Published: September 5, 2013; updated: March 16, 2017
Correct seating position in your car is very important. The seating position influences many aspects of your driving:
- How comfortable you are in the car, which manifests in how much confidence you have at the track as well as how tired you get during the on track sessions;
- How quickly you are able to apply inputs to the car, be that for going around the track faster or reacting to emergencies;
- How well you see out of the car.
Broadly speaking, the ideal seating position achieves all of the following:
- Holding the steering wheel straight on the straights requires minimum effort, allowing the driver to rest and relax their hands and wrists;
- Turning the steering wheel through its range of motion at the track is comfortable;
- The driver can effortlessly reach the shifter in any of its positions;
- Pedals are easily reached from various leg positions - for the left leg this means unencumbered dead pedal to clutch and brake pedal movement, for the right leg this means free movement between throttle and brake pedals;
- Legs are comfortable in their base positions - left foot on the dead pedal, right foot on throttle;
- Pedal heights are properly matched for heel-toe;
- The driver can see over the steering wheel;
- The driver can easily see all of the mirrors in the car, interior and exterior;
- The driver is held in the seat with seat belts or harnesses and does not need to expend effort to push on the seat/door panels/steering wheel to stay in the seat.
There are various rules of thumb for things like distance from the driver to the steering wheel and pedals, but ultimately the purpose of the correct seating position is to give the driver maximum control of the vehicle and minimum fatigue.
Often times, and especially in street cars, seating position is constrained in various ways by the car itself. The goal then is to find the best compromise keeping in mind the ultimate goals of vehicle control and fatigue avoidance.
Distance From Steering Wheel
Ideal: With your shoulders firmly in the seat and your arms extended all the way forward and placed over the top of the steering wheel, the steering wheel should roughly be at your wrist joint.
With your hands on the 3 and 9 o'clock positions on the steering wheel you will have both elbows bent. A small bend in the elbows helps limit fatigue in your arms. This bend is retained through most of the steering wheel positions; only when steering wheel angle exceeds 75 degrees do your arms start to really straighten out.
Practical limitations: Especially in street cars, the relationship between the steering wheel position and the pedals' position is often fixed. Being too far from either the steering wheel or the pedals severely compromises the driver's ability to control the car, therefore most people sit closely enough to the dashboard to be able to operate both steering wheel and pedals and sometimes this means they are too close to the steering wheel, depending on their body shape and the car's design.
Distance From Pedals
Ideal: With your butt firmly in the seat, press each pedal all the way to the floor. With each pedal pressed all the way, the respective leg should have a slight bend at the knee.
Not maintaiing a bend at the knee with the pedals depressed all the way will be very tiring on your legs when you are driving.
Practical limitations: Especially in street cars, the relationship between the steering wheel position and the pedals' position is often fixed. Being too far from either the steering wheel or the pedals severely compromises the driver's ability to control the car, therefore most people sit closely enough to the dashboard to be able to operate both steering wheel and pedals and sometimes this means they are too close to the pedals, depending on their body shape and the car's design.
Ideal: Your hands should be at 3 and 9 o'clock positions on the steering wheel. Do not shuffle steer; instead, move your hands with the steering wheel as the steering wheel turns.
Let's cover shuffle steering first. In street driving, especially in parking maneuvers and when driving on city streets, one must frequently turn the steering wheel over 105 degrees either way, which requires shuffle steering. In track driving there are virtually no turns that need over 105 degrees of steering angle, hence shuffle steering is not necessary. When a driver shuffle steers they lose the ability to straighten the car which is a critical aspect of skid recovery. As long as drivers remain within the grip limit of the car, they generally will not have problems with shuffle steering; however, as soon as the car exceeds the grip limit, the shuffle steering driver's ability to recover the car dramatically decreases. Hence, shuffle steering in track driving is strongly discouraged.
Moving on to hand position on the whel, from the car control standpoint the "3 and 9" position allows most drivers to comfortably grasp and turn the steering wheel in the range of about 105 degrees left to 105 degrees right, provided the distance from the driver to the steering wheel is correct as explained above. It is easier to pull the steering wheel down than to push it up, and it is easier to pull the steering wheel sideways away from the center than to push it toward the center. With the hands on 3 and 9 o'clock one hand is always able to pull the steering wheel no matter which position the steering wheel is in (up to 105 degrees either way) and no matter which way the driver wants to turn. With the hands on other positions there are steering wheel angles where both hands must push to turn the car; this is very difficult and uncomfortable, hence drivers who do not use the "3 and 9" position often shuffle steer which as we already covered is a bad idea.
From the safety standpoint, the "3 and 9" position is recommended by insurance companies as the safest one in case of an airbag deployment (references: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Now, if the airbag deploys while the car is in a turn your hands will likely not be at 3 and 9 o'clock; my suggestion if a collision is imminent is to take your hands off the steering wheel and press them against your chest without crossing them. This also will prevent the steering wheel potentially breaking your fingers, as the steering wheel can move very quickly and violently in an impact (references: 1, 2).
Practical limitations: Some cars, especially those with a smaller cockpit like Miatas, have a hard time fitting larger drivers properly. If you have a larger sized body you may find that your hands/knuckles hit your legs at well under 90 degrees of steering angle. In this case you may have no choice but to shuffle steer, and possibly pre-position your hands for a turn offset from 3 and 9 o'clock positions so that when the car is in the corner, your hands are closer to the 3 and 9 o'clock positions. Recognize that this hand placement is suboptimal at best and severely compromises your ability to recover the car if it loses grip, either on the front or on the rear. Installing aftermarket seats that would lower you in the car as well as an aftermarket steering wheel with a smaller than OEM diameter will help you get to the ideal hand position, and should be your priority if you intend to track the car.
Grasping The Steering Wheel
The purpose of the steering wheel is twofold:
- Driver uses it to command the car to change direction.
- The car uses it to inform the driver of what the front tires are doing.
What I find to work well is to grasp the sides of the steering wheel with the palms of the hands and leave fingers loosely on the steering wheel. Commands from the driver then primarily are issued via the palms with fingers listening for the car's feedback.
I (presently) believe that the grasp of the steering wheel must be firm enough to afford the driver absolute control of the car at all times. Said differently, #1 on the above list overrides #2. Some instructors ask drivers to relax their grasp of the steering wheel; I agree with this only as far as doing so does not compromise the driver's ability to maintain their desired car trajectory.
Personally, I have a much stronger grasp of the steering wheel in foul weather conditions like heavy rain and snow than in dry conditions.
Take a look at this video for an example of what can happen when the driver is not grasping the steering wheel with sufficient force. Notice how the driver is barely holding the steering wheel before the contact.
Compare that with the following example. This post and video set the stage for the actual race shown in this post and video. By maintaining positive control of the car, the driver avoided a potential crash.
The current consensus is that you should not be shuffle steering.
The only time your right hand should depart the steering wheel is to shift. Do not take your hand off the steering wheel in anticipation of the shift; only move the hand when you are actually performing the shift.
As soon as the shift is finished, put the right hand back on the steering wheel.
The left hand should typically be glued to the 9 o'clock position throughout the shifting process.
Point-bys are given with the left hand. As you are giving a point-by, your right hand should be glued to the 3 o'clock position.
Steering Wheel Height
You should try to have the steering wheel high enough in the car that you can fit your hands between the steering wheel and your legs. If you are unable to do this you may have trouble turning the steering wheel without shuffle steering.
Generally you want to be as low in the car as possible while still being able to see over the dashboard.
You can change your seating position with an aftermarket stering wheel, steering wheel hub adapter, pedal covers, seats and harnesses.
Steering Wheel Itself
Larger diameter steering wheels reduce steering effort at the expense of being bulky. If you find that your elbows hit the door panels you may want to get a smaller steering wheel.
Steering wheels as small as 330 mm in diameter are widely used. Typical OEM steering wheels are 350 mm and larger. Aftermarket steering wheels do not usually have an airbag provision which could be important if your car is street driven.
An aftermarket steering wheel may also have a dish, bringing the steering wheel closer to you.
Steering Wheel Hub Adapter
These are normally used in conjunction with a quick release kit to allow fast removal of the steering wheel.
The steering column end is typically car manufacturer-specific. A hub adapter sits between the steering column and a universal aftermarket steering wheel. A quick release kit would go between the hub adapter and the steering wheel. Lacking a quick release kit, the steering wheel may be bolted directly to the hub adapter.
Both hub adapter and the quick release kit will bring the steering wheel closer to you. Depending on how much depth you want to eliminate, you can get a slim quick release adapter, a regular one or even a dedicated steering wheel spacer.
Pedal covers perform two functions:
- They make the pedals larger, which aids in particular in heel-toe execution.
- They change the relative position of the pedals, which again may make heel-toe easier.
Pedal covers do not change your seating position but they can make operating the car more comfortable.
Aftermarket seats make a huge difference in driver position in the car.
Fixed bucket seats lack built-in sliders, and therefore can be mounted lower in the car. This changes the angle of your feet and your arms. A lower seating position would give you more helmet to roof clearance. Racing seats without padding will transmit more of what the car is doing to your body.
Depending on the car, the seats and installation method, aftermarket seats may offer more or less adjustment range than factory seats.
An important part of racing seat selection is determining the correct layback angle. This is the angle that the back of the seat makes with the base. Because racing seats are not adjustable, this angle needs to be within the range that you are comfortable with. Some drivers prefer a more vertical seating position, others the opposite.
You should get a halo seat if at all possible.
Race harnesses do not change your seating position, but they fix your body in place. With a factory 3 point belt you can move several inches laterally in corners, which is not only tiring as you have to exert effort to stay in place, but also can compromise your vision as you are unable to move to see around the A pillars and your ability to operate the pedals if you are pushing off the floor with your feet.
You should get a 5 point or a 6 point harness. 4 point harnesses lacking a submarine belt are not allowed in many organizations. While some people use latch and link harnesses, I would strongly recommend getting a camlock. Camlocks are much easier to operate, which is especially important if you are trying to get out of the car quickly.
You may need a harness bar to correctly route and anchor the harnesses.
When I drive on the street, I usually have my left hand on the 10 o'clock position on the steering wheel, and the right hand either resting on my lap/seat or shifting. As you might be able to tell, all my cars have manual transmissions.
I usually rest my left elbow on the door. The distance between steering wheel and the seat is set to allow for a bit of slack in the left arm as it bends to place the elbow on the door and the hand on the steering wheel. This also explains why I have the hand on 10 o'clock rather than 9 o'clock - the 10 o'clock position is more comfortable.
I do not normally shuffle steer at high speeds, i.e., in highway driving. I make right curves by lifting the left arm off the door. For left curves I put the right hand on the steering wheel, usually on the 2 o'clock position, and move the left hand on 8 o'clock to give it some variety.
I believe it is important to maintain hands in the vicinity of 3 and 9 o'clock positions in street driving. The reason is doing so permits the use of muscle memory to adjust the car's trajectory. This is most important when driving in rain or snow, but to a lesser extent comes into play when driving over bigger potholes that change the car's direction.
If you practice oversteer, you develop muscle memory for countersteering and become able to stop excessive rotation of your vehicle subconsciously. A great example of this happened last winter. I was driving on a highway in freezing rain conditions, at night. I knew there was ice on the road, but not where, and could not see it. Eventually I hit a patch of ice which immediately started to rotate my truck. I cannot tell you at what point I began to countersteer, how much countersteering I thought was needed, where I thought the truck was going. What did happen was inside of maybe half a second the truck gained about 45 degrees of angle, and by the end of that half a second I was applying about 45 degrees of countersteering. My reaction was entirely subconscious. Right when this incident happened I thought about what I did and mostly came up blank. I "just saved it". What probably happened was my subconsciousness averaged the steering inputs I gave to maintain desired direction of travel over the years, and sent that to the hands, which obliged and that the ballpark of correct input. So, you should drive on the street the same way you drive on the track, and I hope you don't drive on the track with one hand on 12 o'clock position.