How driving on track makes you a better, safer driver on the street too
Photos: Jon Lim, Mercedes-Benz
SINGAPORE – Venture out onto the roads in Singapore, and we’re pretty sure you’d come to a fairly quick conclusion: We Singaporeans drive terribly.
What with the dawdling road hoggers, suicidal wrong-way maniacs and wild lane-weavers who stare at phone screens rather than windscreens, it’s quite a jungle out there. The problem is, most people don’t care much about driving – you get your license and the learning ends there.
But we really shouldn’t take driving for granted. After all, it’s something we do everyday, and something that could end up being deadly for other people, least of all ourselves.
Our recommendation is to get advanced driving lessons, and it’s much, much easier than you think. Almost all luxury brands, especially the German ones, offer courses and you don’t even have to own a Porsche to join in on the fun.
CarBuyer recently attended the Mercedes-AMG Performance Drive Event at Sepang International Circuit, reporting on the new members of the ‘AMG 43’ class, and delivering a run-down on the entire AMG 43 range. But the event also saw AMG owners and participants learning the basics of dynamic driving.
Not all of us have the time, money or patience to attend courses like these, so we bit the bullet and did it for you (thank us later).
Here are four fundamental lessons your local driving instructor probably never taught you – on how to drive a car safely and quickly on track, and how they can improve your on-road driving tremendously as well.
Of course, your instructor probably wasn’t Australian GT race driver Peter Hackett whose brains we picked for key advice for smoother, tidier and safer driving.
“Here’s how to keep your car out of the dunny mates…” – Peter Hackett, AMG Driving Experience Chief Instructor
1. Keep everything at arm’s length
Even before a single wheel has turned, it is vital to get your seating position correct. Because the speeds and forces involved with track driving are far greater than you’d encounter on the road, you’d want as much leverage as possible for your arms and legs to operate the controls. This usually means sitting much more upright and closer to the wheel and pedals than you’d normally be used to.
If your arms are stretched out too much, you’ll have no accuracy for steering and end up with sore shoulders
Ideally, you’d want to adjust the steering wheel such that you can rest your forearms on top of it, be able to bend your wrist completely downwards, all while having your elbows slightly bent. Next, you’d want your seat adjusted forward enough that you can fully depress the accelerator and clutch pedals (where applicable) while still maintaining a slight bend in your knees. Finally, you should have your seatback set upright enough for you to have your entire back placed squarely flat against the seat. All this allows you to fully operate all of the controls without overextending your limbs (which would lead to fatigue), as well as have your body fully supported by the seat, so that you don’t have to cling on to the wheel due to high G-forces.
2. Eyes forward. Waaaaay forward.
Alright, now you’re settled in the car and have just rolled out on track. This is where the next mistake happens, and is one of the most common problems Hackett encounters at events.
“Many drivers on the road tend to fixate on the car directly in front, hence they’re only concentrating about 60-metres ahead”, he said. “A human’s fastest reaction time is about half a second; at just 130km/h, you’d already have covered 36-metres, more than half the distance you’re concentrating on. So if anything happens in front of you, you probably won’t have enough time to avoid it”.
The driver here is not looking at the cars in front of him, nor Kate Upton (surprise), but at the exit of the corner, even though the car isn’t physically past the apex yet
Hence, Hackett recommends concentrating at least 300-metres up the road, or in race track terms, at least up to the next corner ahead. “Your hands will naturally guide the car to where your eyes are looking. Looking far ahead allows you to plan how to set up the car for the next corner, as well as be aware of any obstacles. You need to make the car go where you want, not respond to where the car is going.”
3) Make use of all the space available to you
At open track events, it’s often good courtesy simply to signal to one side and let any faster cars get past. But other than that, there’s generally no need to maintain strict lane discipline like on the road – particularly in corners. On a track, it’s ok to get right up to the edge of the tarmac. The space is there – use it! This is where the concept of the racing line comes in, an imaginary path that allows you to minimise steering input by going right to the edges of the track both on the outside and inside (or apex) of a corner.
On the average 90-degree track corner, your car will go from the outside kerb to the inside kerb (apex) and back out again
Many drivers typically maintain the habit of keeping to their lane, a fixed distance from the kerbs on either side. On a circuit though, what you want to do is to approach a corner from the outside (so keep to the right of the track if coming up to a left-hand turn), turn in so that the inside wheels pass as close as possible to the inside kerb (left-side wheels for a left-hand corner), and smoothly unwind the steering so that the car gradually move over to the outside edge (right side in this scenario) of the track again.
“The most efficient way around a corner is the path with the largest radius. Not only is it faster, but it’s kinder to your tyres too”, says Hackett. “Not maximising the track width often ties in with not looking far enough ahead, as drivers can’t fully plan how they want to go round the corner”.
On the road, you can do the same thing within reason: Entering a left hand corner, for example, you can use all the road available to you on the right (while still leaving space for oncoming traffic or other road users obviously). Doing so also means you have less need to tighten your line in the worst place – the middle of the corner – and risk understeering into the barriers on the way out. Just look at any highway on/off-ramp in Singapore and you’ll see places where people have borked the barriers on the way out of a corner.
4. Be kind to (imaginary) fish
Watching movies like the Fast and Furious series might have you believe that violently cranking the wheel to one side would help you turn faster. It’s also the sort of movie where a car with a five-speed manual gearbox can upshift ten times, so reality is quite the opposite, in fact.
Instead, smoothness is key. The aim is to manipulate the steering wheel and pedals in as linear a fashion as possible, to give the car time to respond to what you’re asking it to do. Only like this will you be able to put more load into the car, be it with a higher speed or greater turning angle.
Hackett offered this analogy, “Imagine you’re driving with a fishbowl full of water between your legs. If you’re too sudden with the controls, the water will slosh about and you’d get all wet. Do it smoothly and the water will remain in the bowl.” Or you could be a tofu delivery boy with a cup of water to preserve, whatever floats your bowl. Boat.
Or to put it another way, if you suddenly shoved someone standing in front of you, chances are he’d stumble and fall. But if you just placed your hands on him and gradually increased your strength, he’d be able to counter the force and remain upright.