Teaching A First-Timer The Turns Of Thunderhill West

It’s only before a track day that three hours of sleep doesn’t bother me much. In fact, it’s on these bleary-eyed mornings I feel at my most energetic. When my friend Sean sent a text at some ungodly hour asking if I was ready, I sprung out of bed with an athleticism I don’t actually possess.

Walking through the thick, pea-soup corridor of San Francisco fog slithering down my street, I pondered how I’d fare coaching after a year’s hiatus. However, once I saw the lights of my friend’s car round the corner, I was immediately alleviated. As I placed my gear in the back of his car, the hatch decided to close and nail me squarely in the forehead. If I wasn’t completely awake before that, I was then.

The risks involved with coaching are something I’m all too familiar with, but for certain friends who are particularly eager, my urge to help overcomes my instinct for self-preservation. Furthermore, when I’m familiar with someone’s driving habits, I can relax; Sean isn’t the daredevil type, but he is ambitious. In the past few months, he’s already logged one track day in his road car and picked up a sprint kart to practice in. So, he’s not exactly a first-timer, but this would be his second-ever track day and the first drive at a new track: Thunderhill West.

Nerves tend to cause novices to look just ahead of their front bumper, and this usually comes with the symptoms of sawing at the wheel and premature turn-in. As the road approaches them faster than they’re comfortable with, they tense up and drive raggedly. – Tommy Parry

I met Sean wrenching on an E30 near my apartment last year. We started chatting about cars and I learned he was interested in getting his rusted Bimmer track-ready. He ended up selling the E30, but replaced it a 1999 BMW Z3 M Coupe. Even in stock form, the M Coupe is playful, responsive, agile, and communicative. The S52 powerplant is torquey and tractable, but it doesn’t have so much power to bewilder a novice. I was excited to see what the car was capable of — and getting to experience it at a new track only sweetened the deal.

Nestled in the middle of rolling hills and under spectacular clouds, Thunderhill West is a technical track with lots of elevation changes, plenty of hairpins, and a few blind entries leading into medium-speed bends. All of these test a driver’s patience and precision. Its modest speeds and spacious runoff areas make it ideal for a greener driver. Plus, all these factors and an absence of really quick corners, kept my wincing to a minimum.

A brief showing of some ominous clouds mid-day.

After a few reconnaissance laps, it was clear what needed to be addressed and what I’d strive to avoid, to keep the information digestible. The day was dedicated to establishing good habits, picking out some basic errors in technique, and avoiding arcane minutia that would only contribute to brain fade. I wanted to focus on the essentials and demonstrate why certain approaches worked, rather than bury him in a deluge of theory.

Laying a Foundation

The items on the agenda were addressed in the following order: line, steering rate, differentiating between slow and fast corners, and attacking braking zones. Fortunately, the first few aims all manifested in Turns 4 and 6—the course’s faster corners. There, Sean tended to turn in earlier than he should. This is a common mistake novice drivers make, when they begin flirting with a range of speed that makes them uncomfortable. In an attempt to quell their feelings of trepidation, they turn-in early to get through the corner post-haste.

This early turn-in compromised Sean’s exit through Turns 4 and 6, prompting him to either continue steering past the apex or lift abruptly to avoid running off the course at the corner exit. Some minor tweaking of his line helped somewhat, but the real difference was made with one simple change: I suggested Sean keep his eyes up.

Nerves tend to cause novices to look just ahead of their front bumper, and this usually comes with the symptoms of sawing at the wheel and premature turn-in. As the road approaches them faster than they’re comfortable with, they tense up and drive raggedly. By looking off into the distance and constantly scanning for reference points, they give themselves more time to process the information coming at them.

This suggestion had the effect of softening his steering inputs. Initially, Sean tended to turn-in in multiple steps — making several inputs as he edged nearer to the apex, instead of turning with one fluid movement. Since the Turn 4 and 6 apexes are invisible on entry, he’d begin to steer-in, straighten the wheel and wait, and then make another steering input once he could see the apex.

With a bit of encouragement and a few laps to train his mind’s eye, he began steering towards the invisible apex. Not only did he begin making one fluid steering input upon entry, but his throttle pickup was better timed. Soon he was carrying more speed into, through, and out of these blind corners, and he seemed comparatively calm. Though you can’t quite count the drops of sweat on the student’s forehead, their body language is comprehensible.

Photo credit: Thunderhill Raceway Park

Specific Steering Rates for Specific Corners

Though steering gently onto the line is the ideal approach through faster corners, that isn’t typically the case in slow ones. Though this is a very general piece of theory, the tighter a corner is, the later the apex is typically located. Simple enough, but that tidbit wasn’t enough to help Sean navigate the tight Turn 7.

At first I was perplexed — once you’ve been driving for a while, you forget how some of the fundamentals aren’t as obvious to others — but it soon became clear. Trying to emulate the smooth arcs he’d been carving through the course’s faster corners, he wasn’t approaching this tight hairpin with a diamond line in mind.

His rate of steering was too progressive, and his turn-in point was much too early. This meant he was spending lots of time in the middle of the corner, lingering off-throttle. Eventually, he moved towards a slightly harsher steering input, but feeling the car so heavily loaded along with the abrupt direction change, were unfamiliar and uncomfortable sensations. 

The head of steam collected after exiting Turn 6, and the odd approach to Turn 7, only complicated matters. After I badgered him for two laps — instructing him how to start cranking the wheel five feet later than he had been — things started to improve. He was getting the car turned abruptly, cleanly, and accurately, allowing him to exit the corner with reduced steering lock. However, our work wasn’t done yet.

Brake Fade, Nerves, and Combining Inputs

As the brakes started to fade after four hard laps, he defaulted back to his premature turn-in point before Turn 7. The reason why eluded me, until the very last session. In order to use the full width of the road on entry, Sean would have to brake in a straight line across the road, i.e. placing him at an angle relative to the direction of the road and pointing him towards the grass.

Unbeknownst to me, Sean had returned to turning in early for a fear of losing the brakes and running off the road. To try and safeguard himself against an agricultural excursion, he would turn-in and simultaneously brake to try and decelerate parallel with the edge of the road; giving himself some wiggle room in the event of a locked tire. While this is a completely reasonable approach to take, it ignored the limitations of the tire.

A tire can only perform one task at 100 percent at any given time. In other words, braking at the limit requires a driver abstain from introducing any other inputs — the reason why heavy braking ought to be done with the steering completely straight — and incidentally, what dictates the line into Turn 7.  Start trying to blend two inputs simultaneously, and the overall capability of the tire in performing one task is reduced. It’s ironic then that this approach actually increased the chances of lockup.

While I had this ingrained in me, it hadn’t yet been programmed into Sean. Fortunately, we didn’t have to endure any lockup, nor did we take a quick trip into the weeds, but I still took the opportunity to inform him of these limitations. While we were far from braking at the limit, it was another opportunity to establish good habits to build upon. Soon, with a reference point or two, and some specific instruction on where to brake, his entry was quicker by ten miles an hour, easily.

An Introduction to Weight Transfer

Maintenance throttle was one concept I struggled to describe during lunch. I’m not at my most articulate with three hours’ sleep, but Sean greatly appreciated it once I did. While I felt I’d already laid enough on his plate, an introduction to the idea of weight transfer was needed — mainly for safety’s sake. 

Some instruction in this matter was appropriate after Sean lifted for a prolonged period into-and-through Turn 1, putting the Z3 into a slide. Caught somewhat by surprise, I took the opportunity to address how subtly applying the throttle would plant the rear of the car.

After braking heavily for the Turn 2 chicane and introducing a bit of steering angle, I urged him to barely rest his foot on the throttle to keep the revs from dropping. While this didn’t help him accelerate, it sent just enough weight rearward to settle the car. This became a suggestion I’d repeat throughout the rest of the lap, especially in the faster corners where there are longer periods of lateral loading. 

Cornering hard enough to cause the Z3 to lean.

As we weren’t brushing the limit, this mild application of the throttle had no effect on the front tires — no understeer was induced. The idea is to distribute the load over all four tires without shifting so much to the rear to limit steering ability. While still retaining plenty of weight over the front axle, the rear stability offered, helped him soften his steering and throttle inputs, straighten his lines, and carry more speed into and through the corner. Most importantly, it bolstered his confidence and gave him a general understanding of how weight transfer occurs.

An Unintended Rotation

This was as far as we’d go with weight transfer — intentionally. Late apexes, steering rates, and vision were already plenty to digest on an introductory track day, and the goal was to leave with a practical understanding of the forces at work. However, we did inadvertently brush on the concept of trail-braking towards the end of the day.

During the last session, I mentioned how braking later would simplify some of the tighter corners at the end of the course. Sean, willing to “push into an area of slight discomfort” was open to braking later than he had been, so I urged him to stay off the middle pedal until my mark. When he eventually applied the binders into Turn 7 — much later than he had been previously — everything changed. Now, carrying a good 10 or 12 miles an hour more into the corner, he turned so forcefully he slid the tail through the hairpin. His hands were quick to countersteer, and we both cheered excitedly.

“You were right!” he exclaimed.

That was the perfect ending of a productive day; a glimpse of what laid ahead. The event was relaxed and perfectly ordered, as all SpeedSF events are. We’d covered some of the fundamentals and established a strong foundation to build upon. We pushed into an area of discomfort, and safely introduced some of the more complicated issues, like weight transfer and yaw.

With strong communication and a little circumspection on his part, we got along well and kept frustration to an absolute minimum. Well, he wasn’t so pleased when I drove a few drifty laps towards the end of the day, but seeing as this clown shoe-shaped car — one I’ve nicknamed “Bozo” — is his pride and joy, that’s completely understandable.

Photos by Ryan Bula of Sharplite Media, for SpeedSF Track Events

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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