Epsiode 16: "It Is What It Is, Now Make the Best of It!"
Aaron, a question: As racers, we all tend to have our favorite traits about certain cars, while the cars have areas where they tend to excel and areas where they tend to be weaker. When our strengths match the car’s strengths it can results in some blistering times. As a driver, how do you feel like you “match up” with the personality of the Volvo C30s, and what types of parameters do you always seem to be adjusting to make you just a little happier?
Good question, JG. I’ve got lots to say about this. Two things come to mind right away – I love my C30, it’s a real street fighting machine and I think we match up well but let me get more into this later. The subject of “matching up” with a track machine has got me thinking on a related line of discussion, which is a driver’s ability to adapt and get the most out of the car in every circumstance. I think the ability to adapt is an essential skill and worth discussing here.
Very rarely will you find a car that is perfect in every respect all race long – tires wear, fuel loads lighten, track conditions change. Furthermore, very rarely will you find a car that is perfect in every corner on any track! Even in perfect conditions some corners feel good and some don’t.
Being able to drive around a car’s shortcomings and make the most out of its strong points is what the game is all about. There are two areas to address here: a) adapting to the car and b) adapting the car to suit you.
Adapting to the car. “It is what it is, now make the best of it”:
What I’m referring to here is a race session or qualifying session where you can’t pit to make a set up change. For the non-racer this is the equivalent of a lapping session where you can’t make a set up change because you don’t have a pit crew or you don’t have anything adjustable on your car.
From a pure driving perspective there are many things we can do – but they all come down to this: You must think your way through what the car is doing and try different inputs to improve the situation. As an example, let’s say your car is struggling with oversteer in qualifying and you can’t make any set up changes because it’s not allowed or you only have 10 minutes left. Don’t give up and/or blame the car until you have tried EVERYTHING. Can you slow down your hands at turn in? Roll some maintenance throttle to stabilize the rear? Modify your line? Roll power smoother and slower? Hey, maybe it’s just because the track is colder, and all you need is an extra lap or two for the tires to come in. Either way, keep thinking and trying different solutions – it’s often worth a tenth or two which make all the difference in a session! (So far, in WC this year the pole has been decided by less than 0.05 in five different races!) The same is true if you’re lapping and have no adjustments to make. Don’t accept the situation and burn down a set of rear tires. See if you can drive differently to improve the situation. All too I often I hear, “well it’s a ‘car X’, that’s what they do….”, or “it’s a front wheel drive….” Sure, all cars have certain characteristics, but there is always something we can do to affect it.
Driving to what the car or tires need is what it means to be a proficient driver. A perfect example was Fernando Alonso back in 2004–06, when he was driving for Renault F1, winning races and championships. At the time he was observed to have a very distinct, rapid turn-in style. Moving forward to his McLaren and Ferrari years, this is no longer the case. It has since come to light that the turn-in style he used with the Renault was simply due to discovering what worked best for those tires on that car and changing his driving to suit it.
Like a good comedian, a driver needs to be good at improv! Endurance racing provides a great opportunity. Over a 2.5 hour race, things are changing all the time (just imagine a 12 or 24 hour one!). I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve taken over a car only to for it to be nothing like it was on practice day! Imagine jumping in and discovering your car no longer likes to turn left because someone hit the car during the previous stint and now the tow settings are way off, or after 20 minutes your brake pedal starts going waaayyy low, or you lose a gear – and all of these things are happening and you still have an hour to go. Guess what? Pitting is not an option – you have to get the car to the flag the way it is. It is now your job to figure it out and make the best of it RIGHT NOW. It’s good fun! Being able to think on your feet and adapt quickly to the situation becomes paramount.
A tip to any new drivers yet to experience such fun challenges; when they happen, don’t dwell on them. Focus on what you can do to minimize the time lost on each lap. Yelling on the radio that you’ve lost a gear will not fix it, so dig in. Look for small ways to help your situation – can you hold the lower gear longer? Use a higher gear but roll more speed into the corner? Be much more aggressive with the throttle before the apex knowing you don’t have as much torque as normal? These little things won’t make up for the fact that you’re now missing a gear you need, but they could be worth a few tenths
a lap. A few tenths a lap over a race distance adds up to a lot. Get proactive about solutions.
My friends Andy Lally and Spencer Pumpelly won the Rolex 24 at Daytona this year (again!) in a car that had no clutch for 20 hours!
Adapting the car to suit you: Sessions where you can make a change.
It is also very important to point out that if you have the time and ability to make a set up change, you should do it. Being able to drive around a problem is great skill, but one that needs to be used only in circumstances where you have no other option. The rest of the time, if the car isn’t right – pit and make a change! It is said the late F1 superstar Ronnie Peterson was one of the greatest natural talents of all time, but because he had so much natural speed and car control he did not develop his abilities to analyze the car and make changes. He simply adapted his driving to the car. Eventually he was teamed with Mario Andretti (pictured above, right) at team Lotus, and despite many feeling Peterson was the quicker driver over a lap, it was Andretti who won more races and became World Champion in 1978. Andretti’s ability to work with the engineers and adapt the car won out over the course of the full race weekend and, ultimately, the season.
Quite often I see drivers at DE events that spend good money buying adjustable bars and or shocks – only to discover they never change the settings. The same can be said of race teams that hesitate to change anything other than tire pressure during a practice session. Now, I am not advocating making for the changes just for the sake of doing so. Set up changes take time, and on a race weekend or a lapping day, time is limited. Sometimes that time is put to better effect in different areas. The message here is this: if your car is giving you problems and you have set up options to explore than by all means, work on that and don’t just drive around the problem. As a side note I will say to any DE drivers, or club racers – if you have never played with your adjustable components – do so! Get out there and learn about your car. The very first thing a top pro team does after shaking down a new car is run through the A-Z of set up adjustments, simply to lean as much as they can. If your new front sway bar has three settings go out there and try them all, back to back.
As for the personality of the Volvo C30 I am racing this year in World Challenge, I think we match up quite well. It is a very stable car - very strong under braking and as a driver that has always liked to fill the friction circle during corner entry, this suits me well. We have some epic street fighting moments in WC – especially on opening laps when often I find myself defending the lead from a Touring Car pack, but at the same time being forced to mix it up with the tail end of the GTS field – not an easy task! Being able to go super late on the brakes to fend off those darn Hondas that weigh a lot less is very, very important. Where our brakes become a tactical advantage on lap one is when I can dive bomb a GTS Camaro or Mustang and put that car between myself and P2 in the TC class for a few corners! As for what I am always adjusting to be happier, I’d have to say that has been a moving target this season. In general I do not like understeer, anywhere in a corner, but no matter what car you are racing there will always be understeer to deal with. And it’s not a front-wheel drive vs. rear-wheel drive thing.
I am a firm believer that a well set up front driver has no more understeer than a well set up rear driver. Understeer calls for a bit of patience, and all race cars need a little patience one way or another throughout a lap.
Getting back to the parameters we tweak on the C30, we do a lot of tuning with our JRZ Shocks, spring rates front and rear, camber settings, toe settings, come to think of it…pretty much EVERYTHING!
The car is so new we have been forced to do a huge amount of development on the fly at the track. Keep in mind the C30 project got the green light in mid-January, which meant the team had less than three months to build two cars from scratch and get them to the first race. The race schedule has been tight to say the least with races often back to back all over the map so it’s fair to say we have not had a ton of proper testing time. For anyone that has ever worked on their own car, I’m sure they can appreciate just how much work building one from scratch really is. During the first part of the season we were constantly developing basic systems for the car, cooling the engine, getting the brakes to work, getting the production based electronics to play nice in a race environment etc. But even during those times my engineers Aaron Coalwell and Dax Raub were always working on chassis set-up for improved handling. And that immense amount of set-up development has never slowed down. It is not uncommon for us to be seen making spring changes during a practice session! Dax and I often joke with each other: “Hey why not try it...it’s only qualifying!!” It is one of the most rewarding aspects of working with K-PAX Racing - the depth of engineering brain power and the willingness to try new things. I am in absolute heaven there. We have made more set up changes this season than I have done in the last five years put together – and not only have I learned a ton, but it is also why the car has become so strong so soon. We do take set-up gambles, but they are always educated ones and more often than not they prove beneficial. Having an engineer and crew that are not afraid to explore vast avenues has been a key to understanding the car and moving it forward as much as we already have. Four poles, and three race wins out of the first ten races so far isn’t too bad for a car that was only an idea back in January!
So the message to new drivers here is twofold – don’t be afraid to make set up changes, but once the green flag waves, bear down and get the most out of what you got.
Yours in motoring,