Sample: Issue #23, October 8, 2013

Rule number one for drivers is “Blame the car,” right?! I say that half-jokingly because if you can make your car perform better, it does make driving easier. Finding a way to make your car handle better is important! And that comes down to sensing what it’s doing.

In the recently-released movie, Rush, Niki Lauda says something about the ability of his butt to sense the car’s handling. I’ve always argued that while it’s true that we use our butts to sense what the car is doing, we have much more going on in our heads than we do in our backsides (well, most do, at least)! And to me, being aware of and sensing the car’s dynamics comes from knowing what questions to ask ourselves (and I think questions come from our minds, not our butts!).

In this issue, race car engineer Jeff Braun tells us that there are really only 2 questions you ever have to answer to determine what the car is doing and how to improve its handling.

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The Big 2 Questions

In my opinion, the race engineer’s primary job is to get the car to do exactly what the driver wants it to do. Some good engineers disagree with me; they only focus on the simulations and what the fastest set up is from a theory standpoint, then expect the driver to get the most from it. I figure if the car is to the driver’s liking, he can show me what he has… he has no excuses.

So what do I need my drivers to do, to help me set up the car for them? Answer the Big 2 Questions. Nothing more, nothing less.

  1. What is the car doing now?
  2. What do you want the car to do?

Sounds simple but, man, it’s hard to get some drivers to answer. Some guys just don’t get it. I engineered an Indy Car driver who would come in from a practice run and say, “The car is un- drivable.” I would ask him to describe it to me in detail and he just kept saying, “It’s un-drivable – I can’t drive it.” I would make a change and he would come back in, saying, “Nope, still un- drivable.” After two sessions of this, my car owner came to me and said he felt bad for me, but this guy was paying big money to drive on our team and he couldn’t fire him. Right then, I knew why he had to pay to drive.

There are many ways good drivers will attempt to answer these two simple questions. Some will sit with me and go over the in- car video, showing me what they expect the car to do in this and that part of the corner, and what it’s doing now. Some draw exacting maps of the corner telling me what they need the car to do on entry braking, turn-in, brake release, rolling through the center, throttle pick-up, and exit. These maps have detailed descriptions of what the car is doing and notes on what they want it to do. Other drivers can just describe the “feel” of the car in super detail, talking about the movement at the tire/road contact, describing the car’s behavior literally every car-length through a turn. Some drivers want to sit with me and go through the data to show me what they’re doing with the throttle, brake, and steering, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. They point out what the data trace would look like if the car did what they wanted it to do. There’s a common thread: they’re answering the two questions above, but in the way that works best for them.

It is always my goal to draw out the answers to these questions. I know if I am very clear on the answers, I can make the car better for my driver.

I was engineering Price Cobb in a Trans-Am test once at Road Atlanta. Price had won Le Mans and was a factory prototype driver, very accomplished, so I was excited to work with him. We got to talking about my two questions and he said, “You know, I answer your questions every time I go into a corner.” He said, “Look at the steering data trace. I turn the wheel some amount and with some rate – that initial turn of the wheel is what I expect is needed to put the car on a course to make it through the turn (Question 2 – what do I want it to do?). Then look just past that. If there is additional steering input, that’s me correcting for what it did (Question 1 – what is the car doing now?).” I never forgot that and use it every day when looking at data to pull the answers out that I need. It really comes in handy when I have a driver who is not so skilled in describing the car to me.

I worked with an inexperienced Indy Lights driver on the Phoenix oval. In those cars, Turn 3-4 should have been flat – no lift when the car was right. He could not do it and kept telling me that the car was really loose and sliding at the back. I reduced the rear spring rate a good bit KNOWING that always gained grip in that car. He said. “It’s even worse now – sliding more.” “Can’t be,” I thought, but time was running out, so I went a bunch stiffer, and he says, “That’s much better.” Confused, I went to look at the data. I saw that the car was not sliding at all. It was just moving at the rear on the suspension with the tires stuck to the track. He was interpreting the rear of the car being soft and moving as a loose-and-sliding feeling.

From that point on, I decided I would always dig deep and have a few ways to ask my drivers what’s going on, and add data to try to back up what is really going on. Never take the first answers to the Big 2 Questions at face value. Great drivers can get very specific when asked for details and asked the same question in different ways.

Very experienced drivers can learn to give super-detailed answers to the 2 Questions (if you can focus them on the task). Fermin Velez was one of the least technical drivers I ever worked with, but had great “feel”. I ran him in the Ferrari 333SP during what was the dawn of damper work in American racing. I would make small changes to a front shock, for example, and then tell him to report what that did, but would ask nothing else about what the car was doing (just that small change). He would sit in the car and almost picture the front shock moving as he drove, like he could see through the body and suspension and feel and see it moving, laser-focused on that one aspect of the car. His ability to tell me what the shock was doing differently was amazing. I learned a lot about setting up shocks from Fermin, who wasn’t technical, but great at telling me how the car felt.

It comes down to that feel and describing it perfectly. You have to work to develop that feel. My son Colin is a professional driver now and I had the chance to help him become an “engineer’s driver” as he grew up. We built a kart track on our property when he was eight, and used it to help him become good at answering the Big 2 Questions. It was all about “feel.”

I would get him to turn away while I let air pressure out of a tire. Then he drove and had to tell me what tire it was, as soon as possible. He got to where he would stop on track, two turns from the start on the out lap, and tell me what tire it was.

We ran him on used tires to the point that they got fuzzy from the cords showing. He would then have to try to keep the pace up but not use that tire very hard, making the other three work harder to save the corded one.

He ran at night with no lights (only the moonlight) and had to use “feel” to keep going fast. He used the bumps and cracks and road camber changes to know where he was. This heightened his “feel” and awareness to the point that he was just as fast in the moonlight as in the daylight.

The best drivers are the ones who can feel the car and relate it to the engineer. With so many sensory inputs being fed to the driver, it’s difficult to focus on one specific area of the car’s performance. Often it’s the engineer’s job to sharply focus his driver before each session.

Many engineers prefer to not tell the driver what change they made. I disagree. In fact, I like to tell the driver what I changed and what I expect it to do. I show him how this change will help the car to do what he wants it to do. This focuses the driver on the details of the specific change and makes it more likely I will get better answers to the Big 2 Questions.

At a test with Ross Bentley at Sebring a long time ago (we had to scare the dinosaurs off the track before we could run – Ross ), we were working on shocks and settings. I showed Ross the shock dyno graphs, what change I had made, and how that changed the shock dyno curve shape. He drove the car and was able to feel what was different with it, while having a picture of the dyno curve in his mind. We repeated that a few times. Soon Ross was drawing shock dyno curves on the paper, saying that if it looked like this, the car would do what he wanted it to do. My job got much easier at that point.

Think about the Big 2 Questions when you run your own car or tune a car for a friend. It’s very simple and easy to do. In fact, it really helps to write the answers down after each session. Then you can go about making changes and make the car do what you want it to do.

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