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How do you learn to race?

Is there really any such thing as ‘natural talent’? Can anyone just climb in a racecar and wow everyone else with their skills?

I don’t think so. At the very least, I KNOW that I certainly can’t!

I put in a lot of research before I began racing, and in a lot of ways it was that learning that fired my passion to want to race.

From an early age, most children (I’m not going to say “boys”, but writing this highlights another reason why girls might have a tougher start in the motorsports world) will play with toy cars, and watch motorsport on TV.

Then it will be the inevitable progression to video games.

Whilst this is all very fun, it’s actually teaching you a lot about the physics of how cars move, and with the games you’ll find you need to follow the racing line to win.

If you’re lucky enough, it’s around here that you’ll get to jump in a kart, and then spend the next 10 years learning race craft and driving first hand – however, if you’re like me that isn’t didn’t happen, and you’re at a definite disadvantage over all the child racers.

Then maybe you get your own road car, and learn the skills needed to drive a proper car. You may not be pushing the limits, but it’s all going into your ‘lizard brain’, where you don’t have to think about how to change gears, when to use the clutch, how to feed in the throttle etc.

Most potential racers will then do a few track days, honing those skills even more, and getting their brains used to driving quickly around a circuit.

Then there’s people like me. I did a handful of ‘arrive and drive’ kart sessions with no training or competition, rode motorbikes for 10 years (although bikes are great for sharpening reactions and getting into the mindset of improving skills), finally took my car road test around 5 years ago, and the first time I ever drove on a track was for the ARDS test!

I’ve done alright, considering – but what you won’t see from that CV is the hundreds of hours I’ve spent reading up on racecar physics, months of studying onboard videos in intense detail, and my mental preparation. It’s not easy, and there is no quick way, if you want to be serious about it all.

There are hundreds of educational racing books around. The grand-daddy bible of all of these is “Going Faster” by Skip Barber.

Another Vee driver – Ben Miloudi – kindly leant me this book when I first had the idea to race. I studied it like I was going for a PhD! Tyre slip angles, heel and toe, the grip scale, racing lines, sacrifice corners, and even what to do when it all goes wrong (clutch in and stand on the brakes!) are all in this invaluable book.

If books aren’t your thing, then there is also a cheesy 70s video version around – but, like most films, I found the book was far better!

The videos that I did find worthwhile are the onboard videos from other Formula Vee drivers. From these, you can learn the track, listen for the gear changes, and see where to hit the brakes and turn into the corners. Whilst you need to study the videos from the front-running cars, I’d also highly recommend watching the slower drivers as well. You’ll then see WHY the faster drivers are faster – braking later, getting back on the throttle faster, braking less, lifting off through corners or staying flat… It’s not perfect, because most footage seems to disappear (get your vids on YouTube Paul Smith!!), has no sound or has dodgy picture quality. And before you take a Paul Smith approach into your first ever corner, do be aware that your brain will scream “HELL NO!!!!!”, so make sure your markers are somewhere between the faster and slower drivers!

It’s also important that you’re watching Formula Vee videos. If you learn a circuit by watching an AC Cobra blasting around the place, you’re going to be in for quite a shock at how differently you need to drive a Formula Vee car!

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Speaking to other racers can be a massive help, too – but do be aware that how they get through a corner in the pre/post race banter can be considerably different to what they do in reality! You’ll hear “Take that corner flat – don’t lift” quite a bit… Even if they are doing that, consider that they might have been doing it for 15 years and have the skill not to end up as a fireball against the pit wall – or they might just be a bit of a head-the-ball! So listen, but ultimately go at your own pace and push safely from there.

Glenn has been an invaluable source of information about how to drive – he’s got a championship win to prove he knows his stuff, and we’re happy to be both brutally honest with each other and realistic about what we should be achieving.

After these, the only thing left is to drive!  All of the above will help you to understand how to go faster, but as I’ve said many times, there is no substitute for getting laps under your belt!  Testing is expensive, but it’s pretty essential when you’re staring out – whatever experience and background you have.

If I had it my way, I’d do a test day at every circuit before race day, just to familiarise myself with it.  That worked for, umm, one track last year, and this year could well be the same story.

That could be where a driving simulator like iRacing comes in to help!  I’ll be posting a follow-up blog about that soon now that I’ve settled into it all…

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