So, you read that novel of basic vehicle dynamics with regards to handling and consideration with active driving technique? No? You better read that first before diving into this one. I’m not sure what this one is about, I guess I’ll tell you at the end. These are written as a conscious stream, a flow of thoughts and ideas typed out for digestion.
Last time we covered the idea of tire awareness; being able to observe, understand and dissect the actions of a vehicles tire on an active dynamic level. Listening, feeling, the road surface, the tire interaction, the car and all their changes in relation to each other. Last post really taught us what to pay attention to, and what was to be observed, the roll and flex of the tire under changes of load, and how it affects the tires touch and grip with the road surface. Now that we understand the causes of understeer and oversteer, let’s get into the process of observation and who you are behind the wheel.
Don’t get it wrong, do it right from the get go. Your body is your tool, both for reception of forces and inputs to the car, and where as well as how you are placed in the vehicle is very important. This is my warning, this sentence is very serious: If you drive with your hand on the top of the wheel, and refuse to change this dangerous habit, please leave. Do not continue to read this article, as it is not for you. I wish I knew the origins of this horrible habit, as it seems completely contained within North America. The rest of you, new or old to driving, pay attention. Drive position is crucial to clear observation and actions.
First things first, make sure your bum is planted right in the middle of the seat, misplacement to far forward/back can cause an arched back, this leads to fatigue quickly. Out to the left and right, can give you a lean, also causing fatigue and misjudging road pitch, or placing you uncentered to the steering wheel. Have your back straight and against the back of the seat, and for heavens sake, make sure your headrest if properly adjusted. A small bump from the rear of the car, even at low speed can break small bones in your neck, causing ‘whiplash‘, which is a permanent condition. Your headrest should interfere with your head tilting back, with your shoulders pressed against the seat, your neck should not tilt past 45 degrees.
Hands and arms are your next consideration. Although people often adjust their seats to have good reach of their shifters, the wheel is most important, as your hand is only on the shifter for a brief moment. Your hands need to be located at 9 and 3, basically the far left and far right of the wheel. During the 80’s there was this horrible trend in steering wheels to have as large of hoop as possible with as few spokes as possible. I find this leads to wandering of that hands when driving and find my hands working down towards the bottom. 2, 3 or 4 spoke steering wheels with a thumb rest at the 9 and 3 position is critical.
Why do we want our thumbs there? Why would our hands be placed at those positions? This is a very functional way to drive, when your hands are placed at 9 and 3, you have the ability to turn the wheel, left or right, with both arms on the wheel, at around 180 degrees. This gives you the freedom to turn corners without ever letting the wheel go. Letting go of the wheel can easily result in directional changes when the road changes elevation or pitch during a corner. Bump steer is the affect of the steering direction of the wheels changing when the suspension is compressed or decompressed, with a good grip of the wheel, a driver can effectively control this directional change by holding steady or making a correction. Constant shuffling of the wheel between hands is another problem with mis use of the hand hold, this term is considered ‘making a corner square’. We talked before in the previous post about smooth inputs, how moving the wheel in a gentle and progressive manner allows the car to handle closer to the limit of adhesion of the tires. Sudden changes in the weight loaded on the tire from an unsmooth steering input causes the tires to load quickly and can cause a loss of traction. Smooth inputs by keeping your hands on the wheel will result in holding the limit of adhesion well. Get your hand off the top of the wheel, we are all one handed drivers in some aspect, a natural bias occurs in our hands that one is more dominant than the other; This does not mean only use that one arm. The major problem with steering with one hand is the natural ‘reset’ position, unlike the built in thumb holds, the hand on the top of the wheel, never has the same exact rest point. This can mean that each time the hand returns to the top of the wheel, the next turn will feel different, and/or the input direction will be different. In addition to this a hand on top of the wheel can only turn 90 degrees one direction, and 180 degrees the other without leaning your body, and it is important to keep your body still.
Placement of the body, the angle you rest your seat at, as well as how far away from the wheel you are, has a huge role in the feel of your car. Your shoulders need to be placed so that your arms have a 135-110 degree bend in them, being too close or too far will both reduce the number of degrees you can steer the wheel, as well as the muscle force you have to do so. Your butt needs to be far enough away from the pedals to allow your heel to rest in below the brake pedal, while able to reach the gas, and your knees to be slightly bent. Your right foot uses the heel to pivot, reaching from under the brake pedal to the gas. The gas pedal in a car has very little resistance, it is sprung to return to it’s original closed throttle position, but it’s the easiest pedal to move, so attention to it needs to be the least. The brake pedal is the hardest pedal in the car, your foot, when operating it should be perfectly vertical, with your leg right behind it to provide the most amount of force. Your clutch foot is a very important foot, others seem to think the right is more, but they are equal. The left foot operates the clutch, this is a very simple job for the most part, (lol except for starting on hills), when racing, clutch work is usually and on/off process, although there are some techniques for clutch modulation, for the most part you rarely moderate it. The true importance of the left foot comes in the form of a dead pedal. A dead pedal is that 4th little pedal on the floor, attached to the firewall. It’s more than a foot rest, it’s a push off point to help push yourself against the back of the seat when cornering hard in a car with an unsupportive seat, and loose or self adjusting seat belt. This dead pedal provides the force you need, in connection with your hands to hopefully keep you still during a corner, braking, etc.
How do we improve our car beyond sitting well and holding the seat well? We mentioned earlier about a good steering wheel with thumb holds. Many companies make basic 3 spoke wheels that fit this need. Ensure that the grip is tight, some cheap aftermarket wheels have very soft grips that can slip on the metal hoop inside, this is the car steering differently than your input and is dangerous. I’ve found with many of my cars that steering wheels from other models of the same manufacturer fit, going from a terrible Flying V shaped plastic wheel, to a leather 3 spoke wheel from a better model is cheap from the junkyard.
Seats are next and I believe most important. Even before major suspension upgrades, power adders, etc. The seat is your communication point with the car. It’s your translator of all the motions, actions and reactions of the car. You will feel it in your chest, head, butt, legs and arms. Most seats, especially in cars sold to the North American market has nearly no bolster support at all. Bolsters fit to your side, hip through shoulder, they keep your body from moving left to right. The pivot point for this rotation is your butt, and your flexible spine allows your head to whip left to right. Imagine trying to butter bread or count a handful of change while whipping your head left to right. People often make up for this, by supporting themselves with their arms and feet. So your options are to observe the road, but having to support your weight, you hand and foot inputs become inaccurate and brutish. The other option is to allow your head to whip about removing your ability to observe both the road visually and the feel of the cars motions, to continue your delicate use of pedals and wheel, with no ability to create accurate observations. These should and side bolsters keep your body still for you, allowing you to be directly connected to the groans and motions of the vehicle, observe the situations correctly and still be able to make smooth and subtle inputs to the controls.
Why are these more importance than performance upgrades? By creating that secure and comfortable cockpit you now have a basis, an increased ability to feel the car. Feeling the car, it’s motions and actions allows you to begin two trains of observation: 1. Patterns of your cars behavior suddenly become more noticeable, the understeer, and oversteer characteristics, braking and accelerating and all combinations are more visible. Being able to improve your understanding of the cars natural characteristics not only makes designing mechanical changes easier, it also allows greater observation of the reactions to the inputs provided. 2. The ability to make corrections to your driving habits. There is always a balance between your skill, your original setup and your pocket book when racing. The quickest and most affordable change to make your lap times quicker is to improve yourself. Money shouldn’t replace natural talent, and being able to understand your car puts you at the head of the class. Just like that one teach your connected with in school, connecting with your car, opening all your senses improves your driving.
Let’s jump to senses. These are complex, people assume driving is just sight and feel, but sound and smell are also very important. Sight obviously encompasses seeing the road, but what is there to that? Sight is obviously shares the role of most important sense with that of feel, but it truly is more than looking at the road. Sight offers a whole world of information’ from a simplistic view of gauges and turn direction, to the complication of always looking at where your going. People sometimes associate driving as a repetitive task, but your enviroment is forever changing, and so is your vehicle. Both the world and car are constantly wearing, breaking, shedding. Sight in cars works two ways, the obvious observation of things moving at you in present time, but sight also comes in the fore variety. Foresight is the understanding and calculated estimate of the route of travel, the actions during this route and the estimated precautions to possible changes. Looking ahead, race drivers look far beyond the few feet in front of their car. The view closest to their bumper is simply old information, mildly monitored by peripheral vision. A drivers eyes, those natural, those trained and developed skill is as far ahead as they can possibly see. Small photographs taking millions of times a second each with corrections, based on these visual observations of the terrain. The drivers eyes designs a line, a path of travel through this previewed course. Looking a head a plan is created and lived out, and while your planning the next section of road beyond the one quickly approaching, you multi-task by re-evaluating this previous micro plan.
The initial confirmation comes from feel. While the eyes are scanning for the optimal path of travel, the body checks it’s assumptions based on the previous micro plan, against the actual current reactions to these pre-planned actions. These feelings send information reverberations to the command center to make changes to the micro plan just about to be executed. A endless set of evaluations and plans made on a second by second basis, only to be re-evaluated, confirmed and corrected on a mili-second basis. Feeling has foresight as well, with the mixture of experience shouting out from the back of the skull, the feel of the car over the foreseen surface, the planed route, is information added to this calculated risk. A dip or a pothole can be ‘felt’ before even traveling across it.
Sound is a tricky devil, it is a confirmation of feeling, tire noise, and engine noise mixed with these predictions is confirmation of the expectations of the upcoming and present occurrences. Sound is also an important mechanical monitor, it’s a monitor of familiarity. Sound is very sensitive, and when the pitch is beyond expectation, it is a dash light in the mind of a driver. The importance of sound is interesting, it’s role gains importance the closer you get to the car’s limit. Near the very edge of a cars performance both the engine and the limit of adhesion offer distinct sounds that are a hit or miss to be observed otherwise. Tire squeel and engine RPM’s give quite a good feedback of information when hitting the limit.
Smell is one of the least important, but it has it’s uses. Determining the condition of wear items is often done by smell. Tires, clutches and fluids all have very distinct smells. They indicate the condition and state of wear during usage without stopping for an inspection. If your wise as a driver you will have read up on the individual parts of your specific car and what their smells mean, it can help you as a driver make executive decisions quickly with little consultation, both on and off track. Clutches are a good example, with their sweet burnt smell, knowing if your clutch is organic or not can determine whether to continue on or pull over.
Together these observations form an acute plan, the speed, detail and confidence from experience, in the plan will improve with seat time. Seat time, no matter the event is crucial. This comes down to the debate of speed versus reliability, will you build your car to be fast for a short period of time, or slower than the competitors for a longer period of time? When building skills as a driver both are valued. In one aspect, you get time understanding the feelings and actions of the vehicle, and the more time you spend doing so the more confident one becomes with pushing themselves. On the other hand having time behind the wheel of something wild and untamed offers a greater challenge to conquer. This challenge pushes one not to, but beyond their limits quicker even if it is for a short time.
In any case, we’ll wrap up this chat about the tools of observation, please mix this information with that of what to observe from the previous post. I think for the next installment we’ll work on general techniques of driving, knowing that it is sincerely weight control; flow.