Dear Mr. Povoledo,
I'm a regional racer and have moved to the front of the pack because of intensive coaching over the past two seasons. Most of the time I can get to within 3/4 of a second of my coach’s data lap times and sometimes I can equal or surpass it. I've been qualifying well and occasionally start from the pole position. When the race starts, however, I lose several positions on the opening lap and spend much of the race passing slower racers and because of this I can’t catch the front runners. What do you suggest I do in order to help maximize my first lap performance?
Great question. It’s something I have encountered with a handful of my own clients in the recent past so rest assured you are not alone – it’s a common stage in a driver’s learning curve. In a nutshell, it boils down to two main issues: imposing urgency on the situation in order to reach peak focus quickly and finding the track’s grip level right away.
Imposing Urgency and Peak Focus
Imposing urgency is all about getting up to maximum focus and intensity the second you put your helmet on. Our very best driving and fastest laps occur when we are in the zone working at peak focus levels, and that is exactly what lap one of a race requires, and it has to happen right here, right now!
In a practice or qualifying session we can take our time making sure the tires are up to temp, searching out track changes, gradually feeling out grip levels and, most critically, getting ourselves warmed up, tuned in and in the zone. On a subconscious level, we know we have 20 or 30 minutes to get the job done, and thus we take our time building up to it. For drivers coming from a DE background this ‘take your time’ habit is very deeply ingrained. DE drivers are encouraged to take their time and warm up on the grounds of safety. All of this is counterproductive to racing, testing and qualifying. On a race weekend, we do not have time to waste – every lap counts, and between red flags, traffic and sharing with co-drivers there really aren’t many quality laps to be had. Clean, traffic free laps are sacred! It reminds me of a Monty Python song, come to think of it.
Think about it: even in a practice session, we have serious work to do in a short period of time. We need to get a read on what the car is doing to help correctly influence set-up changes. We also need to tune our driving to the track conditions. You can’t read a car if you’re driving 8/10ths, nor can you nail down a braking point if your approach speed is always varying because you are still getting warmed up. Knowing that you will only get a few quality laps, do you really have time to slowly get warmed up? No – every lap must count.
Qualifying is even more time-sensitive because with most (new) sticker tires the ‘golden lap’ (where the tire is at its optimum grip level) is normally lap two, meaning YOU must be at 100% by the end of lap one!
The fact is we need to be on it immediately to get the most out of a session in order to be better prepared for the race itself. So the bigger picture here is – IF WE NEED TO BE AT PEAK FOCUS BY LAP ONE OF A RACE, THEN WE BETTER START PRACTICING THAT EVERY CHANCE WE GET. This notion applies to the out lap of every session we drive. Hence my phrase: ‘Every out lap is lap one of a race’.
I’m not saying we need to go out with our hair on fire, but I am encouraging you to impose urgency on every situation and push yourself to reach peak focus as quickly as you can. The brain is a muscle, the more you use it the stronger it gets. Think of your peak focus like a light switch – you want to be able to turn it on immediately whenever you need it. The more you practice doing it, the easier it becomes. For professional help in developing this skill look up Dr. Jacques Dallaire and his company Performance Prime (for more info, check out www.performanceprime.com) Dr. Dallaire has spent his lifetime training Pro drivers how to do this very thing. In fact, he developed a program for this many years ago around a certain Brazilian F1 driver named Ayrton Senna. Look him up, buy the book and read it!
The quickest way to find the track’s ultimate grip level is to break it. In other words, force a slide! On the warm up lap of your race weave hard enough to induce some understeer and some oversteer. This gets your eyes, hands, and body used to the sums and forces it takes to reach maximum loading and beyond. On the warm-up lap of a race this is paramount in developing heat in the tries. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched in amazement how few club racers properly warm up their tires and brakes. Friends, there is nothing pretty about this process – it requires grabbing the car by the scruff of the neck and throwing it around! Please do not weave on a practice or qualifying lap – it’s dangerous and you will get the tires up to temp quicker by just driving hard. Weaving is ONLY for when you are behind a pace car. For practice and qualifying go out hard enough that you can induce some slides. I’m not calling for Tokyo-style drifting here, but you can learn a lot from little baby slides.
By breaking tractions and sliding the car a little it forces us to wake up real quick, get sharp and focused and helps up find the grip levels of the track all the quicker.
So in summary: Use every out lap of every session as practice for lap one of the race.
1) Instill a new habit of pushing yourself harder at the beginning of every session – with the goal being achieving peak focus on demand.
2) Slide the car on the out lap of practice and qualifying. Weave like hell on race warm-up laps!
One of the photos included here is of an actual note I gave a client after a debriefing session earlier this year. I encourage you to tear it out and pin it to the wall of your trailer as a reminder of this lesson.
Yours in driving,