“Braking is the last thing any racing driver learns to do well,” Jackie Stewart once said. Perhaps it’s the imminent danger faced when putting on the binders a bit too late, or the fear of flatspotting a set of pricey tires that keep drivers from finding the threshold when it comes time to decelerate, but it’s something that many, including yours truly, still have some room for improvement with.
For safety and consistency, a driver looking to improve their braking performance ought to consider a few, modestly-priced upgrades: braided brake lines, performance brake fluid, healthy tires, and performance brake pads. With these in place, fade is reduced and braking power is increased. These should provide the driver with the confidence, consistency, and feel needed to understand precisely where the limit is.
A Forceful Approach
Unlike the street, the track invites a driver to use their brakes much more assertively, and that’s why a strong dab of the brakes is the norm when trying to cut speed. On circuit, a driver needs to apply their brakes reasonably swiftly and strongly, and be careful not to ramp up the pressure too gingerly, like they might with a production car on the street.
By applying the brakes forcefully, a driver gets the majority of the stopping process done in a straight line when the car is most stable, and furthest from the corner. Then, as the turn-in point approaches, they can bleed off the brakes and begin turning in as quickly as the tires and their talent will allow them. This means they’ll slow to a reasonable speed, and release the brake pedal to balance the car over both axles as they begin to turn.
Road cars will roll and dive slightly, and it will take some time to fully transfer weight to the front under heavy braking. Some drivers refer to this as the car “taking a set,” and a driver with a delicate touch will learn to hit the brake pedal firmly and assertively enough to move weight forward, but not before the car is up on its nose. Therefore, it’s not a violent stab of the middle pedal, but a forceful-but-measured application that accounts for the half-second it takes for the weight to transfer over the front axle. Once the weight has moved forward and the front tires are pressed into the track, a little more braking pressure is possible without lock-up. The time it takes to transfer this weight depends on the stiffness and the weight distribution of the car.
Where to Begin Braking?
Some drivers go by feel, and manage to brake frighteningly late. However, most have to use indicators. Whether these are cracks in the road, a pebble or a flower, a formal marker beside the track, a cone, or anything else, the driver must gather all their courage and keep the throttle pinned until they’re upon their designated indicator. Then, without any delay, the driver should begin braking forcefully, all while trying to feel if the car is decelerating properly.
What does it mean to decelerate properly? Well, an astute driver will listen and feel for indications of the car’s behavior while braking hard. A mild chirp of the tires is expected, but they shouldn’t howl in agony as the driver brakes. A small weave from the rear axle of the car is fine; the rears are on the limit and moving around gently. It’s important to have the car as straight as possible, and a keen driver will take into account their steering angle when they begin braking, and try to feel if the load is spread evenly over all four tires—which would indicate the car is balanced. If not, the car might break away slightly in one direction if a rear tire is locked, or a front tire might lock and cause the car to run wide slightly on entry. Depending on which wheel is locked, a driver can try to straighten the car better before braking, or if they must brake while turning slightly, soften their inputs so as not to overwhelm the tires.
If they lock the tires, a little cadence braking is helpful. This entails a subtle release of the brake pedal to allow the tire to roll again momentarily, and then re-apply the braking pressure. Rather than jumping off the pedal and stamping it violently, this is much more like a pulsation; a driver can roll their toes inside their shoe and get the desired effect.
In the above clip, note the behavior of the front tires. They first lock, then roll briefly, and then slow again as the brakes are re-applied without any locking.
If this first half of the braking process is done correctly, it’s then time to downshift. Moving sequentially through the gears minimizes the chances of damage, and as the brakes are still being applied quite firmly, the driver will be rolling their foot to blip the throttle to soften the downchange. Throughout this period, which should encompass the third quarter of the braking zone, the driver should try to keep their pedal pressure constant, so that they’re still decelerating at a regular rate.
The last quarter of the braking zone is where a lot of talent is needed. The driver should be able assess what sort of entry speed they’re comfortable with, and roll off the brakes slightly as they begin to turn. If they’re on or near the limit of adhesion, how they release the brakes will have a strong effect on the car’s behavior, and how it corresponds with the steering means the difference between a neat entry and a sloppy piece of understeer. Like arms of a scale, as the driver releases their brake pressure, they can wind on steering lock in a proportional amount. It sounds easy, but after dealing with the deceleration, downshifting cleanly, and the occasionally locked wheels, the last portion of the braking process feels like tightrope walking.
If driver isn’t much fazed by the last portion of the braking process, there’s a good chance the driver braked too early, and should begin trying to move their braking forward. Of course, this is done in tiny increments—maybe a few feet at a time. Trying every time to brake as hard as possible, they move their braking point forward a few feet, and continue doing this until they begin missing their apexes. Usually by this point, they’re braking deep enough, and need to bring their marker back slightly to keep the rest of the corner neat and tidy.
Braking as Hard as Necessary
Being the last of the late brakers isn’t always a plus. It’s just as important to roll speed into the corner, so a clever driver will brake at a place on the track where they can ensure a clean run through the rest of the corner. The brakes are meant to decelerate, but also to help change the attitude of the car by shifting weight forwards, which causes rotation if done correctly. Therefore, a driver will try to brake reasonably late, but not so late that they can’t get turned into the corner with precision. Once a driver gets a sense of what braking hard and late is like, they ought to start focusing their attention on keeping their minimum speed and rolling quickly into the corner—a topic we’ll be covering soon.
So, in short: brake firmly and with consistent pressure. Release the brake pedal smoothly, and try not to spin. That’s easier said than done, though.