Last week saw the start of the 2011 World Rally Championship season. To me, Rally is just about the pinnacle of motorsport. Anything can happen, and the unique characteristics of both cars and track make for some rather aesthetically pleasing work.
Much of this tricky business involves use of the middle pedal (that’s the brake, for those of you with only two pedals), and since we’re talking about brakes this week, I thought I’d outline a few advanced braking techniques. If you’re already a WRC driver, you can skip this post unless you want a good review.
Please be advised, dear readers, that these are for use on closed courses. That means you shouldn’t go trying them on public roads, especially if you’re the breed of driver who likes to turn his or her morning route to work into a special stage. Neither I, nor my employers here at Streetside Auto, are responsible for your finding out how many times your Impreza can possibly roll.
You know those twisty, hairpin-like mountain corners that so often adorn European rally circuits? These are where the handbrake turn comes in handy (no pun intended). Many of you know that a handbrake only applies your back brakes. So when you’re coming to a corner that’s going to whip you somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 degrees, you can use the handbrake turn. It involves letting off the gas, cutting the wheel sharply in the direction you want to go, then pulling the handbrake. Your rear tires will lose traction and slide around until both ends of your car are lined up with the track ahead, and then you can take off again.
Don’t try it in an SUV or something with a particularly high center of gravity. You’ll flip. Don’t try it at very high speeds. You’ll flip. A good way to practice the technique is on snow…with nothing around to hit. During the recent American Snowpocalypse I had some good opportunities to hone the technique, and I had a blast.
More common on the tarmac than on the loose dirt rally courses, trail braking involves a trailing off of the brakes from the turn in point to the apex of a corner, when you’ll start to accelerate again. It’s good for reducing understeer, or if you’ve accidentally taken a corner too fast and don’t want to end up with an old tire or hay bail stuffed in your grill. Trail braking can actually transfer weight to the front wheels, giving you plenty of grip and killing your understeer. It doesn’t work, though, for cars that don’t have a lot of understeer. And if you do come into a corner too hot, you can use trail braking to keep your grip on the tarmac, but remember that you only need slight pressure to pull it off.
It’s not just for recovering or making up for your car’s shortcomings, though. It’s also a common technique for improving lap times in general. It’s important to know your car before you try it. RWD monsters that tend to oversteer or spin their wheels on takeoff don’t appreciate it much. The traditional racing line zones (coast from turn in to apex) are more effective.
Left Foot Braking
This is a technique quite at home in the world of rallying. In fact, it was invented by 1950’s rally driver Rauno “Flying Finn” Aaltonen. But left foot braking can be applied to most types of racing. It can improve your lap times in several ways, and you weekend warriors with FWD beasts will find it especially useful. If done correctly, it can reduce understeer when you’re going into a corner. It’s also good for eliminating front wheelspin, a common problem amongst the boosted Civics and Sentras out there. And if you’re really good with it, it will shave down your lap times just by reducing the transfer time between the gas and brake pedals. In other words, if you’re already trail braking, you can use your left foot. Just make sure you don’t try this on a corner in which you need to shift.
This brings me to the most common mistake with left foot braking. You’ve got to remember that the brake isn’t the clutch. Left foot braking means just a slight feathering of the brake when you’re approaching the apex, but our left feet are generally trained to mash the clutch. Don’t try mashing the brake. You’ll flip.
I know you all long for a stint in the WRC more than Leonardo DiCaprio longs for home in Inception, but hopefully some advanced braking techniques can get you a bit closer. What other techniques should be added? WRC drivers, you can chip in here.