Race Starts: Timing, Car Placement, Overtaking and Aggression

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Squeezing free of the start’s bottleneck is one way to stretch an early lead.

Obviously, the start is a very tense time. The driver’s heart rate is sometimes highest at the start of a race, just because of the stress and the likelihood of crashing is high. It’s always trickier the further back one is in the pack, because the speed differential between the front cars and mid-pack cars or worse, backmarker cars, is large and a car that a stalled car at the front of the grid can become a major danger to drivers approaching from the back, since they typically can’t see it until it’s too late.

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The pandemonium of a race start can cause a ripple effect most strongly felt at the back of the pack.

Launching and Clutch Release

Getting a good launch is the first order of business. It takes some time to learn just where the catch point is and how many revs work well, but there’s one thing to keep in mind at this stage: throttle technique. Though it’s popular to blip the throttle before the flag dropping, it’s a huge advantage to keep the engine at a steady speed so that the clutch release isn’t mismatched. If a flag drops as the revs are falling, it’s easy to launch with fewer revs than what one was expecting.

So, if the revs are kept at a constant speed and the clutch released properly, the driver now has a few other things to consider: wheelspin and when to upshift. A little wheelspin is a good thing, but sitting stationary with the rear tires roasting is not going to get anyone anywhere. If the engine’s powerband is wide, upshifting into second well before redline is a good technique, especially since tires are usually a little cold at this stage of the race and cannot harness the full potential of the engine. Generally speaking, with all the cars blaring, it’s hard to get a good indication of the right time to shift. If one’s eyes can be directed at the tachometer for half a second, assuming they lack shift lights, it’s worth doing.

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Once the car is rolling along and the clutch is released, it’s a good time to check mirrors to see where the others stack up.

Ideally, the driver thinks about one thing at a time. The synchronization of feet and hands is the first thing to ponder, then consider the cars directly in front. If they’ve stalled or are slow off the line, it’s wise to try and get around them as quickly as possible. However, if the driver finds themselves slow off the line, they should be very careful about defensive maneuvers. The speed differential is high, the cars are bunched, and with everyone jostling for position, it can be a very dangerous thing to swerve erratically. That said, if the driver is good on cold tires and is willing to try a few strong-armed passes at the start, they can establish a large gap between themselves and the opposition.

Positioning and Spacial Awareness

It’s wise to not make any abrupt movements, though it will usually happen that one person in the pack will. Watch for these drivers and give them some room. Generally speaking, it helps to remain in the middle of the road in approaching the first corner, since it’s a decent compromise between protecting the inside and getting a good run through the corner. However, with cars running side-by-side, it’s not uncommon to come out of the corner in the same position entered.

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Staying in the middle allows for a decent run through Turn One without leaving the inside open. Photo credit: FIA Formula 4

As the first corner nears, it’s now time to start checking mirrors to figure out where the opposition stands. If a driver has pulled alongside and is on the inside, it’s sensible to concede a place here, knowing full well that they have the prime real estate. It’s a toss-up if they’re not totally alongside, but it does pay to be a little cautious here, since cold tires and palpable tension can lead to some silly mistakes. The key here is to be sensible, and to react; there is no sense in trying to find ideal route into the first corner.

Not Too Close

When driving behind a group of people, it’s wise to try and maintain a cushion, so that movement won’t be hindered by those in front. Therefore, safely moving to the least-occupied portion of the track is smart, and not crowding over the bumper of the car in front is even smarter. Because it’s so difficult to predict what cars will do when people are squabbling in close quarters for the best part of the circuit, it helps to leave some space – at times lifting or braking earlier than possible in case the leading car makes leaves nowhere to go.

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Seen with the two cars dicing on the right, the Force India scares its pursuer into locking their brakes. For this reason, it’s good to keep a buffer zone.

It’s a wise idea to check out different entry speeds into Turn One during practice. Because the start line shortens the straight preceding the first corner, the speeds are quite different, and the approach race speed calls for might be wildly different from the approach after on the shortened straight. It’s improvisational, and while common sense might suggest a later braking point, in reality it’s hard to judge. The further back one is in the pack, the earlier the braking point is due to the bottlenecking at the first corner.

Step by Step

Getting the race start right depends mainly on one thing after learning all these tricks: timing. Don’t try to do too much at once – getting the start right means first releasing the clutch, then minimizing wheelspin, then determining where everyone else is, then choosing a route into turn one; each is its own distinct part of the racing process. Getting those pieces together at the right time is not easy to do, but it can make a mid-pack runner look like a star if executed with style, flair, and precision.

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No point in trying to bash everyone off at the start when there’s nowhere to go. Photo courtesy: Mazda Motorsports

About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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