What’s the most useful thing you can do to get better at your car control skills? Skid pad! Even if you’re a sim racer, and you can drive whatever track you want, you should still spend time on the virtual skid pad. Why? It’s a great place to do drills. It doesn’t matter what sport you play, part of your training regimen is doing repetitive drills that focus on a single skill or a connection of skills. If that’s true in basketball, tennis, baseball, football, etc., why isn’t it also true in high performance driving? How often do you see people doing deliberate repetitive training? Pretty much never. Maybe that’s because they don’t know what drills to do and why to do them? Here are some of my favorite things to do.
Driving in circles
Driving around in a circle sounds boring, but it’s really useful for 2 reasons: (1) tuning your senses to the available grip (2) changing line by changing speed.
Start by going around in a circle with a fixed radius. Increase your speed and eventually the car will start sliding a little, but too much speed will increase the radius. Congratulations, you have found “the limit”. When on track, it’s often unclear if you’re driving the limit because your speed and direction are changing all the time. There’s also high speed, danger, and some sense of safety that may be keeping you from driving the limit. However, on a skid pad, you can experience the limit at low speeds without fear of crashing your car or injuring yourself. Once you’re driving the limit, you should tune in to what the feels like. Your hearing is a great resource for sensing traction, but by no means your only sense. The more you drive the limit, the more used to it you will get. Once on track, you’ll get better at sensing and driving the limit because you’ve been there before.
One of the best ways to experience the effects of weight transfer is to change speeds while driving in circles at the limit. Deceleration puts more weight/grip on the front of the car. This will cause the car to oversteer a little and tighten its radius. Accelerating does the reverse: puts more weight/grip on the rear of the car, which leads to understeer and a larger radius. When you’re driving the limit, and all 4 tires are sliding, the car is steered with the feet as much as the hands.
Driving in figure 8s is more fun than driving in circles. I spend most of my time on the skid pad doing this. You can work on multiple skills simultaneously.
- Hand position – Most people are told to drive with their hands at 9-and-3, and while that’s a good place to start, it’s not the end. You should practice other hand positions too, like hand-over-hand, one-handed, the other one-handed, and even shuffle steer. By increasing your steering vocabulary, you’ll be ready for anything.
- Trail-braking – Possibly the single most important skill in high performance driving is trail-braking. This is the act of holding some brake pressure while turning into a corner. The longer you trail off the brakes, the more oversteer you get.
- Oversteer recovery – The key to advanced driving is backing up the corners. However, doing so is a little dangerous because you may spin at the entry. Being able to make steering corrections to prevent oversteering too much is the key to safety and speed. The skid pad lets you practice this over and over without painful consequences.
Whether you’re driving in circles or 8s, one thing you can do to spice things up a bit is to change the grip balance. The best way to do this is to mount different tire compounds in the front and rear. Putting track tires in the front and all-season tires in the rear will make your car unsafe and hilariously fun. If you don’t have extra tires, you can use tire pressures to change grip (really high pressures reduce grip). This is what I do in Assetto Corsa since you can’t have different tires in front and rear. Another way to change grip balance is to change your brake bias. This only affects your grip balance during braking. The more rear brake you dial in, the more oversteer you get when trail-braking. If you have too much rear brake, you may even spin while braking in a straight line. So if you see a car lose control in a braking zone, odds are they have too much rear brake bias (this can happen from a badly adjusted bias valve, having grippier brake pads in the rear, or defeating the ABS system on an older car). Changing tire pressures and brake bias can alter the handling of a car much more than you might expect. The place to experience and experiment with this is the skid pad, not the track.