Big Lies #5: the string analogy

This is post #5 in a series of articles about some of the biggest lies in high performance driving. In this post, I’m going to address one of the dumber teaching analogies.

The string analogy

Imagine a string connecting the bottom of your steering wheel to the throttle pedal. When you’re at full throttle with the wheel straight, the string is taught. If you turn the wheel, it will pull on the string, causing the throttle pedal to rise. In a very coarse-grained linear model, you have inputs something like this.

  • 100% throttle, 0% steering
  • 75% throttle, 25% steering
  • 50% throttle, 50% steering
  • 25% throttle, 75% steering
  • 0% throttle, 100% steering

So what’s the point of this analogy? I think the lesson is that drivers need to find a balance between throttle and steering. And that’s a good point, but it’s an over-simplification that ultimately misdirects attention that would be better spent elsewhere.

Alternatively

The reason people suck at racing isn’t because of the corner exit, it’s because of the corner entry. Instead of imagining the string being connected to the throttle pedal, what if we attached it to the brake pedal? As you turn into the corner, you simultaneously release the brake pedal. That’s a useful thought because one of the biggest mistakes intermediate drivers make is snapping off the brake pedal. Easing off the brake will keep the car from rocking, which will improve grip. Good. Having a mixture of steering and brake will help the car rotate. More good. But ultimately, this analogy is also flawed.

Timing

The problem with the string analogies is that they over-simplify driving mechanics. As Paul Gerrard says in Optimum Drive, competence lies in the subtleties, not generalities. You should start to release the brakes slightly before turning, not at the same time. And as the back end loses some grip and rotates, you may not need to increase steering at all. In fact, you may have to make a steering correction in the opposite direction to prevent spinning. You may also find a mid-corner stab helps if you entered just a little too slow or used up too much grip. On the way out of the corner, you should open the steering wheel a little before adding power, not at the same time. And in a momentum car, you can actually mash the throttle much of the time.

Mind and Body

A studious person might try to break down all of the little steps and memorize each stage. While that’s useful from a pedagogical perspective, it fails in practice. Knowing in your brain doesn’t equate to knowing in your body. Books don’t improve muscle memory. But practice does. However, practice refines your current technique whether it’s correct or not. So you also have to use your brain to figure out if your muscle memory is going down the optimal path or not.

How do you use your brain to figure out if you’re practicing correctly? Data. Examine the data of faster drivers and compare them to your own.

What if you don’t know how to analyze data? Get help in the form of a coach.

Where do you get data of racers driving the exact same car under the exact same conditions? Simulation of course.

How do you train your muscle memory? You can do it with a decent sim rig, which can be built for $1000-3000 depending on how you do it. Oh yeah, and a few hundred hours of deliberate practice with some coaching sprinkled in.

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