Braking broken down

I once drove in a Lemons race where the car builder put a Ford 5.0L in a Toyota Celica. It was a fun car on the straights but a nightmare in the corners. Sadly, he used OEM brake pads, and they were fading on me before the end of the first lap. Buttonwillow has 7 braking zones, and in order to keep them cool I had to limit myself to braking twice per lap. In the other zones I had to coast, downshift the automatic transmission, and scrub speed with excessive steering. After getting over how much I hated the car, I actually had fun solving the puzzle of how to drive it fast.

At a more recent Lemons race at Sonoma I was nearly in a similar situation. We were working on the car before the race and the car owner brought out some $12 brake pads. No fucking way was I driving with those. Luckily, he also had some EBC Yellowstuff from the previous owner. When novices think about track driving, they focus on acceleration, not deceleration. That’s why when random people you meet ask about your racing activities, the first question they ask is “how fast do you go?” More important is how fast you stop. And more important than that (eventually) is how little you turn the steering wheel. Stopping and turning are the domain of the brake pedal. If you didn’t know that the brake pedal is the turn pedal, you had better keep reading. So let’s talk about the braking progression from novice to alien.

Level 1 – Novice

Description: If there’s one word to describe how novices brake, it would be tentative. Novices often exhibit a lot of coasting before applying the brake pedal. When they finally press it, they do so softly and then gradually increase the pressure. By the time they release the brake, they are going quite slow and the technique of the release hardly matters.

How to improve: The key to graduating out of this stage is just confidence. For some, that happens in 1 track day. For others, it may be years. If fear was easy to get over, it wouldn’t be fear.

Level 2 – Low Intermediate

Description: Intermediate braking is firm braking, but inconsistent. Gone are the fears of high G-forces. Intermediates can stop so fast their sunglasses fly off their faces. What they lack is any kind of finesse. They may brake too late and overshoot the corner. Or brake so early that they are confused about when to add throttle. Or brake in the middle of a corner and spin. Seeing how much better they are than novices makes them think they are fast, but this is just a manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

How to improve: Braking becomes less of a panic, and more consistent the more you do it. So this is mostly a matter of training. To snap someone out of the D-K effect, compare lap times in the same car.

Level 3 – Intermediate

Description: The hallmark of the intermediate driver is “in slow out fast” with an emphasis on slow. That comes from very aggressive braking. This is usually followed by very quickly jumping off the brake and onto the throttle. The car tends to pitch fore and aft with this driving style, and the car is often understeering as the weight gets thrown to the rear. In a high power car with nannies, this level of driving can be pretty quick, even if it’s not very skillful.

How to improve: This driver needs to work on being smoother because their style is reducing the grip available in the corner. Until they see lap times or telemetry traces from another driver in the same car, they may believe they are driving correctly.

Level 4 – High Intermediate

Description: The high intermediate has learned to used trail-braking to extend the braking zone into the corner. Not only does this lengthen the straight, it also keeps the suspension quiet on turn in. This is a relatively fast and safe way to drive, and lots of HPDE regulars and coaches drive like this.

How to improve: The next stage isn’t so easy because it requires both oversteer recovery skills and the confidence to use them. Lots of people get stuck here and may require some coaching to move on.

Level 5 – Advanced

Description: The advanced driver confidently uses the brakes to rotate the car at the entry. After all, the faster driver is the one who turns less. Steering with the rear wheels is the key to speed, but the key pedal is the brake, not the throttle. Some people understand this. Few actually do it.

How to improve: What holds the advanced driver back from progressing further is precision. All the skills are there, but the edges are rough. Like in any other sport, improving technique requires many hours of deliberate practice. There is no shortcut to expertise.

Level 6 – Expert

Description: The expert is able to balance the grip of the car to such a fine degree that all laps fall within a couple tenths of a second. They have worked very hard to attain this level of mastery and may not recall how difficult it was, leading to the other side of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

How to improve: Be born with unnatural ability and work harder than everyone else.

Level 7 – Alien

Description: They seemingly break the laws of physics and human ability. It would be easier to accept if they were cheating, but they aren’t. We all just suck in comparison.

18 thoughts on “Braking broken down

  1. Great article, very timely for me, because just this past weekend at Sebring I think I started to experience some of this – I had gotten some coaching from Dion at Racers360 about using a strategy of not getting on throttle too early (which I would have sworn I wasn’t but he showed me that in fact I was in many places :) ) to mask that I overbraked, in order to force me to roll more speed and I guess it worked, I was rolling more speed, and so my trail braking actually brought me down closer to the apex, and I got the feeling (for the first time) that it was the brake that was consistently controlling the rate of turning the car in many corners. It was a neat feeling and in 95F+ heat I was able to take over a second off my previous best that was set in cool weather. And then this article, I am going to be sharing it with my students. Thank you!

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    1. It’s especially important in a mid-engine car to reserve some brake pressure because the front end is light. As soon as you go to throttle, you will experience some understeer as the weight shifts back. Congrats on the personal best in less than ideal conditions. That’s got to feel pretty great.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, that would be very cool, I’m going to Sebring 1 more time near the end of October, and then I would be happy to do a guest post, that way I will have more perspective and 1 more time to try out the things they coached me on.

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  2. Good post and quite timely for me as I’ve been thinking a lot about corner entry recently.
    Braking is one area in particular where it seems the better I get, the more I realize I have to improve.
    First time on track I thought I was great at braking, because I could make my sunglasses fly off my face…
    I think I’ve been on a plataux at level 4 for quite a while. Actually doing level 4 perfectly is not easy and I’ve easily spent years working on it.
    More recently, let’s say over the last 18 months, I have become aware of rotating the car with the brakes, ala level 5. I am just about scratching the surface of this and expect I have many years of learning to come.

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    1. Whether you’re talking basketball, golf, tennis, etc., there are a whole bunch of intermediate levels of not doing things quite correctly. But once you do have the correct form for a jump shot, for example, you’ll be refining that for the rest of your life. I think some people refine their intermediate skills for the rest of their life. That probably describes my golf. Sounds like you’re about to break through an important barrier.

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    2. Interesting. I feel like I went from level 3 to trying to do level 5 – I started trail braking expressly with the intent of rotating the car. I wonder if that’s part of the challenge I’ve faced with it at times.

      Such a lovely peaceful feeling when you get it right and the car just dances with you though.

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      1. People talk about using trail braking to help rotate the car all the time. I think for level 4 what that means is that you are using the trail braking to eliminate understeer, by keeping weight on the nose as you turn in. This is essentially what I’ve worked on for many years, and there is a groove I occasionally find where there is a magical amount more grip for turning in. When done right, the slip angle at the front and rear of the car is about the same, allowing maximum speed to be carried.

        I interpret level 5 as intentionally sliding the rear a little, basically braking while turning just past the point where the car is balanced and now the rear is slipping more than the front. This induces some yaw in the car, which helps it to rotate more than it would naturally do, allowing you to straighten the wheel more after the apex (which means you can actually apex a little earlier, while still getting on the gas at the same time and still making the exit). The trick here is keeping the car on the knife edge of not over-rotating and losing too much speed, or losing control entirely, while still inducing as much yaw as possible.

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      2. It’s confusing because “trail-braking” is used to describe two separate by related phenomena (1) extending the braking zone into the corner (2) rotating the car. For this reason, the Skip Barber School calls (2) “brake turning”.

        Level 5 is a game of “throw and catch”. The throw is having more slip at the rear than the front and the catch is unwinding the wheel to recover the slide. The goal is to get the wheels as straight as possible before the apex. The sooner you can get the drive wheels pointed at the exit, the sooner you can get on throttle.

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      3. So far I’ve only had one blissful moment, heading in to Turn 15 at COTA, where I could feel the rear slipping around and (most importantly and underemphasized IMO) I was comfortable enough with it that I didn’t try to catch it, just straightened the wheel a bit and let the car do its thing. If I could do that to some extent on each and every turn, I’d be a very happy driver.

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  3. I think something little talked about but makes a huge step in moving from advanced to expert is feeling the G forces on your body under braking rather than trying to feel the pedal pressure. This is especially important in cars where the pedal is soft or has tons of travel. Also by feeling the G forces, it tells your body how much you need to brake and is a good indication of how smooth you are.

    I’m just starting to learn this and it finally feesl like I’m learning how to reach that next level because I was practicing the wrong thing before.

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  4. Jason’s excellent description reminds me of “Zero Steer” from the book “Optimum Drive.” I am still in search of Zero Steer but am heading in the right direction.

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  5. I just completed the Lucas advanced school at Sebring. Their primary goal was to teach us to use the brakes to rotate the car. Post session data review was very informative; they showed me that the 4 seconds a lap I was losing to the leaders was all in the braking pre-midcorner.

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    1. What was your impression of the school? Time and money well spent? Care to write an article about it? I think lots of YSAR readers are interested in racing schools (including me).

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