When is the Right Time to Pass?

 

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Racing in a pack takes a combination of speed, precision, and patience to be successful. Of course, a generous helping of courage always helps, but finding the right time to strike, whether it be within a pack of ten or a duel with an equally-matched foe, is never easy. Sometimes it pays to bide one’s time, drive cleanly, and wait. Other times, aggression is one’s friend; sometimes, temporary teamwork comes into play, and there are moments when one must be careful, cautious, and observant to pass an opponent. When one knows how hard to push and when to strike, one becomes the driver with the ability to control the pace of the race.

Dicing at the Start

With longer races, sometime’s it’s better to avoid the start-line gaggle and try to drive cleanly, simply because there’s so much time to make up positions. However, one can eke out a huge advantage if they can carry their car by the scruff of the neck and slide around into a commanding position right after the green flag drops. It allows them to both intimidate their opponents, and by the time everyone’s tires have come up to ideal temperature, offer them a cushion that will be harder to closer the further up the field they are.

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By the time the group has fallen into formation, the game changes significantly.

Knowing the Overall Pace of the Race

Once the race is underway and the running order has been established, some drivers will work in unison to stay moving up through the pack. The reason they agree to a temporary truce is because fighting for corners and dicing wheel-to-wheel inevitably slows them down, and allows drivers behind to close the gap. It’s for this reason that being in the middle of a three-man pack is so difficult; if the man in the middle attempts and fails a pass, there’s a good chance the man behind will capitalize on that error and overtake.

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Being the “meat in the sandwich” is always a difficult position to hold, since it requires vigilance ahead and behind simultaneously.

Instead, a group of quick and clever drivers will bide their time carefully, making progress while running cleanly in unison with a non-verbal agreement to wait until they’ve afforded themselves a cushion from behind before they fight. This approach will allow them to trade places without jeopardizing their position. However, one must be careful – racing drivers are selfish creatures by definition, and they’re rarely willing to play a supporting role, even if it seems like they are.

Though not all drivers are that developed in their racecraft, and many make plenty of errors when trying to scythe their way through the field. As Scott Meadow, Formula BMW racer, notes, “Most drivers make a mistake at some point in the race, usually at the beginning when they are pushing or unsure of track conditions or at the end when they are tired or are trying to make up positions; these are the best times to strike.” There is always a different cadence in each race depending on the surface conditions, the weather, and the traffic itself, and the clever drivers can read these factors more easily than their competition.

Battling a Foe and Finding Their Weak Spot

There’s still more to it when it comes to determining the right time to pounce. With an equally-matched rival, a clever driver will sometimes have to follow closely for lap after lap – sometimes for what seems like ages – and study their performance carefully. One must take into consideration where a driver is excelling and where they’re deficient. If one can consistently close down the distances under braking in one particular corner, that can become a potential overtaking location. “If you know you can out-brake them, wait until they least expect it and pull out next to them at the start of the braking zone,” says Meadow.

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Studying a competitor’s performance and planning a move laps in advance is part of any competitive category.

Gregory Evans, Spec Miata racer and driver coach, notes, “I usually wait until I have a truly positive run, whereby I’m gaining on the car in front, to make a pass attempt.” However, when matched against a rival of similar skill, there are things to do to get the mental advantage. “While I’m waiting, I make sure I’m a constant presence in the target’s mirrors – mind games are huge.” The idea here is to distract an opponent and quell some of their speed, or encourage them to make a mistake under pressure.

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Simply presenting oneself in an opponents mirrors is enough to pressure them into a mistake.

There’s more to getting around an equally-matched opponent than distracting them from their own tasking of driving quickly and studying their performance. In short, one must be careful of not appearing too eager to pass, but rather, to surprise them when they’ve let their guard down. Evans sheds light on the matter: “It’s like Poker; if you have a good hand, you don’t want anyone to think you have a good hand. So if I’m strong relative to my target in turn 11, and I plan to execute the pass in that corner, then I might pressure them harder in turns 9 and 10.” Then once their cage has been rattled and they falter, it’s time to strike. Evans describes gleefully: “If they make a mistake in 10 because of the pressure I’m applying, my pass is in the bag in turn 11.”

It’s commonly seen: drivers, usually young ones, making a flying start only to lose their speed and find themselves squabbling somewhere in the middle of the pack. Their problem was not a lack of ability, but they failed to realize that how they position themselves within the pack plays just as big a role as their outright speed does. It’s never as simple as going as quickly as possible – any fool with enough practice can do that. What gives those few special drivers their edge is the way they work around others, and how they take the bigger picture into consideration.

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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