver, and immediately after you go through that corner this person gets on the radio and tells you your speed. If you know that the fastest driver has a min speed of 100MPH through that corner, and you’re told that you’re at 92, then the next lap you’ll feel confident braking lighter and carrying more speed. After a few laps you’ll see (and hear from your radar-gun-yielding helper) that your speeds are inching up closer and closer. Now, it’s possible that the other driver’s car is set up differently, and your car can’t do 100MPH through that corner, but it’s doubtful that it’s going to be any more than a 3 or 4 MPH different (or less) – especially if it’s a spec-type formula car. The key to this is consistent speed readings from the same place each lap, and immediate feedback (not after you’ve driven a bunch of laps and you’re back in the pits looking at data).

Finally, the best advice I can give is to take time on some test days to do what I call Sensory Input Sessions. You can read more about them in my Ultimate Speed Secrets book, or on some of my YouTube videos. Essentially what they do is help you fine-tune your ability to sense what the car is telling you through your visual, kinesthetic and auditory senses. After all, it doesn’t matter what you’re driving, it all comes down to what you sense with these three senses that tells you whether you’re at the limit or not.

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