Driver Theory: Techniques For The First Corner And Early Laps

“You can’t win the race in the first corner, but you sure as hell can lose it,” says Rob Krider, NASA Champion. Generally speaking, it’s wise to avoid low-percentage moves at this stage in the race, as it still hasn’t unfolded. “No knucklehead passes at this point,” advises a level-headed Krider. Truly, there’s a strong chance of throwing it all away amidst the confusion, red mist, squabbling for position, and cold tires at the start of the race — so the best know just how to assert themselves without exposing themselves to too much risk at this stage.

Be defensive, establish position, don’t be a hero, and survive Turn 1. — Gregory Evans

Gregory Evans starting a foggy lap at Laguna Seca, racing in the EXR Series and driving an Oreca Mitjet in P2. (Photo credit: Gregory Evans)

However, someone who drives too conservatively from the start will squander their qualifying performance when they’re overtaken by a bolder competitor. Perhaps this is just flat and unsatisfying theory. Some meatier, practical advice would be to establish several aims while starting. “Be defensive, establish position, don’t be a hero, and survive Turn 1,” says Simraceway Instructor and Racing Coach Gregory Evans. Establish a working order, and continue searching for opportunities to move up; don’t become complacent early on. That’s because fortune still favors the bold—sometimes.

Low-powered spec racing, as with the Ginetta G40 Cup, produces some dense and tense battles at the start. (Photo credit: Tor McIlroy)

The right mixture of confidence and circumspection when nipping through the pack, and the kind of aggression that can heat tires quickly will translate into a sizable gap early on. Far from unbridled aggression, this approach takes a long time to refine. There’s a lot to gain when a driver with gusto makes a successful break, largely because some take their time to get started, so a major gap can be established. To truly take advantage of an aggressive start, it’s wise to do a little homework on the competition and the conditions beforehand.

Every group has a driver whose mouth is open and their ears are shut. You have to give those guys an extra foot. — Rob Krider

Getting a Lay of the Land

It’s wise to do a little reconnaissance before a race start. Begin by sizing up the competition; learning which drivers give enough room and which are most likely to cause a pileup. “Have a good idea about who’s behind, who’s inside, and what their driving habits are,” advises Krider. “Every group has a driver whose mouth is open and their ears are shut,” he notes. “You have to give those guys an extra foot.” Ask questions and socialize — getting to know your competition goes a long way.

Krider leading from the pole at the 2017 NASA Western States Championships. (Photo credit: Rob Krider)

It’s not just the habits of other racers that a canny driver will learn. The starter is another person whose tendencies should be known. “Watch the starter for a few races and see what he/she tends to do. Do they throw at a certain spot every time? Do they ever give go-arounds or do they just throw it?” Evans states.

Standing starts are usually a bit more challenging. Rather than depending on the starter to truly start a race, it’s primarily about how those on the front row get away. A stall, or a delay, can cause bunching and pandemonium. Simraceway Instructor and Ginetta G40 racer, Tor McIlroy, claims the aim is in “reading their driving, understanding the gear they’re in, and knowing when they’re [actually] going to go and being on the leading side of it, especially in a spec series with all the power the same.” With so many possible things to go awry, there’s a very good chance of making up a few positions on the start — and that’s not even taking clutch release or gear selection into account.

McIlroy starting P4 at Snetterton in his Ginetta G40 GT5 spec series days. (Photo credit: Tor McIlroy)

The shape of the circuit also determines “how gutsy” is wise through the first corners. Tight courses with minimal passing chances will obviously file into more of an unbroken order than a broad circuit with more opportunity for overtaking. Therefore, making a stab at the start of Monaco is sometimes worth the risk.

Additionally, the style of racing has an impact on how much aggression is wise. In spec racing, some aggression is rewarded. However, it’s sometimes smarter to bide your time in multi-class racing where certain cars will hit their stride at different periods in the race. McIlroy elaborates: “Balance of performance racing (IMSA, European Le Mans Series, everything GT4/GT3) requires a little more strategy; knowing what your car is good at and making it better where it’s weaker. If your car starts well, then you make sure you start the best every time. If your car is lighter, then you keep the tires a little longer and attack later in the race, since light cars use less tire.” Understanding the conditions and when they will play into your favor can help reduce the odds of an incident early on.

Reasons to Remain Collected Under Pressure

Some drivers are remarkably reasonable where the start is concerned, and one of them is Evans, who bases his approach on arithmetic. “Let’s say our racetrack has twelve corners,” he begins, “Our race might be ten laps long. Of those twelve corners, five are good passing zones.” So with 50 potential opportunities for a pass, removing one from the equation isn’t going to affect the overall chances much.

“The best race car drivers know this and they know not to squander those opportunities. Who cares if you even lose a spot on a start? You have plenty more possible places where it can come back to you, and it will come back at some point,” he asserts.

Krider in his Sentra at the Western Endurance Championship Series (WERC). With six different classes competing, differential speed traffic was always an issue — especially at the start. (Photo credit: Rob Krider)

As careful as those up front should be, those starting in the middle of the pack or at the rear should exercise even more caution. “The start is the riskiest time to make a move if you’re outside of the top five. You can’t afford to be in the wrong spot if someone ahead spins or car parts get thrown at you,” adds Evans.

With the concertina effect, cold tires, hot tempers, and unfamiliarity with the speeds possible through the first corner, there’s a good chance someone in will make an error, and that can easily throw off the start rhythm and cause people to veer wildly — which isn’t ever a good idea. In fact, it’s wise to hold one’s position and simply aim to leave the first corner without damage. Once the running order is established, a driver can begin to make moves with a greater chance of success.

“Your target is going to make a mistake going into one of those 5 passing zones eventually, and if you’re patient and shrewd, you’ll easily get by him at that point. You won’t get by him if you wasted one of your passing opportunities, made a mistake, and are now too far back to make anything out of his mistake,” adds Evans.

Evans starting a frantic Spec Miata race in P5. (Photo credit: Gregory Evans)

So many drivers have ‘phasers on stun’ for the first 2 laps. Set it on ‘kill!’ — Gregory Evans

When More Commitment Pays Considerably

However, the bold are occasionally rewarded if they can avoid the first-corner fracas. Some might consider this a more intuitive (if not less cautious) approach, but it still revolves around some semblance of a plan. Though they still have an ideal race they plan for, some race-start aggression can afford them a cushion later in the race.

“I try to eke out a lead and make others work hard to catch me,” Krider begins. “This way, I can relax slightly later in the race — say 75 to 80 percent when the tires get a little greasy. This gives me just enough to increase the pace at the end of the race.” Though it might not occur to many drivers, gusto in the beginning can, ironically, offer a driver some time to relax and cool their tires later—not to mention it gets them up to temperature sooner.

McIlroy blew up a Caterham gearbox doing flat-shifts in half a season, “but [that] would gain five places before the first corner!” (Photo credit: Tor McIlroy)

A little gusto factors heavily into how tires heat early on in the race. “Being fast on cool tires makes your tires quicker sooner,” says Evans. Essentially, by being comfortable sliding and pushing the tire prior to it operating at its prime, the temperatures will increase faster and ensure strong race pace. “Some club racing classes are on such hard tires that the tire won’t even start to work well until lap three for most drivers,” adds Evans. With as much as a second differentiating the chargers from the timid at this point, there’s a huge advantage to be enjoyed.

Perhaps epitomizing the mindset a stronger starter should have, some drivers are aware of their competitions tentativeness in the early stages of the lap and capitalize on that. Rather than act blindly and forcefully, they take the conditions and tendencies of their adversaries into consideration, then act upon that knowledge. “So many drivers have ‘phasers on stun’ for the first 2 laps,” begins Evans, “Set it on ‘kill!'”

For more guidance on this topic, consult these fine instructors:

Rob Krider

Gregory Evans

Tor McIlroy

 

 

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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