Transition to Motorsport (7): If I Knew Then What I Know Now

It’s now “year 2” in my transition to motorsport. It’s just over one year since I bought my Ginetta G40 and started driving it on a couple of track days. I drove it as a road car to the tracks and drove it on the tracks like a road car, with my motorcycle helmet and a pair of jeans and fleece. I knew then that I had a steep learning curve ahead of me. What I didn’t realise was how to manage my budget and get the most out of my time and money before the first races.

I can do it myself

That’s what I concluded early on; “I can do this myself”. I figured that I’d had some instructors in car with me and didn’t get much out of it except confusing messages, so track time on my own was just as valuable. I also figured that the maintenance and set-up is there to learn and implement as with a road car, just with more regular checks. I was right on both counts for a season of learning about motorsport, but if I had known then what I know now… I would have tweaked a few things, saved some time and got more out of the year, although spent a bit more money.

Rule Number 1: Tuition

As I had always been told, tuition / driver coaching is the best investment you can make. I’ve now had some proper driver coaching, and learned a huge amount in one day, probably more than I would have learned in ten track standard days.

There are three things to prioritise in this area in my view, as follows:

  1. Get the right tutor for your learning style, and listen carefully because you only have a couple of hours in the car over a day, and you really need to apply what he or she is telling you quickly. At the end of the day, take the time to write down what you picked up from the day, such as the three main points. You won’t learn it all in a day, but you will learn at least one new thing that you need to keep practising.
  2. Get a tutor that you can hear properly. There’s nothing worse than trying to drive to on the limit and struggling to hear what a passenger is saying. In my view, if the instructor does not give you an earpiece connected to his microphone, you won’t learn anything.
  3. Get tutoring on each circuit, not just one. To get as fast as the other guys in your talent range, you’ll need one or two tuition sessions on that circuit. Not many corners are the same, even if they are of a similar type (coast to apex, power down through apex, v-shaped, etc.). Each one has a nuance that an instructor can guide you through, and they are slightly different nuances on each corner of each circuit. These finer learning points per circuit will make the difference that you are seeking on a circuit, even if it is just tenths of a second.

Rule Number 2: Team support

If you can concentrate on your driving only, by pulling into the pits and having your car checked and tweaked, you will be quicker. You get your fuel measured out for the number of laps you are doing. You get your tyre pressures adjusted as soon as you come off track. You get your shocks adjusted while you sit in the car. What could be better for helping you think only about the driving and what the instructor has told you? Of course, this is the ideal scenario and we can’t afford it all the time, but now and again, if you can afford it alongside the driver coaching / instruction, it’s worth its weight in gold.

Setup of the car is also best done by a team on a regular basis. You can still do the basics like oil changes yourself, but you really need a professional team to set up your car geometry and do thorough spanner checks. Things come loose or break on race cars every time you go out, and you won’t find them until you spend time looking into every nook and cranny. That’s what the race teams do, and it’s a lot easier for them because they know what to look for and they have the ramps and tools to make it routine.

Improvements and costs per second

Here’s an example of how lap times can improve with tuition and then setup.

I took a day at Snetterton 300 in November where the car was prepared and delivered to track by SVG Motorsport. I also got tuition on the day with Jim Edwards.

Preparations involved full spanner check, new brake discs and pads, free setup (i.e. no longer to GRDC series spec), corner weighting, new Quantum shocks (still one-way but apparently better than the GRDC Protech) and new wheels with Avon ZZR semi-slick tyres. The whole day and set-up cost me £5,000, which is probably the most I’ve spent in a single day other than buying a new house or a new car. Ouch…

We started the day on the old Michelin PS3 tyres, in the wet, drying to damp by midday. My previous fastest lap was mid 2:27s, on a track day mid year. After about 20 laps tuition with Jim and the new shocks, my lap times were down to the mid 2:24s. In the afternoon, switching to a few laps on the Avon ZZRs, my lap times improved to the mid 2:23s. This is a 4-second improvement over 3 miles, and compared to my race pace from back in May (2:29), a 6-second improvement, i.e. two seconds a mile.

VIDEO: Improved lap, Snetterton 300 at 2:23:94 (FL of the day 2:23:33). I show this lap because it indicates how hard you have to try at a corner like Hamilton. These laps may look slow compared to supercar laps, but considering we only have 135 HP and no electronic management, they are difficult to achieve. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUG5dG4rw6s

I subsequently did a day in December at Brands Hatch Indy and gained two seconds a lap, from the mid 00:59s to mid 00:57s. At least half of the improvement is down to tuition, putting into practice the two or three points that I picked up from Jim.

VIDEO: Improved laps at Brands Hatch Indy in winter (FL of the day 00:57:60). Paddock Hill Bend on repeat, showing how to keep the speed up (or not) on the dive down to the apex, and how a very slight turn-in too late on the last lap leads to a spin and the gravel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RuCjMacyzxQ

Some conclusions

(1) Tuition with a coach who can teach in a way that suits your learning style is the number one priority, and I should have invested earlier.

(2) You can avoid frustration and spins by proper set-up. It really does help with your stability. I feel quite comfortable with the car moving about, as a Ginetta does when not set up to the optimum, but that seems to be wasting potential, even if it is a good learning practice and part of the reason you want “seat time”.

(3) Spend your money on fewer, quality track days, or a quality track day every other time – where quality means team support and tuition, which may cost you about £1,000.

(4) Avoid too many of those public track days at weekends, they are frustrating and you may spin off as a result. One track day I did recently had 55 cars booked on Brands Hatch Indy. We all know the stories about powerful cars pulling away on the straights but holding you up on the corners…

I spent about £5,000 on my whole season last year on track days, race weekend transport and hotels, DIY maintenance and caution at races to avoid damage.

Next year I’ll probably have to double that budget, plus another £5,000 for the setup changes. That’s a light budget compared to what I’ve heard for other drivers in our championship, so how will that work? We’ll see…

Transition to Motorsport (6): Frustrations, Lessons Learned & Consistency

By the time the third of four race weekends came along, I was getting disheartened at my lack of pace compared to the other drivers; who used to be the same pace or slower, but who were now quicker. As I’ve said before, it seems to me that improvement is 80% about time in the car and money available for risking the car in off-track excursions or race incidents. After a ninth and tenth place at the second round at Snetterton, gained by staying out of trouble and not pushing the speed, the third round at Silverstone was a low point. I couldn’t find the speed or enthusiasm.

Not finding the speed, and lessons learned

I found the Silverstone GP circuit difficult to learn, as it’s so long and so wide, with unknown lines to the newbie. I had only been there for a few laps in the early days (my first ever time in a Ginetta in fact, back in November 2016 and in the wet, so lots of spins), and it showed when I turned up for the race weekend, straight into qualifying with no practice day beforehand.

I also realised after the race weekend that I’d been having trouble stopping, especially going into Luffield, where it’s very easy to spin right in front of the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) building! I hadn’t changed my brake fluid since getting the car 3,500 miles ago, and I’d been on eight track days and two race weekends since then. That was a rookie mistake, and I found out the difference in stopping power after I changed the fluid for the next outing at Brands hatch GP. I could lean on the brakes later and know that I would slow enough in time for turn-in.

At the Silverstone event I finished near the back in both races, 14th and 13th. I knew I could do better than that, and I learned two valuable lessons:

  • Make sure you have at least one practice on the circuit if it’s new to you
  • Change the brake fluid regularly and get the car set up by a team at least twice during the season

Set-up is important and unfortunately a bit expensive to drivers on a low budget, but should never be ignored. If you don’t keep on top of it, you’re wasting your time and money for the whole season. The same thing applies to practice at new circuits; you need to spend the money to get time on the circuit, or you’re wasting your season.

Consistency and enjoying the experience

For the final race weekend of our four-weekend, eight-race season, we were going to Brands Hatch GP circuit. This is a rarely opened circuit, and most track days are on the shorter Indy loop of the circuit. Consequently, track days are expensive at the GP, in the region of £500. I was in money saving mode as usual, but my girlfriend told me I was wasting my time if I didn’t make the most of the season and buy the track day that was coming up. Well, that was good advice, and I did the RMA track day. I loved the circuit, particularly with new brake fluid and better stopping power.

For the final race weekend, I also found a track evening at the Indy circuit and used it to get myself finally under the one-minute lap time by working on a couple of corners. I realised that I had learned a lot during the season, as I was quicker than most cars on the circuit, doing consistent lap times (when traffic allowed) and five seconds quicker on a lap.

I was now feeling more positive and looking forward to the final race weekend. It helped that Brands Hatch GP is such a fantastic circuit to drive when you get into the woods at the back. Hawthorns bend is fast and exciting, and Sheene Curve is exhilarating as you decide how little to back off as you go into the blind crest and ride the kerb.

Final race weekend and championship results

We don’t have an official championship in GRDC, and points are not officially counted. However, we all like to count the phantom points and know where we end up, of course.

At the race weekend, I qualified 11th of 15 cars, which is the same result as my first race weekend at Rockingham. The track was wet to start, and drying through the session. Tom Golding, our championship leader was taking three seconds off each lap as the track dried. I was taking one second. I wasn’t sliding and not risking anything. We need to get three timed laps or we can’t race, and we’d already been stopped for a quarter of the 20-minute session by spinners.

In both races, I got mugged at the starts as usual, not because of bad starts this time, but because of poor defending on the technical corners on the first laps. I just let competitors go when they make a lunge, and then I lose momentum. Nevertheless, due to others’ spins and off-circuit excursions, and a couple of nice overtakes, I regained places and finished 10th in both races.

I finally got myself involved in close racing, over the fast parts of the circuit, where you can carry momentum and make overtakes if you like that kind of speedy flow, as opposed to the technical, diving corners. I avoided damage but got a couple of tyre rubs, which seems normal in racing.

Television coverage

All season, we have been supporting the British GT Championship. For our final weekend, we were lucky enough to be selected as one of the four races in the TV coverage, broadcast first on the British GT YouTube Channel, and then on Motorsport TV. It brought great satisfaction to the end of the season to see our race with full coverage and commentary.

All in all, my first season in motor sport was extremely rewarding and I learned a great deal on a steep learning curve. I finished 10th of 19 in the “championship” and I didn’t sustain any major damage or have huge costs for support, track days or tuition. Next year I can concentrate on the tuition to iron out my mistakes and get faster, and do the races I can afford.