There’s an old saying in racing which states: a driver starts ragged and slow, then becomes smooth and slow. Once they find the courage, they become quick but ragged, and if they stay at the game long enough, eventually become quick and smooth.
However, this adage isn’t absolutely true. At the top level, drivers are all very smooth and deliberate with their inputs compared to amateurs, but among themselves, the way they manipulate the inputs differ. It’s harder to tell in modern, high-grip, ultra-capable racecars, but drivers still approach corners in very different ways when the magnifying glass and the surgical pincers are used to analyze.
Benefits to Smooth and Relaxed Approach
Smooth drivers are universally respected in the driving world for a few reasons. First of all, deliberate, progressive inputs with the steering, brakes, and throttle mean a driver that can deliver stunningly-consistent laps, as if they were driving with a metronome. Additionally, the smoother drivers tend to take better care of their brakes, and their tires always look better at the end of the race than their more aggressive rivals’ do.
This is most easily appreciated on the Super Speedways, where “the tiniest inputs around a 2-mile oval can increase or decrease lap times by a few tenths of a second or more. We’re talking about just a few degrees of steering angle being the difference between qualifying last and landing P1 at a place like Daytona,” according to racing instructor Gregory Evans.
One impressive trait of a smooth driver is how little they seem to work the inputs. “Asking less of the wheel results in less scrub, less radius, and better energy conservation,” notes Evans. It takes plenty of seat time to realize that, when the different inputs and synchronized properly, the steering wheel doesn’t always have to be moved much. “In my experience,” he says, “a good portion of drivers over-control the car, and if they trusted their car more, they could steer the wheel five, ten, or even fifteen degrees fewer for the same corner and carry the same speed.”
These drivers focus strongly on the geometry of the corner, and are exceptionally, deliberately progressive with their inputs, and can blend the steering, braking, and acceleration better than others. They’re so adept at transitioning through the cornering phases without any strong distinctions, that they rarely tease the car into a slide and drive over the limit. This approach allows “Smooth drivers to be better at coping with a delicate setup,” according to Nico Rondet, driver of the United Autosports LMP3 car.
Setbacks to the Smooth Style
However, this ultra-considerate style comes with some drawbacks. As Rondet mentions, “They are much easier on tires, which sometimes creates other problems. This could be seen when Jenson Button was struggling to generate enough temperature in his tires to work.”
The smooth driver will turn in, pick up the throttle smoothly, and unwind the steering, and generate very little scrub with the tires. Sometimes a bit of scrub or induced sliding is good, since it heats up the tire faster, and being too gentle keeps the driver from reaching the tires’ optimal temperature at times.
Additionally, there’s no abrupt flick or direction change in the middle of the corner, and so it takes a little longer to pick up the throttle and get pointed in the right direction. Rob Wilson, driving coach to Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya, says of Jenson Button, “he tends not to manipulate the car mid-corner – the direction change – and so the corners go on a bit longer.”
Ragged and Rough
The beauty of grabbing a car by the scruff of its neck and hurling it into a corner is it works in a variety of situations. It’s not always the best way to set a quick lap, nor is it easy on tires, but it’s a great style to have in changing conditions, where levels of grip are hard to predict, the car needs to be slid around a bit more, and the driver must improvise.
Being comfortable with a car that’s moving around wildly is something that comes naturally to the aggressive driver, since their abrupt inputs tend to drive the car over the edge. Confidently flirting with the limit give a slight advantage on low-grip tracks, like street circuits. Being on the ragged end of the spectrum means tires will come up to temperature faster, and on the first lap, when the tires aren’t always up to their optimal temperature, this is a huge advantage. For this reason, Keke Rosberg had the ability to walk away from a tentative pack on cold tires.
Ultimately the rate at which a driver can steer, brake, or accelerate is largely determined by how stiff the car is. If the chassis is very stiff, they don’t have to wait as long for the weight to shift properly. “It is possible to steer so quickly that we induce understeer by steering past the ideal slip angle of the tire before the outside tire has loaded,” concludes Evans. Obviously, the tire is not being used optimally here, which is why smoother is almost always faster.
Ultimately, the textbook style of neat, measured driving still reigns supreme. However, the clever drivers know how and when to put a little more energy into the car, and how to get the most out of their tires. Rarely will a pro hack violently at the wheel, but on occasion, steering a little past the ideal slip angle or inducing a slide at the right time is useful. Every tire has its own specific requirements, and the driver best able to attend to the needs of their tires is what separates the good from the great.