Interested in becoming a race driver? Back in 2004, when Aussie F1 driver Mark Webber was driving for Jaguar and was in Sydney before the Australian GP, I interviewed him on this topic. Here's what he (and his engineers) said:
“Ask yourself: Would a better driver be faster in this car?” That’s what Aussie F1 driver Mark Webber does. Webber’s race engineer Pete Harrison agrees. “In F1, as many as 700 people all rely on the driver to get the most out of the car,” he says. “It’s absolutely criminal if the car is under-driven.”
Both agree that the same outlook applies right down to the lesser racing classes, and to driving generally. Webber says there is a “shocking list of excuses” when it comes time to ‘fess up about lacklustre track performances. “It’s easier to look hard at the car than at yourself,” Webber says. “But most times drivers could have done better with the machines they had.”
Obvious question, to be posed if you’re lucky enough to be sharing an hour in a car with this pair (as I was recently): How should one approach getting quicker?
Webber: “You need a massive amount of aggression -- the controlled kind. You need experience, mileage in other words, and you can acknowledge your strengths. But you really need to be honest, and beat yourself up a bit about your weaknesses. You need to be pretty clear on those.”
Harrison says you should make a list of driver/car/team weaknesses and allocate your available resources to the ones that will make the biggest difference to your performance.
Both say many aspiring drivers miss the point, preferring to blow big bucks on, say, a more powerful engine when the best way to shave half a second off a lap is often merely to become a better driver. Webber advises walking the track, noting track irregularities and changes, as well as standing trackside and watching the lines taken by leading drivers. Personally, he makes comprehensive notes after each race -- though the content of these is something he won’t say.
“Overcome pride,” he advises. “Don’t be afraid to ask a stupid question to solve a problem, even if it makes you look like a dickhead. If you get an answer that solves a problem, at least you’ll be a quicker dickhead. It’s worth it.”
On the vehicle, Harrison says you must get down to the minimum weight for the class -- no question. “Then get the basics right: I’m talking about the parameters that primarily determine performance. Strive for optimal weight distribution. Get the roll stiffness and bending rigidity right. Run the right tyres, and get the spring and bar rates right.” Harrison says plenty of drivers spend too much time and often blow the budget on “secondary stuff” like gear and diff ratio changes. “As long as you have five or six forward gears, all with a reasonable spacing, you’re probably better off keeping them and getting the more important stuff right,” he says. Dampers? “A classic place to waste money.”
“Keep learning -- every time you go out,” says Webber. “In competition, play to your strengths. Learn how to exploit the full potential of the car, and make changes only after the car is at its limit. And don’t forget that it’s okay to be just a bit arrogant.”
- Examine the fastest drivers’ lines
- Walk the track and make detailed notes
- Ask questions, even the stupid kind
- Assess your ability honestly
- Beat yourself up over weaknesses
- Get the vehicle’s fundamentals right
- Maximise your experience
- Use controlled aggression
- Blame the car if it’s you that’s slow
- Worry about looking like a dickhead -- as long as you learn something
- Blow your limited resources on things that really don’t matter
- Keep changing the car -- unless you can drive it at its limit everywhere on a track
- Race a car that’s over the minimum weight for the class
- Be afraid to act a bit arrogant (except if you spear off at turn one...)