Avoiding the sophomore slump; improvements for season two.

With no prior track experience, in the summer of 2019 I completed my ARDS test and obtained my first ever Motorsport UK Competition Licence. One month later, I sat on the grid at Pembrey circuit in South Wales, along with 35 competitors, about to start my first ever race.

Races at circuits I’d watched touring cars fly around numerous times like Snetterton, Croft and Brands Hatch followed, in what I can only describe as a fantastic experience full of highs, lows and everything in between.

With everything I’ve learned this season – more often than not, the hard way – I was keen to make sure that the same mistakes aren’t repeated in season two and that I went out of my way to outline specific areas where I feel I can improve as a racing driver.

With that in mind, I’ve set myself some clear goals to prepare for the 2020 season and beyond:

Get out of my comfort zone.

 “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.”

Mario Andretti

Learning to drive a car as fast as possible on a circuit is one thing. Doing it whilst surrounded by identical cars all jostling for the same piece of tarmac is quite another. As a novice racing driver, it’s understandable that you don’t want to push your luck in your first few races. 

The reality is that I probably felt like I was on the limit on multiple occasions but was actually nowhere near it. Looking back at my lap times, I’m actually really consistent. Consistency is a really good trait for a racing driver, but I suspect in my case it’s more like finding a “limit” that I’m comfortable with and doing it lap after lap rather than trying new lines and pushing to go faster and faster.

Now that I’m a lot more confident behind the wheel and understand the feel of the car a little better, I need to be out of my comfort zone more. I want to experiment more in practice sessions with different braking points and different turn-in points.

I need to fight my natural instincts more when they tell me I should go around a certain corner at a certain speed because it worked the last time and push harder to try to find the actual limit more often.

Getting out of my comfort zone leads me nicely onto the next point:

Don’t be afraid to experiment.

“We were experimenting, trying to be a little bit more risky. We learned more from that weekend than we did from the couple of weekends before.”

Lewis Hamilton

The temptation as a novice racing driver and team is always to play it safe. Due to our lack of experience or any previous data to go off, finding a setup that “felt okay” and sticking with it was our approach for the majority of our debut season. We’d agree on tyre pressures based on some discussions with other competitors, set them on Friday before testing and then didn’t ever bother to try anything else for the duration of the race weekend.

It’s understandable that in your first season, just finishing races and avoiding incidents is considered an achievement. But as you complete more and more race weekends, you’ll soon have desires to move up the grid and that’s where trying new things is essential as a novice.

As the season progressed, I started writing my own track notes based on what the car was doing in each corner.For next season, I plan on expanding that to highlight the differences in each corner when comparing tyre pressure X with tyre pressure Y, so we can start making some data-driven decisions on what approach we should take.

Prepare more effectively.

“Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.”

Bobby Unser

Preparation for a race weekend was sporadic at best during the season. I’d watch some onboard footage online from previous races to get a feel for the circuit. I’d run a few laps on my home simulator to learn roughly where to brake and what the optimal line looked like. Where possible I’d even visit the circuit during a track or test day before the race weekend to get some real laps under my belt. But that was it. Even during the test day, I’d just lap the circuit as quickly as I could over and over again.

Something I’ve already started to do is to take race preparations more seriously and plan more thoroughly before we even pull up at the race circuit. In our most recent winter testing session, ahead of time we decided to spend the day focusing on collecting as much data around fuel usage and tyre pressures as we could, which will inevitably help us make strategic decisions in the upcoming season.

Simple things, but running for 10-15 minutes with tyre pressure set to a specific amount, boxing and letting everything cool down and then going for another run with different pressures will help you not only understand how the car behaves with these different setups, but will also help you at a later date when the car might be oversteering and you know to ask for lower pressures for example, rather than just shrugging and complaining as you get out of the car.

Focus on fitness.

“Your body takes a toll. One stint in a race car is like spending three hours in a tumble dryer.”

Patrick Long

In an endurance series where multiple drivers share the same car but the minimum weight ballast remains the same for all, the heaviest driver is at a major disadvantage. And in our team, that’s me. I’m currently running at about 10kg heavier than my co-drivers, which means I’m always carrying unnecessary weight around the track.

At first, I didn’t think it would be a big deal. We’re not in Formula 1 after all, we’re not worrying about the thousands of a second differences that an extra kilo of weight can give here and there. I was wrong. Driving a car with and without ballast is incredibly different and can cost you multiple seconds per lap, even at novice club level.

Even if you don’t need to lose any weight your overall fitness is paramount when you’re sat behind the wheel, especially if you’re taking part in an endurance race. I was shocked just how much more hard work a 2hr stint was compared to a 1hr stint; to the point where I found myself tightening my belts as I could feel my body slouching and not being as responsive as it was in the first hour.

Formula 1 drivers of course need to have much higher fitness levels than your average club racer, but being as fit and healthy as you’re able to be will mean you’re not going to tire as much during a race and give you the best opportunity to perform at your highest standard as possible.

Get as much advice as I can.

“Calling upon my years of experience, I froze at the controls.”

Stirling Moss

As a novice, seeking as much advice as possible is so important. Tracktime is unfortunately not something you can do every day or even every week, so complimenting your practical learning with some theory is an essential part of your development.

Everyone has experience. Some have lots of experience at a high level and plenty of others have little experience at a lower level – but it’s all valuable. Don’t automatically dismiss some advice given by a reasonably green competitor purely because they haven’t competed at high levels. In some ways, the advice they give you might be more applicable if they’re at a similar level to you than that of a professional.

Ultimately, be careful whose advice you embrace but be patient with those who are offering it. It won’t all work for you but it gives you something new to experiment with. If someone says “brake at this point”, even if they’re more experienced than you, it doesn’t automatically make them right or that the same braking point works with your driving style.

Having said that, one thing I am investing in this year is some 1:1 driver coaching with NASCAR race driver, Alex Sedgwick. Alex raced alongside me at Brands Hatch this past season and blew me away with his professional approach and words of wisdom. I’m hopeful that after some coaching sessions, my personal race-craft and speed development will be amplified somewhat.

So there you have it. It’s honestly amazing how quickly you can improve over the span of a single season, even with a somewhat haphazard approach. I’m a firm believer in learning by doing and so with a solid benchmark from 2019, I’m sure we can start to push up the grid a little further in 2020.

If this is your debut season, second season follow-up, or you’re a seasoned veteran, I hope some of these points – which might seem obvious to some – will help you prepare for the season ahead. See you out there on the track!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Jimmy L says:

    Nicely written mate.
    Was a blast seeing you ragging round in your first year!
    With the mindset you’ve laid out above you’re set up to improve exponentially, no doubt in my mind.
    Sending big love and luck for 2020,
    Doc

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