Q: “How do you “test” if a corner can be taken flat? How do you build up, mentally and input-wise, to go faster through a corner than you ever have? How do you prepare for it not working out?”
A: Let me answer your last question first: How do you prepare for it not working out? Mentally. But here’s the thing. If you spend a lot of time imagining things not working out, you’re increasing your chances of them not working out! So, be careful. You do want to be mentally prepared for what could go wrong, but not spend so much time that you actually make the “wrong” happen.
I do believe that it’s important that you run though a number of scenarios in your mind for how you would react if you pushed too far and started to spin, run off the edge of the track, or locked up the brakes. For example, if you’re planning to test whether you can brake later for Turn 1, then think through what would happen if you locked up the brakes. Then imagine yourself sensing the lock up immediately, and how you’d ease up a bit on the brake pedal until the locked tire(s) started turning again. Think through how if you ran too deep into the corner (if you have ABS, perhaps), how you’d ease up on the brakes just a little to give some cornering grip to the tires, then turn in, and maybe even run a little wide of the apex – that’s okay, you learned how late you can brake for that corner. By running a few scenarios of things not working out through in your mind, you’re mentally preparing yourself. Again, don’t do this too much, but just enough that you feel like you know what you’d do if things didn’t work out the way you wanted.
Now, to your first question about “testing” the limits.
For sure, it’s easy to not ask enough of the tires, not test and push the limits. What do I mean by “asking enough of the tires”? Mostly, turn the steering wheel more. But it could be braking harder, and applying the throttle earlier and more aggressively.
Who hasn’t been told that smooth is fast? It’s doubtful that anyone reading this hasn’t heard that at least a hundred times (because I’ve probably said it at least 90 times). And that can sometimes lead to a driver not using the tires, not asking enough of them.
Every now and then I have a driver ask me to look at their in-car video, and ask me to give them feedback on how well they’re driving. More often than not, I’ll watch the video and report back, “Your line looks great – no suggestions there. But it looks to me like you’re just not pushing the car hard enough – you’re not asking enough of the tires.”
What is it that tips me off and leads me to this response? Usually, it’s steering movement that is too smooth. Yup, I’m the guy who wrote in a book that “smooth is fast.” But if you want to be fast, you can be too smooth. If I notice that a driver turns into a corner, and the steering wheel barely moves from the initial rotation until it’s begun to be straightened (and even then, it’s a perfectly smooth unwinding of the wheel), I know that the tires have more to give.
I know that not all drivers want to drive at the very limit of their tires and car. Some want to give themselves a margin for error, a cushion. That might be a conscious decision, due to a lack of experience, some level of self-preservation, and/or a misinterpretation of what driving smoothly and at the limit means.
While driving through a corner, have you ever deliberately turned the steering wheel more? You know, just give the wheel a solid but smooth crank of rotation, and then bring it back to where you had it? If your car responds immediately and changes direction when you do this, you haven’t been asking enough of the tires, and you could drive faster. If, when you do this, there is little to no change in direction of the car, then you can be fairly certain that you’re close to or at the limit.
Now, I’m not suggesting that in every corner that you just give the steering wheel a snap of more input. What I am saying is that you should test the limits every now and then. Pick the best places to do this, and I’d suggest starting this process in longer corners where you have more time; in corners with more runoff room, in case you need it to correct your direction.
In most cases, if you test your tire grip level in one corner, you’ll learn what they have to give, and be able to use that in every other corner, too. Obviously, that doesn’t necessarily apply if you test it in a corner that has a large concrete patch in it, as that surface will likely have a different level of grip from the rest of the track.
Even if you want to give yourself a cushion, and not drive at the very limit, this is a worthwhile exercise. By testing the grip level in a safe place, by asking more of the tires, you’ll have a better understanding of where the limit is, helping you stay below it. If you don’t know where the limit is, how can you ever consistently know you’re driving under it?
I’m also not suggesting that you just wiggle the steering wheel back and forth. I see drivers do that, saying that they’re “feeling the tires.” I don’t buy that. It’s simply wiggling the steering around, and actually reducing the grip level. If you’re going to test the tires’ limit, you need to turn the wheel more than little wiggles of the wheel.
Give it a try. Smoothly, deliberately, and using discretion, ask more of your tires’ grip level.