Third Gear No Brakes

Cross-posted from Mario’s Occam’s Racer. Editorial comments in red (at the end).

I don’t know a lot of car drills, and in fact I only do one: “Third gear no brakes.” Leave it in third gear (or fourth on a higher speed track) and don’t touch the brakes, that’s all there is to it. I learned this exercise from Keith Code back when I was a motorcycle journalist for Moto Euro. We did an article on the California Superbike School, and Keith made us do this drill for two sessions at Sears Point (Sonoma), in the rain.

Third-gear-no-brakes is a great way to focus on entry speed, and you absolutely have to use reference points. You will eventually scare the shit out of yourself, but after that, you’ll be surprised how fast you can go.

For example, here are two laps, the red is me, the black is my friend Jim. We are in the same car on the same tires, and he is .2 seconds faster than me. But if you look at the traces, he’s shifting and braking, while I’m staying in 3rd gear the whole time, never touching the brakes.

If you look at the time graph along the bottom, you can see I make up most of the time in the middle of the graph. This is the “knuckle”, a triple-apex corner. I have to shut off the throttle right at the end of the corner, and that long sloping line is me coasting downhill, waiting for the blind hairpin. At the same point, Jim’s trace looks like a mountain, with strong acceleration upwards and hard braking coming back down.

Jim isn’t a bad driver, he’s taken racing classes, and has raced wheel to wheel. He has strong inputs behind the wheel, and an aggressive driving style. But he slows down too much and my Miata doesn’t have a lot of power to overcome that.

This is what third-gear-no-brakes looks like from the cockpit. It’s not very exciting. I edited out the part where I went three wheels in the dirt!

One of the most common phrases you hear at the race track is “in slow, out fast”. I like making fun of this phrase because it does more harm than good. While I could mention that again here, I’m going to examine another common myth: “the most important corner is the one that leads onto the longest straight”. At Pineview Run, the “S Trap” leads onto the main straight. This is a super-slow left-right combination that is positioned at about 3600-4100 feet in the graph above. The black driver goes “in slow, out fast” and ends up with superior speed on the main straight. Yay. This leads to a couple tenths advantage at the end of the straight. Big fucking deal.

Now let’s look at something that turned out to be more important than the straight: the S Trap itself. Going into the S Trap, the black driver has built up a nice cushion (you can see this in the time graph as the big red hump). The reason for this is clear, the red driver wasn’t using any brakes on the approach and consequently has a huge speed disadvantage. From 3250-3750 the black driver is going a lot faster. But all the time gained in this 500 feet is lost in the next 200. Why? Because contrary to popular opinion, the slow parts of the track are critical. Going 1 mph slower in the slowest corner of the track is a lot more costly than 1 mph slower in the fastest corner. Why? Simple math. Going 99 mph in a 100 mph corner is only 1% off but going 49 mph in a 50 mph corner is 2% off. Given that slow corners tend to have long arcs, you can spend a lot of time going slowly.

The 3rd gear only exercise is one of the best things you can do on a practice day. With the focus on momentum rather than engine, your minimum corner speed will be higher. Like all drills, this isn’t the end of the story. You don’t want to drive like this all the time. If your minimum corner speed is too high, you will have to lift at the exit. Not only does this make your lap times longer, it’s also dangerous. But you can’t get to the end without getting through the middle, and 3rd gear only is an important part of the middle.

11 thoughts on “Third Gear No Brakes

  1. I’m going to try this the next time I can sneak away for a track lunch.

    Ironically (or not), I often find that I nail corners that I’ve been struggling with when I’m doing a cool down lap after the checker (DE), trying not to use the brakes – it lets me (and forces me to) focus more, I suppose. I still think that my best ever turn 11 at COTA was during a cool down.

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    1. Finally had a time when I wasn’t under the weather or otherwise too busy – I love this drill. I have a stock NB Miata with a 6-speed so I did it as “4th gear no brakes.” I was being social so ended up running it as 3-4 laps at the end of each session rather than a dedicated block of time, but I’m kinda hooked. Also this was on a track I’d only done 3-4 times before. I learned pretty fast:

      1) I don’t have a good feel for how fast my car will shed speed on the straight without throttle
      2) My car can lose a lot of speed through turns. Steering wheel as brakes is a real thing.
      3) This made me much more aware of my turn-in points and made me more focused on nailing apexes.
      4) I miss being able to rotate the car with trail-braking
      5) I need to do this more

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      1. So here’s a stupid follow-on question. Assume for now that track time is reasonably attainable (in my case I’m a member of a track ~45 minutes away, so I try (and often fail) to do a long lunch down there weekly. Ends up being more like every 3-4 weeks, plus a weekend day or two, but its an effort).

        How much time would you recommend spending on drills vs. spending on “driving fast”? We went counter-clockwise this weekend, which is unusual (but awesome), and I loved just working on lines/points and playing around. Usually when I go I’m picking 2-3 corners and working on trail-braking or other skills, and I save the “driving” for when there are more cars on track like a DE (NASA DE4, etc).

        I already said that its a stupid question, but it feels like I should have an answer and I honestly don’t. I know that focussed practice makes me better, faster, but how much does actually working on lap times help too?

        Sorry for the rambling question.

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      2. I think it depends on the person. If I have a choice of practice vs. performance, I almost always choose practice. But my tennis buddy always wanted to play matches and he had very little patience for drills. Those choices were based on what we found fun. I don’t know if fun is the best answer to improvement though. If improving is the highest priority, you also have to include coaching into the equation somewhere. Nobody effectively coaches themselves very far.

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  2. The last time I was at Roebling, it was an open track day, and it was HOT. I was struggling with maintaining speed through T4, T5, and T6/7, and my vMin was dipping down to high 50’s in those corners, when the car can do more. Because it was so hot, and traffic was light, I did multiple cool down laps, and experimented with setting the cruise control at 60, and built up to 64 by the end of the day. Because of my tire diameters, my actual GPS speed was very close to 64. That was something, gliding through these corners at 5mph or mire higher vMin than when I was actively braking and accelerating in my hot laps and was a real eye opener. I will try the 3rd gear no brakes next time I am there. Great article. Now I just need to learn to brake less :)

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  3. Recently bought KartKraft (a karting sim) and was caught out by how much I sucked at it. Couldn’t work out cornering balance/steering inputs to save my life. So I gave the no-brakes method a go. Eventually, I equaled my times from when I’d been using the brakes. When I added them back in again, my fastest time dropped by over a second.

    Of course, when I drove the track in real life, I used the brakes straight away. Damn you, ego.

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    1. It’s a wholly different experience compared to Assetto Corsa, that’s for sure. Switching from one to the other is a trip. Two drawbacks, though. Firstly, it’s still in beta, so content and gameplay are limited. Secondly, I have to crank up in-game FFB to mimic a real kart, which makes my G29 feel noticeably notchy. I imagine a more powerful belt-driven wheel would smooth that out.

      For $20, it’s a unique and rewarding challenge that varies greatly from full-scale sims. You might appreciate it for the distinct demands it makes of a driver/player, even without doing much karting. But that’s the majority of my real-life seat time, so I’m biased.

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