Racing Techniques: Making the Pass Stick

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When and how an overtaking maneuver happens is a mystery to many fans. Whenever Hamilton and Rosberg crash, it often takes the view of a dispassionate racer to really shine some light on the situation. Take, for example, the crash at the Spanish Grand Prix this year. Contentious, sure, but there was little malice in what happened. It was a graphic example of the danger inherent in running that closely in cars so quick, but it was not intended by either party — they’re both too smart to jeopardize their chances in that way. However, it does shed some light on how going for a gap, leaving the braking a hair later, and making a pass stick can be really tricky, even for someone of their caliber.

Slipstreaming and Getting a Run

The easiest, or most likely means of passing usually happens on the straightaway. Benefiting from a slipstream, a driver placed carefully behind an opponent can, with some torque, pull alongside at the last possible moment to move ahead. This is the safest and simplest way of finding a way past. Of course, it’s not merely a matter of gunning it and lowering the head.

Getting a pass down the straight requires perfect shifting, a better run through the preceding corner, careful car placement and the right aerodynamic profile. Sometimes, it helps to give the driver in front just the smallest gap approaching a corner that leads onto a straight, so that they cannot impede on their cornering speed, which is magnified down the following straight. But, it requires perfect timing and just the right amount of cushion.

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By occupying the void in the airstream behind a car, a driver can gain some additional speed down the straights.

Additionally, some setup can help facilitate these sorts of passes. Having too much wing limits the ability to perform these sorts of maneuvers, which is one of the reasons why teams often change their wing profile, even if it means less downforce at tracks like Hockenheim, where the straights are long. Since overtaking on the straights is a relatively simple process, it’s worthwhile setting up the car to suit them.

Late Braking

Late braking takes a combination of skill and a clever read of the situation. Generally speaking, the rule when it comes to overtaking on the way into the corner requires the overtaking driver to be at least half-way alongside the driver getting passed by the end of the braking zone, and before they turn in. It’s hard to judge this accurately though, so occasionally a driver will leave their braking too late, and drive into a disappearing wedge as the driver in front begins to turn into the corner.

Known as “shutting the door,” when the leading driver chops across the nose of the driver behind, it is fair game. It’s the job of the driver behind to present themselves alongside before turning in, not divebombing and eliciting a crash. If they decide to go two-abreast into the corner, the driver in front still determines the line, but it’s expected that both parties give a little room, especially with open-wheeled cars.

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To fairly commit to a late braking maneuver, one should have their front wheels in front the competitor’s rears.

The Over-Under

A classic move, the over-under is one that has always been used by a calm, clear-headed driver who knows how to control the pace of the race. Generally speaking, when an attacker is committed to the inside line, a defending driver with enough foresight can position their car to ensure a little more speed through the corner. In other words, they allow the attacker to momentarily slip ahead, but return the jab with a traditional, quicker line through the corner. Therefore, if the attacking driver runs wide or scrubs speed because of a sub-optimal line through the bend, the defending driver manages to take a cleaner, quicker route through the corner and regain the position. Planning this sort of move takes a bit of quick thinking and can be incredibly effective, especially in low-grip circumstances.

What the attacking driver needs to do maintain their newly-gained position is learn to slow the car just ever so slightly at the apex, in effect controlling the line and the pace. Rolling off the throttle for half a second rather than firing across the road as quickly as possible, as is tempting, leaves the recently-passed driver nowhere to go. However, when trying to approximate a rival’s speed and their savviness, it’s a hard one to pull off.

Studying the Worthy Opponent and Timing

There are drivers out there who make very few mistakes, and just to get a move in, one has to get up very early in the morning. To assess just where an opponent is quick and slow, relatively speaking, is not easy and can take tens of laps. However, the keen eye for detail will pick up on sections where they have a little more pace, and try to establish a pass in that place.

Additionally, the odd bobble or the puff of smoke from a locked tire suggest a worried driver. The speedy pursuer can often pressure an opponent into a mistake. Pace is the most important weapon here, but if they’re able to keep them guessing, the effect is stronger. Randomly putting a nose alongside, even if it’s unlikely to work, might just keep the leading driver sweating, and most drivers will eventually crack under pressure. The crucial aspect is to be in an attacking position when the mistake happens.

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It’s important to position oneself closely enough to study an adversary’s every move and know exactly when to pounce.

For that reason, it’s important to be able to determine the best times to put a move in. There’s always a bit of dogfighting at the beginning of a race, with everyone running on cold tires trying to secure a position before the tires heat up, but as the race progresses, it becomes more challenging to find an appropriate time to start dicing. This is because a battling group will always go slower than they would if they were running alone, or if they would adhere to the racing line. Additionally, this squabbling usually damages the tires, so too much battling early on can let the drivers in front get away, which is why categories with very similar equipment sometimes see a processional start of the race, with a deciding move put in sometime during the closing laps.

When running in a group, it’s important to judge just when the right time to pounce is. If a pack of three is running in unison, and the driver in the middle makes a failed pass, it’s very easy for the driver bringing up the rear to snatch up that position. It’s when a driver is sandwiched between two that they have to be exceptionally careful not to put a wheel wrong, and commit only to probable passes.

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When running in close quarters, drivers have to be cautious with the timing of their overtakes.

Overtaking requires a small degree of contrition on the side of the passed, but the best drivers will only relinquish their position when it’s clear they’ve been beaten. To do this, an attacking driver needs to commit to the pass, plan accordingly, and bide their time. In some sense, learning when not to pass is just as important, since race pace is negatively affected by scrapping between two or more cars.

Additionally, it takes a certain amount of racing etiquette to establish a successful passing percentage. While in NASCAR, “rubbing is racing,” in road racing, unnecessary contact is frowned upon and punished, and two cars in contention for a corner should show one another a bit of respect by leaving room. Even still, the action can be fierce, challenging, and wild, but a successful overtake requires, more than anything, a clear head. Wait, observe, commit, and pounce.

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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