Four reasons you may be stuck at the low intermediate plateau

Today, I want to talk about veteran drivers who have plateaued at the low intermediate level. How do I define low intermediate? Partly by lap time, but also by driving technique and knowledge. The intermediate stage is sort of like teen years in driving development. Some skills/knowledge may be at a surprisingly advanced level yet others are severely lacking. Intermediates primarily drive for fun. Given a couple hours of track time, their focus is on passing the other cars on track and setting their personal best lap time. This is in contrast to advanced drivers who use their time for training, testing, and tuning.

Low-intermediate veterans represent an interesting challenge.

  • One of the great things about coaching intermediate drivers in general is that some of their problems are easily fixed because they simply have the wrong facts in their heads.
  • One of the problems with coaching veteran drivers is that some of their bad habits are hard-wired into their brains. They depend on their bad habits, which make them very hard to fix.

1. Not every corner is a Type I

One of the first things novice drivers learn is the typical racing line through a Type I corner. Largest radius, highest speed, blah blah blah. This lesson can be so impactful that they think every corner is a Type I corner. So they drive outside-inside-outside regardless of the shape of the corner. There are many corners where it’s better to take the shortest path. For example, when driving through esses, just take the shortest path. And in a decreasing radius corner, it’s fast in, slow out.

Here are two suggestions to fix the Type I problem, which most low intermediate drivers don’t even recognize as a problem.

  1. Take the shortest path. Make sure to time yourself and record data. You may find that the shortest path is a lot faster.
  2. Drive off line. By intentionally driving off line, you may find a different line. Also, if you’re a Type I robot, you really need to explore the space of the track.

2. Loose is not fast

The phrase “loose is fast” isn’t actually true. Try the following experiment: put all season tires on the front of your car and time yourself. Then put them on the rear. With the slippery tires in the front you will experience a lot of understeer. Your lap time will be 1-2 seconds off pace. With the slippery tires on the back, your best lap will be 2-3 seconds off pace. Oh yeah, and you’ll probably get kicked off track for spinning every lap. So maybe do this experiment in simulation. Assetto Corsa doesn’t let you switch compounds, but you can pump up your tires absurdly high. Alternatively, use Gran Turismo, where you can change compounds.

People who believe oversteer is faster try to use their rear tires to help them turn. Seriously, they believe that by breaking the rear tires loose under throttle they will get through the corner faster. No, it doesn’t work that way. You don’t add throttle until most of the turning is done. Oversteer should happen in the first part of the corner, when the speed is lower. Also, corner entry oversteer is created from braking, not throttle.

If you have a car tuned for understeer, you can use trail-braking to restore balance. Sometimes the car will understeer so much that you can’t get it to rotate at all. Even in this case, trail-braking is useful as it adds weight and grip to the front tires to help them steer. On the other hand, if the car is tuned for oversteer, you can’t trail-brake at all. There’s already no grip in the rear, and trail-braking makes the matter worse. Since you’re always at the risk of spinning, you end up entering the corner slower. While the car may rotate pretty well by itself, you’ll be fighting oversteer the entire way out of the corner. Not only is loose slow, it’s also dangerous.

For those of you thinking “what about FWD?”, the same behavior applies to FWD: understeer is both safer and faster.

3. Downshifting doesn’t matter

There are a lot of drivers who think that the most important part of high performance driving is the engine. As a result, they make sure to downshift before every corner. But here’s the thing, nobody uses all of their engine in the corner. While cornering, you spend some time trail-braking, some time coasting, and some time at partial throttle. You’re not at full throttle until the corner is basically done.

One of my favorite exercises is the “3rd gear, no brakes drill”. This is just what it sounds like: drive the entire track in one gear and don’t use your brakes. Although it sounds impossible, you may find that you’re faster in the drill than when you drive with brakes and shifting. The reason why is simple: you brake too much. And the reason you brake too much? Because you are downshifting. If you enter a corner 5-10 mph off pace, you will end up in a situation where you can add a lot of power. This will either cause unwanted understeer or oversteer through the remainder of the corner.

While this may sound strange, it would be faster for many drivers to downshift after the corner. Staying in high gear through the first part of the corner will result in a higher entry speed. And being in a high gear won’t affect anything until you’re on the straight after the corner. Not that any self-respecting intermediate driver would ever do this. They need to show off their improper heel-toe technique. You know where they rev immediately, brake while the revs drop, and then ease out the clutch. Hint: if you have to ease out the clutch, you didn’t match revs. If you’re not going to heel-toe properly, just don’t do it.

4. The racing line is a result, not a goal

The racing line isn’t something you’re supposed to achieve, but rather the result of having the correct cornering technique from the entry to the exit. Let’s use tennis as an analogy. Take a look at the position of Andy Roddick’s serving arm. His palm is facing outward, away from his body. If your goal was to serve like Andy, you might look at this picture and attempt to get your arm in that position. That would probably send the ball into the neighboring court. The tennis serve is hit with the arm rotating as it extends (aka pronation). Having the palm facing outward is the result of follow-through. It’s not something he, or anyone else should intend to do.

Similarly, connecting the cones from entry to apex to exit isn’t going to give you proper cornering technique. The typical HPDE curriculum that focuses students’ attention on the racing line is putting the cart before the horse. I think it’s one of the dumbest things we coaches do. That’s partly why I made this snarky video.

Here’s what I suggest to fix this problem: drive the car. Listen to what it’s telling you. Sure, you can set up on the outside of the track as normal, but try different ways through the corner after that. Try moving everything earlier in the corner and then let your throttle application naturally push yourself to the exit. If you end up mid-track at the exit, that’s okay at the beginning. You’ll get there eventually. Don’t force the line, let it come to you.

10 thoughts on “Four reasons you may be stuck at the low intermediate plateau

  1. Agree with all except to abandon heel-toe if you suck at it. I used to do it the way you describe. I gradually got better.

    My advice would be to do a session focussed on improving heel-toe timing and technique each track day – while driving like 8/10. I found it was driving 11/10 plus heel-toe that was making me rev early and too much. Yes we know it was 11/10 because I would sometimes be off the black stuff.

    I also practice heel-toe the week before an event on the road. Along with vision exercises, it is one of the few high performance techniques that can safely be done on public roads albeit with less brake pressure which does change brake pedal position.

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    1. I feel like heel-toe is an advanced technique. It’s possible to learn early on, but it doesn’t provide much benefit except to the advanced driver. Good that you taught yourself to do it and also that you PRACTICE.

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      1. Heel-toe is a good technique to pretend to be a race driver, especially when heading to the stop light.

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  2. People who understand this are nodding their heads along with you. But the people who teach “drive the line” will disagree. And the students who need this information the most won’t believe you can downshift after the corner (or not at all) and go faster. I’d love to see some people do the oversteer/understeer challenge IRL!

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  3. Ok… this post is actually very observant. What sucks is that every once in a while when I’m looking for more pace I find myself reverting to “driving loose” and trying solve the problem with more throttle (hint: it doesn’t usually make for a faster lap time).

    As for shifting… one of the local fast guys (he’s not just a local fast guy) once gave me a great bit of advice for a corner when he told me to try it in a higher gear without downshifting. I thought that my exit would be terrible but it turned out that I was entering too slowly and by NOT downshifting I didn’t over-slow and then I didn’t really NEED to be in the lower gear to get a decent drive. It was worth 1/4-1/3 of a second when I got it dialed in which is nothing to sneeze at.

    Eh, maybe I’m more intermediate than I thought.

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  4. Professor Korf,

    I agree with almost all you say and I appreciate your insights. But you barely touched one of the main reasons I am “stuck” at the low intermediate level and that reason is that I love being there. I am proud of having advance beyond beginner. I can remember when novice group was intimidating. I definitely do not feel stuck. You nailed my situation in your first paragraph. Passing other cars and occasionally improving my pb is very fun.

    A barrier you didn’t mention, that applies more to us oldsters (I am 80 yo), is track awareness. I still have difficulty avoiding tunnel vision. And I know I am not ready for more relaxed passing rules.

    I have learned that I can still learn. I recently improved my Laguna Seca lap time to 110 seconds.

    Thanks, Gary Smith

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    1. Thanks for your insight. You’re right! Recognizing and accepting that you’re a low intermediate is a good way to keep it fun. I’m a low intermediate musician and I have fun with that. I don’t want to put the effort needed to get better because I’d rather have fun than give myself more work. I’m also low intermediate at golf, fencing, archery, etc. The only reason to get out of intermediate is if some part of you *needs* to.

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