Learning A New Track
Published: December 12, 2016
The single thing I most enjoy about track days is showing up at a new to me track and figuring out how to drive it. Looking at the canvas, so to speak, and laying down the lines, then testing them to see if they perform as I expected them to. I prefer not looking at videos, maps or any other reference material - it's just me and the track.
This essay covers my approach to learning new tracks.
1. Which Way Does It Go?
The first thing I need to do at a new facility is memorize the turns. Most tracks have some blind turns or those with otherwise limited visibility; these are obviously the most important ones to remember, because the consequence of getting them wrong, even at low speed, is often an off-track excursion. Usually in the process of memorizing these turns, the rest come along too.
This first step probably takes me 4-6 laps depending on the number of turns in the track.
At the end of this step I am able to run through the track map in my head and say which way each turn goes, along with which ones require braking. As I am committing more turns to memory I start paying attention to which ones are "easy", such as those that can be taken under full power in whatever car I am driving, which ones require work (most of the rest), and which ones require care (minimal runoff room, high speed straights into slow corners, etc.).
2. Classifying Corners
My next priority is to classify each turn into one of the following categories:
- Not a turn - a curve so gentle I am taking it under full throttle. The curvature at which point a curve ceases to be a turn depends on the speed that the car carries through it. The principal purpose of this category is to stop thinking about some of the corners, thus leaving more brainpower for the remainder of the course.
- Standard exit speed turn - turns which require braking and are followed by decently long straights. These turns have the typical "brake, turn, accelerate" rhythm to them, and call for slightly conservative entry to not blow exit speed. These are the next easiest category to deal with.
- Entry speed turns - turns that follow long straights, the primary emphasis in their execution is braking, that is late, hard braking without tire lockup. Exit speed takes precedence over entry speed at this point in the process, hence a hairpin joining two long straights would be classified as an exit speed turn with a tricky entry (see the next category).
- Tricky, tough or dangerous corners. This could be due to any number of reasons such as lack of visibility due to elevation or terrain (Oak Tree turn at VIR when there was the tree there was a perfect example of a tough corner), off-camber track surface, minimal or missing runoff. Madness at Mid-Ohio is a tricky and dangerous corner. Turn 1 at Palmer and Dominion are tricky due to being high speed and off-camber. Road Atlanta turn 1 is both tricky and dangerous.
- Corners that can be straightened out. These are different from "not a turn" type corners in that in the latter, the car is following the shape of the track but is able to accelerate under full throttle, whereas in the former the car is not following the shape of the track and instead runs a creative line thus eliminating a turn. Palmer turns 11 and 12 are a great example of this category, other ones would be the second chicane at NHMS and turn 6 at Dominion Raceway.
The classification is primarily based on turn radii and car speeds going into them, but surface camber plays a role too.
3. Rough Line
With the corner characteristics identified for each turn, I come up with a line and a strategy for each of them. This includes initial braking points, throttle usage, whether I will take a particular turn smoothly or aggressively, where I transition the car and where I toss it. I identify curbs I am likely to use at speed and start looking for visual references, especially in blind corners. At this point since I am continuing to run laps my line is generally very close to the final line for the first three corner categories, is often quite close for category 5 corners and is frequently quite a bit off the fast line for the tricky corners.
I consider a track's complexity to be proportionate to how many tricky category turns it has. The time to learn the track is dominated by the number of these turns as well. Depending on this complexity I would start converging on a line, as opposed to trying different approaches in tricky corners, around laps 6-12. For longer tracks like Road America or complicated tracks like Mid-Ohio this can be the middle of my second session.
4a. Entry Speed Corners
As I am experimenting with the line through the tricky turns, I already have initial braking points and some visual references for the entry speed corners and I am starting to move my braking points down track with each lap.
I am also increasing my speed through corners that are getting straightened out.
4b. Curb Usage
Elsewhere on the track I am starting to use the curbs in exit speed corners, looking at realtime delta on my Solo to identify whether the curb usage is helping me or hurting me. My goal is to continuously reduce the time spent on the straights, ideally every straight on every lap.
At this point my pace is steadily increasing but is generally already quick enough that the lap times are dropping by less than a second per lap. I would be at about 9-18 laps on track.
5. Tricky Corners Revisited
I am working on every tricky corner every lap I am running. As I am gaining confidence in the lap overall and I have had some time to adjust to the topology of the track, I start looking for more subtle ways to speed the car up, in particular through the tricky sections:
- Using curbs to rotate the car (Summit Point Main turn 5, NJMP Thunderbolt Octopus)
- Using elevated exit curbs to keep the car on the racing surface (as opposed to flat or depressed exit curbs which tend to take the car further off track)
- Aggressively cutting apex curbs in slow corners
- Entering corners from curbs (NJMP Thunderbolt turn 2)
- Using exit curbs and runoff areas as racing surface (Watkins Glen turns 1 and 8, VIR turns 3 and 12, Road Atlanta turn 5)
- Using banking/camber in track surface in preference to geometrically ideal line (Lime Rock turn 2, Dominion Raceway turn 2)
- Noticing any slick spots, especially in the wet, and trying to drive around them (Watkins Glen concrete patches prior to the repave)
- Trying higher or lower gears to get a better drive out of a tight corner or carry more speed through a high speed corner
Depending on the length of the track and the number of tricky corners, this part can take a while, easily a whole session for longer courses. For example, in a 30 minute session at VIR Full one would only get 10 attempts at turn 12, and it follows a still somewhat tricky turn 11. Usually by the time I have 10-20 laps on the track I am running a pretty consistent line and I have a good idea of what I want to do in every turn. This is not to say that the initial ideas I have are always the right ones - merely that after 1-2 sessions on track I can put down consistent laps that are also quite quick. My lap times are coming down by less than half a second at a time by this point. Still I am continuing to experiment with the tricky corners, move my braking points in the entry speed corners, look for more visual references and sometimes try a new idea that may shatter my previous best through a particular section.