One of the skills which separates the truly great drivers from the good ones is how quickly they can get their car to the apex and adjust the car accordingly, all without sacrificing exit speed. A skilled driver does this by coordinating their brake release with their steering inputs depending on the type of the corner, the type of the car, and the grip available. It’s a concept called trail-braking and it’s hard to master, and usually one of the last tasks a driver learns to do well.
There are several reasons why this skill eludes even the most talented drivers for so long. First off, it’s hard to repeat lap after lap. Obviously, most people have their hands full driving into a corner at high speeds, and few have the extra mental reserves available to assess their technique with braking, downshifting, and turning all taking place. Additionally, brake release is “extremely relative—relative to speed, car setup, car type, brake type, tire type, and corner type,” says Thomas Merrill, Trans-Am TA2 racer.
For the uninitiated, trail-braking is the process of maximizing the grip of your four tires. As you’re transitioning from using the brakes to slow the car to steering into a corner, you’re carefully dancing on the edge of the optimum grip your tires can provide. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all process and has intricacies that vary from turn-to-turn, car-to-car.
In the case of a traditional, threshold-braking corner, a smooth brake release is critical. However, there are instances when getting into a corner quickly requires just a momentary rub of the brake pedal; using the brake to get the car to turn-in rather than just slow the car. There are almost too many factors to consider, so a few practical pieces of advice should be mentioned to help understanding this elusive and complicated cornering phase.
Or take another example: getting the car turned in quickly to a slow-speed corner likely entails a longer brake release, since the vehicle can be upset mildly to help rotation. The deeper the driver needs to carry the brakes into the corner, the smoother and slower the release. In high-speed corners, the platform needs to be kept stable, since any over-rotation is slow and hard to recover from—even dangerous. Therefore, rolling off the brakes before much steering input is made is necessary. In both situations, the brakes need to be released with some smoothness, but the distance one drags the brakes into the corner is dependent on how much rotation the driver is after.
Part of reason practicing the art of brake release is so tricky is because it’s tough to replicate. To repeat the the same brake release, lap after lap, and carry similar entry speeds is quite tricky. It’s pretty tough to read the speedometer when so much is going on.
To try and get into a rhythm and create some consistency, Greg Evans insists on using some other indicators that can be sensed without the eyes. “Use the sound of the engine and, maybe, if you have stiff bushings or engine mounts, the amount of vibration in the cockpit. These indicators will help you keep track of the general RPM you’re entering with so it’s a bit more repeatable.”
There’s a rule Evans shares with beginning to intermediate drivers: “Go slower than you think. Most drivers simply try too hard with the brake at too high of speed and find themselves with lots of understeer. If you encounter this, just slow down and start slowly with relatively high brake pressure at turn in, then gradually reduce pressure as you simultaneously increase entry speed,” says Evans.
“First, identify your turn-in point and apex, and having done so, push the braking zone of the corner deeper gradually, keeping in mind you must come off the brakes when you turn in. Until you are no longer able to come off the brake and still hit your apex, you can still roll more speed into the corner,” adds Tom O’Gorman, Honda TCR ace.
Getting the Right Amount of Rotation
Merrill starts us off with a tidbit of wisdom gleaned from years of coaching racers. “The hardest part for amateur drivers is to consider the steering input and what that demands in terms of brake release. Most drivers working on improving brake release will release the brake consciously, but steer emotionally,” he says.
While releasing the brakes smoothly is usually something that is advocated in racing schools, there’s more to it than just smoothness. “Great drivers not only can release the brakes smoothly, but change the rate of release relative to the responses of the front tire. Again, the purpose is simply to maintain load over the front axle, so the last 10% of the brake release becomes the most important part, provided the speed and steering input are correct,” adds Merrill.
Things only get more complicated once the driver is able to dial in a few additional miles per hour. “With speed comes grip limitation, so you have to think, will it understeer or oversteer with added entry speed? Depending on the limitation, you may need to change the way you release the brake to enable the proper load transfer,” Merrill adds.
A clever driver will adjust their rate of brake release to suit the natural behavior of the car. O’Gorman elaborates on this point: “Your car’s handling will dictate how quickly to release the pedal – a loose, or “free,” car will allow for a quicker brake release, where you want to settle the weight to the outside tires more quickly and stop any over-rotation on the entry to the corner. Without coming off the brake pedal, the rear will stay light and induce too much rotation. A tighter car may require more a slower pedal release to keep the weight on the front tires longer and help the rear-end rotate into the corner.”
Let’s take a second to make a theoretical interjection. Once someone becomes comfortable in getting the car into the corner, the brake release can be fine-tuned to perfect the attitude of the car. Another rule to abide by: don’t over-rotate the car, especially in faster corners. “My cardinal rule when trail-braking is that I only want the car to turn enough to reach the attitude that I need at the apex,” says Evans. “In most cases, this is actually not a lot of rotation; less is more. Once it’s clear that it’s gonna meet the apex, get off that brake.”
To fine-tune and find the ideal amount of entry speed, Evans like to “gradually use less and less brake until the car doesn’t rotate, while increasing entry speed gently at the same time and taking care not to overstress the tires. When the car stops rotating (and meeting the apex), then I dial it back a step.” With so many factors to consider, finding that perfect amount of turn-in is immensely challenging.
Keeping the Grip Threshold High
To make the task even more challenging, the aim is not to slide the car before it needs to. In other words, it’s wise to avoid breaking traction too much on entry. This doesn’t mean the car can’t slide—sliding a minute amount is advantageous—but it means that the grip threshold shouldn’t be lowered by harsh inputs. To drive at the absolute limit of the tire, and to keep it from breaking away prematurely, a skilled driver will try to start feeding the steering in and releasing the brakes as smoothly as possible to ensure a stability and the right amount of yaw on the way in.
“Drivers will tend to maintain peak pressure too long, forcing a quicker brake release in order to carry the correct speed. The hardest part for most drivers is deciding when to start bleeding off pressure to enable speed and a longer brake release. In the context of trail-braking, we have to be on the brake longer to keep load on the front tires, which means we actually need more entry speed to legitimize the brake use. Otherwise we just overslow the corner,” Merrill notes.
While this is true in both slow and fast corners, it’s invaluable to be smooth with the steering in the faster corners. Since the car is subject to greater forces at higher speeds, slides must be avoided by being exceptionally delicate with the wheel and with the brake release—though this latter component needs to happen faster than it would in a slower corner.
“Most release the brake too late with too high of brake pressure given the situation and overstress the tires,” Evans adds. This means the four tires, then sliding under the sub-optimal weight transfer, keep the car from entering at the highest possible speed.
With all this theory absorbed, there are a few more practical tips one can be mindful of, whether they’re just getting started or searching for those last valuable hundredths and tenths. Sometimes, thinking about the intricacies of weight transfer are hard to keep in mind when turning in at a hundred miles per hour, and something more concrete can help a driver find their way.
One technique a wise driver can employ is to try using a higher gear than what their instinct would suggest. Roger Eagleton advocates using third in what is typically a second-gear corner: Buttonwillow Raceway’s Turn 2. “We found that the best lap times came about as a result of running third gear through this rather slow corner. The reason for this is because in order to not bog the car down in third gear, you had to roll more entry speed through the corner. While it actually felt slower than downshifting to second gear, the data confirmed that running the higher gear resulted in a much faster lap time, which we attribute to the higher corner entry speed,” he discovered. Sometimes, when finding yourself in between gears on entry, a lower gear and fear of hitting the limiter can have the effect of slowing entry speeds down somewhat. Though the engine might not be blaring as loudly, the actual speed through the corner might be higher.
Another thing to bear in mind is where the foot is placed. Whether you’re braking with your left or right foot, make sure to anchor the heel on the floor instead of hovering in the air or resting on the pedal entirely. This gives one a little extra finesse at the end of the pedal movement and this helps keep the car’s nose every-so-slightly weighted; thereby ensuring the front tires help.
Possibly the most effective and simplest piece of advice is to keep one’s eyes up. “The further down the road you look, the slower it feels,” says Merrill. This gives a driver more time to plan, helps prioritize the mid-corner section, and helps them focus on what’s coming up. As the end of the braking zone is where the minimum speed is established, which is why keeping one’s gaze relatively far down the road is so important.
Eagleton adds, “Ultimately, it comes down to brake pressure, modulation and looking through the corner to the exit and allowing your subconscious mind to do all the tricky calculations. In most instances, its almost a case of don’t overthink it!” Sure—easier said than done, but the truth is that once these ideas are deeply understood, and then put into practice with the simple suggestions written above, it becomes something that happens subconsciously.
Of course, getting to that point takes plenty of seat time; to do this means having an intimate understanding of the behavior of the tire. “Depending on the car, that limit may be oversteer of understeer, but if they can’t feel that, there’s no point in chasing the limit on entry,” says Merrill. Once a driver learns to manage the entry to prioritize the exit—arguably the most important part of the corner—they find those last bits from entry to apex. While a good exit might be worth half a second, and the entry might be worth hundredths, those last, tiny fractions make the difference at the sharp end of the pack.