By on June 2, 2015

Pontiac Solstice

Smooth is Fast.
Slow Hands on Corner Entry.
Slow In, Fast Out.

The Holy Trinity of proper racing technique is completely wrong — at least if you want to be a champion driver. Onboard videos from F1, WRC and the various touring car series show there is so much more to it. The racecar is thrown into corners with supreme confidence and caught with the deft but quick hand movements that seemingly defy all laws of physics, running completely counter to the smooth is fast dogma.

So why do modern ultra-competitive racing techniques look nothing like what you were taught in driving school or read in a book?

The answer lies mostly in reducing the transition times between maximum acceleration and maximum cornering.

If a driver knows a car can go through a corner at a certain speed and steering angle, there is no reason to waste time getting to that precise velocity. Lost time is simply that — you lost.

The next time you’re strapped to your couch watching a Formula 1 race, take note of the driver’s hands on corner entries. The movement should be confident and fast and then slow down just as the maximum cornering forces build. The steering wheel is used to balance on the hairy edge of adhesion with little flicks that vary only with grip levels. It seems easy, until you realize the velocities at which these folks are trucking along. Lewis Hamilton’s pole-setting lap at this year’s Monaco GP is just one such example.

This fast and nasty driving is sometimes called “Pitch and Catch” as the car is chucked violently into a corner and then carefully gathered up as it nears the apex. There are subtle differences in technique when applied to different types of driving. The high grip of race tires on a dry track will have lower amplitudes of hand motion mid-corner, while the low grip of a rally car will have more relative hand motion during this dance of speed. It’s quick and looks incredibly violent from a cockpit camera point-of-view.

Ari Vatanen’s epic run at the 1983 Manx Trophy Rally (Isle of Man) is a textbook lesson on this:

Transition times during braking must also be reduced. There should be little or no time lost between wide-open throttle on a straight and a braking point before the next turn. Coasting between gas and brake isn’t going to win you anything, nor is being light-footed with the middle pedal. You must use your brakes hard — but not for too long.

One common characteristic of champion drivers is not slowing the car too much on corner entry. A faster driver will trail off the brakes earlier in the turn at a higher velocity. This can be seen on data acquisition traces of velocity vs time as a slower driver’s speed will trend downwards earlier and lower than the leaders. Slow in, fast out is replaced with fast in, fast out as the racer progresses through the field.

By entering the corner at a higher rate of speed, the overtaking car will appear to be doing the passing under braking. This can create an illusion of a faster driver adhering to the slow in, fast out mantra. In reality, it’s more correct to think of this racer ending the braking sooner than a slower competitor. The faster car is faster at that point on the track and has the skills to back it up mid-corner.

This holds true for autocross as well. Witness champion autocrosser, Mark Daddio:

Before you run off and plant your car firmly into a ditch (or into a tire wall — too soon?), we must remind you there’s a reason schools preach slow hands and smooth movements are better. And they are, especially for novices who still need to learn basic car control skills or even the way around a racetrack.

It’s very easy to overload the tires with quick jabs and stabs. If an instructor tells a novice driver to move their hands quickly on corner entry, they’ll typically overshoot their hand movements. This will upset the car and the novice doesn’t have the talent and experience to adjust and countersteer midway through the curve, especially if anything unexpected happens. This goes double on the street.

How do you get from slow hands to fast driving? Like the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall — “Practice!” With experience, you build speed incrementally, one almost-botched corner at a time. The act of saving your ass lap after lap slowly trains your eyes, feet and hands to work together at the limit.

Don’t worry about being smooth — smooth is for suckers.

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27 Comments on “Smooth is for Suckers...”

  • avatar

    What ever happened to that asshat instructor that was caught on video in Oregon[???] berating a driver for not being smooth over and over again and then walking out of the guys car?

    I know the video was on TTAC with a lengthy discussion from the B&B – what 3 – 4 maybe even 5 years ago?

  • avatar

    “There should be little or no time lost between wide-open throttle on a straight and a braking point before the next turn. Coasting between gas and brake isn’t going to win you anything, nor is being light-footed with the middle pedal.”

    This lesson was a driving revelation. Fast drivers manage acceleration, not velocity.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s all about the friction circle and the total force that the tire can transmit.
      Having gone to engineering school it was easy to understand but not always easy to do.
      As you say, practice develops skills.

      • 0 avatar

        Yup. Fundamental theory like friction circle, tire slip angle, understeer/oversteer, apex, and exit speed, this stuff isn’t that hard to understand if you put a bit of time and effort into learning about it.

        It’s also helps the stuff to sink in your head even better (get that “ah ha!” moment) if you drive on snow or dirt- everything happens a little slower than on good, dry pavement.

        • 0 avatar

          Not just ‘slower’ – because the static friction is so much lower, the slide is much more progressive. Dry roads and sticky tires mean that when it starts to go, you are often so far into sliding friction territory that it’s harder to recover.

          Put another way, the Butter zone is much more forgiving when you are driving aggressively on snow and gravel.

    • 0 avatar

      Or think of this way: the brakes are used to slow the car down enough to start accelerating again. Thus the thing keeping you from going faster is time spent braking. So the solution is brake hard but as soon as possible get back on the gas. As a track rookie (about 200 laps in 2 years of various track days) I’ve been told the best way to learn this is to brake as hard and fast as possible then see if you can still hold your line on exit. If you can then your braking too soon.

    • 0 avatar

      I dont know if I buy this. Maybe on a very obtuse turn, or a very tight turn, but on a long turn like the first n last turns at Mugello, or even an on/off ramp, the max speed u can carry into the corner is the max speed u can take the corner at. Meaning u will spend a good amount of time not necessarily coasting, but def not full on the brakes or gas. Trail braking is def huge, as is getting on the gas early, but I dont know that I buy this.

      Full disclosure, my racing experience is pretty much limited to being a mid pack finisher in Forza 4 lobbies with a full racing wheel setup. So take my suggestion as w/e. Different turns def need different approaches though.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah double apex turns and long sweepers require a different approach. My home track (HMS) has several tight turns so that’s pretty much my only reference in the real world. So while maybe not full throttle there must be some place where braking ends and acceleration (even if steady) begins.

  • avatar

    For me the craziest example was Fernando Alonso at Renault back when they used Michelin tires. It looked like he was wildly throwing the car into the corner and then catching it as he got onto the throttle. It apparently only worked for him with that car and tire combination, since his style is more conventional now. But at the time, other drivers weren’t entering turns like he was.

  • avatar

    My dentist’s receptionist has one of those cars. It’s that orangey-copper color.

    I’ll bet she’s still doing slow in, fast out. I’ll hip her to this.

  • avatar

    For me, Michael Schumaucher in his prime was the best of the fast in fast out drivers. Not a “smooth” driving style, but unworldly smooth in his hand movements. Even more so than Hamilton, he seemed to always get the “pivot” down just right. Suzuka was always a joy to watch… he’d usually be a little bit ahead of everybody through the track and then suddenly be massively ahead after going through the last chicane.

  • avatar

    As for the F1 and IRL guys that have fast hands (JPM comes to mind) they are clearly overcoming an ill handling car by basically willing it to go faster then it should. Watching the Indy 500 this year I told my wife with about 15 laps to go that JPM was either going to win or crash, you could just tell by the in car view because he was very busy, yet gaining on the cars ahead. So the drivers that are less “busy” are just driving cars that handle better. However better is not necessarily faster, its just easier. Easier = more consistent which over a long race can yield better times, less tire wear, etc. In a qualifying situation or the last few laps of Indy the hell with smooth, you just need max speed.

    Comparisons to WRC (rally) driving doesn’t count as the car is always slipping due to lose surfaces (wet tarmac in the video linked above), so constant corrections via very busy hands are the norm. I’ve never seen a slow-hand rally driver.

    Watching Hamilton’s video linked above shows what appears to be very smooth to me, his hands only get fast when correction is required. Basically just mid corner (apex) and out. Nothing fast or jerky at entry as that would upset the car’s balance and cause a loss of grip. His motions are fast but they are fluid. Only when a driver’s hands are nervous, making lots of tiny corrections all the time, is when instructors should remind them that slow-is-fast. Its not slow in the motion itself, but “slow” in the deliberate sense of making a move and sticking with it. IE: once you commit to turning right your only movement should be to the right until you reach the apex, then unwind (left) and track out. Any movement to the left BEFORE the apex indicates you misjudged and are now scrubbing speed by making minor corrections – no matter how fast you can input them they are still corrections which indicates something is not right in your approach (too fast, not enough grip, wrong angle, bad braking, tire wear, suspension setup, balance, etc).

    So to me slow in / fast out or slow hands means no need for corrections. Because clearly at times (Monaco’s swimming pool section for example) very fast hand motion is required!

    As for the Autocross video, he is clearly pushing the limits and moving the wheel as aggressively as possible in attempts to manage the maximum velocity as the grip level varies due to vehicle dynamics (transitions between corners, braking zones, etc). I’ve never driven that hard on the track, but had tried it on a simulator (PS3 Gran Turismo, full wheel/pedal setup). You can eek out a few 10s here and there but you are also constantly on the knife edge of spinning/crashing. This is what separates the pros from us track day rats. I have neither the skills, nor the desire, nor any sane reason to push THAT hard in the real world… I’m not paid to drive and my car lacks a reset button.

    • 0 avatar

      Good post. Even in video games there are limits. And in my experience the hallmark of a well setup car is one that doesn’t require much concentration to drive fast. Smooth operator.

  • avatar
    El Hombre

    Pre-aero, they could pitch the car into the turn, 4 wheel drift thru it, and then haul down the next straight. That’s when it was exciting to watch racing. Wide World of Sports race video from the 60’s and 70’s is when I first saw it.

    Now you can’t get the front of the car more than 5 degrees off straight ahead, or the aero package ceases to work and they crash.

    You need a radar gun to tell if it’s the warm up laps, race, or cool down; the attitude of the car never changes. BORING!

    • 0 avatar

      This is where onboard helps for me. Onboard that Monaco qualifying lap looks insane. Onboard a tire and fuel saving race lap us is very different.

      Also, if you see the cars live, movement is more obvious than on tv. The problem on tv is the panning of the camera. Put a fixed camera view at a chicane and you will be suprised at how much movement you can see.

      Having said all that, yes, the way to improve F1 is to reduce aero grip, reduce loss of grip due to turbulence, and increase mechanical grip to compensate

  • avatar

    “higher rate of speed”

    Augh! Now you’re just messing with me! “Higher speed.” I think I’m gonna start a facebook campaign called ‘Stop saying “high rate of speed” and just say “high speed.”‘

    Other than that pet peeve, very smartly written article.

  • avatar

    Jackie Stewart would have a word with you.

    I think if you watch the cars – and not the hands of the drivers you will see smoothness. The rally car may be jarred by the road surface but the driver inputs are delivering a graceful drive. In fact watching a rally car negotiating curves is like ballet – like sausage making – you might not want to see what it takes to accomplish that.

    I’m not a racer – what do I know, but I’m guessing that smooth still wins. It’s fast, predictable for other drivers, and you’ll finish more races.

  • avatar

    I think at the rank amateur level there’s also a total lack of appreciation for how much grip cars have. I ran an (abortive-due-to-engine-failure) Chump Car race at Watkins Glen the other week. I have tons of experience in simulators – and I mean high end stuff, not a PSOne; I make the machines that racing teams buy to train their guys – but none in actual cars. But despite my Miata’s engine being way down on power, and people blowing by me like I was standing still on every straight, I was going by them again in the corners. Hands-full of guys, outside, inside, through the middle; I was trying to be conservative as it was only my first time in a race car and I *couldn’t help buy go by* because they were slowing down SO MUCH in the corners.

    So, talking about braking points or steering technique, for a lot of guys is clearly way beside the point, because even when they’re taking the right line they’re just slowing down until they’re applying street-driving levels of grip to the car anyway. Smooth is all well and good, but the first step is to get guys to understand *just how hard they can push a car*, even a mildly-prepared car on street tires.

    • 0 avatar

      I have no time in simulators, and my only limited track time is in a Miata. My experience there is similar: approaching and going through curves, I’d catch a lot of street cars who blew past me on the straights.

      I’m pretty confident that I’m not talented, nor do I have anywhere near the experience to even approach considering myself skilled. I think the Miata is just a bit of a giant killer in the tight stuff, especially if you take advantage of the cheap aftermarket. My modestly upgraded suspension and $300 worth of 15″ ultra high performance tires probably put the car around the 1.0 lateral G mark, and it’s probably more balanced than a lot of the stuff you’ll share the track with, too, which makes it easier to push towards the limit.

      I can also imagine that your time in simulators could have given you a good feel for the limit of the car, without the fear that comes with the real-world method of finding it. Rank amateur that I am, the time I trailed a bit too far into the esses and couldn’t catch the slide, as well as when I accelerated a bit too early coming off a carousel, resulting in a smashed cone as I put a wheel off the outside of the track at 60+ MPH, were both sobering.

    • 0 avatar

      This is the Miata’s claim to fame – it EATS just about everything in the corners! Thanks to lack of weight you have way less braking plus the ability to change direction quickly. With very little weight to push it out of shape it actually does corner “on rails” as people say. I’ve been passed by many a Miata because over a lap even my Z’s quicker acceleration and top speed doesn’t help, those things just gain SO much time in the braking zones and corners.

      I agree most people don’t understand how much grip there car has. I’m still trying to find the limit on my Z. With VDC (vehicle dynamic control) turned on it can corner way faster then I care to try. My instructor keep telling me to go faster, despite the tires screaming. I’ve pretty much learned if the ABS doesn’t kick in your not braking hard enough.

      • 0 avatar

        I get that the Miata has an advantage in the twisty bits due to balance, weight, etc. And our example, at least, *does* handle delightfully. But even accounting for that, I shouldn’t have been anywhere near that much faster than these other guys; the tires were going to be about equal (tread-wear limited by ChumpCar) and while the dynamics of other cars aren’t going to be quite as good, we’re talking about 10%, not 75%. There were points where I was getting *bored* in tricky corners, sitting in traffic, because there were so many dudes loafing around at .5gs. Yeah, the Miata is a quick car, but I could have been dusting these guys off in my Sonata, too.

        So yeah, I’m pretty sure it comes down to a really egregious misunderstanding of how much grip cars have, and of what that grip *feels* like. Imagine the hardest you’ve ever braked in a panic stop; you can do that EVERY TIME through EVERY CORNER laterally!

        As a dude who sells simulators for a living, yeah, I’m sure simulation helped. It all felt very familiar; it was just a bit easier because in real life you have better positional awareness and better onset feel for forces, so you have *less* work to do. And I’d set up our simulators to be *more* physically demanding than the actual car, as it turned out. After daily hour-long sessions in the simulator, with the motion and the steering feedback cranked up, the actual car was a cakewalk.

        But beyond that, I grew up watching my dad and uncle race GT1 cars and basically living-and-breathing motorsport. And I inherited whatever genetics they have that mean my usual inbuilt caution completely disappears when I get in a competition vehicle. In real life, I don’t take chances. In a race car or gokart, I’ll happily push the limits and take risks I never would otherwise, and I won’t even notice the difference until afterword. So that probably helps too.

        Now all we need is to get our engine fixed. :)

        • 0 avatar

          “Imagine the hardest you’ve ever braked in a panic stop; you can do that EVERY TIME through EVERY CORNER laterally!”

          Very true. However because you are asking for “panic levels” of effort I personally find it difficult to push myself that hard all the time. My respect for professional drivers went thru the roof after my first track day. I was physically and mental exhausted – it was just so much more “work” then I though it would be.

          So in your Chump Car experience I wonder if your competition was taking it easy in effort to just survive? Maybe they took it easy to avoid losing control and smashing into other cars. Self preservation tends to kick in… so I bet those guys would tell you they were going “all out” but data traces would show they were lifting or going light on the throttle. For example despite the fact that I know I shouldn’t do it I still catch myself coasting when entering a braking zone. I’ve only gone off track twice and lost my brakes once, but the “oh crap” factor is pretty high on the track and thus as non-professional I wimp out (often)!

          • 0 avatar

            “Maybe they took it easy to avoid losing control and smashing into other cars.”

            If they were, most of them should have been taking it even easier based on the condition of their vehicles… :P

            That’s the thing, though; I don’t know. I think maybe there’s something built in where I don’t feel the same way about it. Don’t get me wrong; I was being cautious – but it was caution borne of calculation, not trepidation. When I’m driving in competition (*not* on the street; it’s a totally different mental mode) I have absolutely no instinct for self-preservation. I don’t want to bend the car because that’s slow, not because I find the idea intrinsically alarming. If I’m strolling out on a pier by the lake I’ll stay a couple of feet from the water because I don’t want to fall in; put me on the race track and if I conclude that I can reasonably go quicker by driving on the ragged edge then I’ll drive on the ragged edge. Back a few years ago I was at some go-kart place with reasonably quick (45+mph) karts on an indoor course that was ringed with metal walls. There was one particular corner where I realized that I could bounce the kart off (it having a metal surround itself) and get through faster. It hurt like an absolute bastard, and I did it every single time after I found out about it. There was never any other option once I realized it was quicker and wouldn’t break the kart.

            The first or second lap I was out in the Miata I had a guy blaze by me on the outside of an uphill full-throttle sweeper, maybe four inches away with a 20mph speed differential. I presume that’s the kind of thing that’s supposed to worry you, but the only thing I remember feeling was mild irritation that he might’ve put me out of the race and prevented me from continuing to drive. A few laps later I had a bit of a lurid slide through the middle of a corner on some guy’s oil (and then proceeded to go by as he leaped with trousers-soiled motivation from the plume of smoke his car had become) but again, it didn’t worry me in the slightest. I thought, “I’ll have to take a slightly different line next time so I can go faster”. It really didn’t occur to me until later that that might not be the normal reaction. It’s not? :P

  • avatar

    The part you are missing is that smooth inputs does not necessarily mean slow inputs. The reason to be smooth is to not break traction as you build up to the limit. Like streaching an elastic band as far as possible without snapping it. Corrections work in the opposite direction, as you already lost traction and so want to get back under it as quickly as possible. Also, gravel and snow you want to go over the traction limit to get the tires to dig in and find more traction.

    The more grip, the faster your inputs can be, so F1 drivers might look like they are being brutal, and they would be if they were driving a street car, but the motions are still smooth, just much accelerated.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes! It’s also important to realize the difference in driving a purpose built race car with a low center of gravity and stiff springs, versus driving a street-based car, or worse yet, a showroom stock street car. If you try to make the quick steering inputs that work on a purpose built race car on a street stock family sedan, all you’re going to get is tire noise and understeer.

    • 0 avatar

      This. Also, a loose car is generally faster than a tight car and you have to be smooth but very quick when you are maintaining that line between a fast corner and a spin. My last point is when entering a turn Jackie Stewart style, all your braking is done early to carry more speed through the turn. That can set up a 4 wheel drift and then you modulate the throttle.

      This applied to all different areas. Watch Travis Haley shoot sometime and see how fast he is but he is also very smooth. He doesn’t jerk the trigger, it is a deliberate motion even if it sounds like he is shooing full auto. He also uses efficiency of motion to accomplish his tasks.

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