This is the first in a 3-part series of posts…

Have you ever known a driver to come back after an autocross run or track lap, say something like “I left 4 tenths out there”, and on their next run they end up going 4 tenths faster? How did they know that?? How were they able to accurately figure out how much time they left out there, and then go find it? There is nothing mysterious about this, and over the next couple of posts, we’ll talk through how to get better at identifying mistakes as they happen, and knowing how to fix them.

Every racer is aware that none of us will never achieve a perfect lap. Even if we hit all our marks with absolute accuracy, our plan would have been based on what we learned on previous laps. Given that the track surface, the tires, our own mindset, and a whole host of other variables are constantly changing, hopefully you will agree that predicting the conditions for the upcoming lap perfectly as well as reacting perfectly to the inevitable subtle differences is impossible. The most we can hope for is to minimize our mistakes to get as close as possible to the theoretical perfect lap.

All driving mistakes fall into one of two buckets: (1) Errors in execution, or (2) errors in our game plan. Today, we will delve into the first of the two.

Execution errors

Any time our execution deviates from our game plan, that is an execution error. The error may be a small slide that marginally delays our ability to accelerate, or something much more significant like running really wide around an entire corner. However, we can only recognize these execution errors if we have a mental image of what we intended to do to compare against. Obviously we don’t need a particularly good mental image to recognize large errors that cost multiple seconds, such as spinning off course. It takes a slightly better mental image to recognize errors that cost several tenths of a second, such as missing an apex because of blowing a braking point. But it takes a much more finely detailed mental image to recognize smaller errors that cost several hundredths or maybe a tenth each. In all these cases, we are able to tell that we made a mistake by consciously or subconsciously comparing what happened with what we intended to do. The more detailed our visualization is of what we intend to do, the better chance we have of recognizing the more subtle mistakes we make. This is a crucial skill that separates the champions from the rest, particularly in the context of autocross where we only get a handful of runs in which to identify and rectify our mistakes.

[Side note: This has implications for the strategy we should employ during national level events where we only get 3 runs on a course. We will discuss that in a future post.]

There are some drivers who will argue that they are able to identify their mistakes without having a mental visual of their planned run; that they do it by “feel”. It is important to realize that this is very much like a chef saying that they cook without looking at a recipe, or a musician saying that they play by ear without reading sheet music. Even though they are not consciously relying on a mental image, these drivers are getting to the same end result by relying on experience that they have built up over time. Whether we use observation (comparing against a mental imagery) or intuition (experience) to achieve our goal (to identify mistakes) is irrelevant; both of those are tools to get us to the same end result. We can sit by and hope that we develop this intuition over time through experience, or we can build the skill and habit of observation intentionally. Personally, I prefer the latter.

OK, so given that we know we have a better chance of identifying mistakes if we have a better visualization of our intended run in mind, the next question we need to tackle is: How do we get better at visualizing our runs?

Visualization: How to get good at it

Visualizing a run involves being able to “see” (in our mind) ourselves driving around the track, in as much detail as possible. There are drivers who are so skilled at visualization that they are able to mentally drive a track to within tenths of a second of their actual performance! Of course, that level of mastery is something we have to train for and develop. Daunting as this may seem, we can start much simpler and work our way up quite rapidly.

If you are totally new to the idea of visualizing a run, it can be helpful to start by practicing this “after the fact” at home after a day of racing. Watch a video of a particular lap, and then close your eyes and try to mimic that lap in your mind. Try to be as detailed as possible… the position of the car, where your hands are on the wheel, the sound of the engine revs climbing and falling, etc. If it’s too difficult to imagine an entire lap in such detail, don’t be discouraged; start smaller! Identify the 2-3 most important corners or elements, and imagine driving through just those in as much detail as you can muster. Go back to the actual video if you have to and revise your mental image and correct anything you are not imagining accurately. Pretty quickly, not only will you get better at being able to visualize what you did, you will also start building a mental library of your driving habits.

Build up from there. The next time you go back to the track, or after walking a new autocross course, try to visualize driving through the course before you get on track. This is going to be harder to do because without having driven the course or having a video to refer to, you will have to imagine what you want the car to do, and imagine how you will make the car do that. As before, if at first it’s difficult to imagine an entire lap in sufficient detail, start smaller by identifying the 2-3 most important corners or elements and just visualizing those. For each of those corner, try to clearly picture your ideal entry position and entry angle, visualize your arc through the corner, visualize when and how you will turn the wheel, visualize when and how quickly you will get on the gas, visualize how the car will react to that, etc. With just a bit of practice, you may surprise yourself at how quickly you get better at this.

TAKE ACTION: Consciously work on the fidelity of your visualization. Don’t take this lightly; there are numerous studies that show that the brain unable to differentiate between a real experience and a sufficiently detailed visualization. When you look at it this way, visualization gives you the power to get unlimited and free seat time! As you mentally “drive” a course, take note of the following through every corner/element…

  1. Where you want to position the car and at what angle.
  2. The steering, brake, and throttle inputs you will use.
  3. How the car will react to your planned inputs.

Most drivers only do the first 2 items on this list. Take your visualization to the next level by anticipating how your car will react to your intended inputs. How will the weight transfer? Will it make the car get loose/pushy? How will you react to that? Will it cause you to deviate from your intended path? Not only will doing this analysis allow you to refine your visualization; you will be less surprised by slides that do occur because you will have already imagined how you will react to them!

Putting it all together

Building up our visualization skills gives us the tool needed to get better at identifying mistakes as soon they happen. Next, we need to develop the ability to effectively use this tool. Most of us only think about mistakes after they occur; we think about mistakes reactively. A couple of weeks ago, in the post about smoothness vs. aggression, we talked about needing to develop the ability and discipline to frequently and persistently “check” for available grip. We need to develop a similar practice with constantly “checking” to see if we are executing in accordance with our visualized plan. Instead of reacting to a mistake, our mode of operation needs to change to preemptively keep asking ourselves “Have I made an error? Have I made an error? Have I made an error?” over and over again, like a stuck record player. We have to constantly and repeatedly be asking ourselves, “Is the car where I want it to be, am I doing what I want to be doing, is there anything I can be doing better?” If this sounds mentally taxing, you are absolutely right… it is! Driving fast is challenging and demanding. We can only find the last few tenths and hundredths and thousandths by looking for them relentlessly.

When we become so aware of our execution errors, identifying the root cause of each error becomes much simpler because there is usually only a small set of possibilities. If we pushed slightly wide on corner entry, we either carried too much speed in, or did not time our input correctly. If we got loose on exit, we either got on the gas at the wrong time, or with the wrong intensity. And so on. Keep in mind that fixing an error does not always require going slower. The error could be fixed by better positioning, approaching at a different angle, slowing down our inputs (not our speed), etc. Also, keep in mind that not every slide is a symptom of a mistake. A slide is only bad if it puts us out of position or prevents us from doing what we want to.

TAKE ACTION: If you want to take things even further, then planning contingencies should be part of your game plan. This may sound like a lot of work, but you only need to do it for a few key “high risk” spots around the track. It helps to be aware of the types of mistakes you often make. For example, if you tend to really push braking zones and sometimes go too deep into a corner, plan for that! Visualize braking at the right time and taking the ideal line, and then also visualize missing your braking point. Think through what your resulting inputs will be and what your line will look like if you miss your braking point, so that you are not surprised when it happens and can make the best of it.

What next?

So far, we have been focused on comparing our execution against our visualization to identify errors as they happen. So far we have assumed that our visualization is correct. But what if our visualized game plan itself is wrong? We’ll discuss that in a future post.

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  1. I think i would break errors into 3 categories: execution, planning and perception.

    If someone doesn’t realize how far off the cones they are (because they can’t watch themselves run) they don’t have a great grasp of their car placement.

    1. Author

      Rob, that’s reasonable, though I would still either categorize that as an execution error (if they are far from the cones because they don’t realize how much space they are leaving), or a game plan error (if they plan a poor line because of misjudging the dimensions of their own car).

  2. Could you give an example of a slide that isn’t a mistake? Anytime you are sliding you have reduced traction preventing you from being able to corner or accelerate at your maximum so isn’t it always unfavorable?

    1. Author

      While it is true that sliding reduces grip available to the sliding tires, that is only a problem when the sliding pair of tires are the ones that are limiting us. Maybe a concrete example would help: Imagine that we are exiting a corner, and that we are not able to utilize full throttle just yet because we are on the edge of understeer (i.e. we are limited by front grip). Now imagine that we increase our throttle to the point where we induce a *slight* rear slide. While this action reduces the total amount of grip of the rear tires, prior to increasing the amount of throttle we weren’t utilizing all the rear grip (as we said, we were limited by front grip). To make some numbers up, if we had 50 units of grip in the front and 50 units of grip in the rear, we were previously using all 50 units of front grip, and maybe only 40 units of rear grip. As we added throttle and started to slide (a little), the available rear grip reduced to 40, which is all that we were using anyway, so it doesn’t hurt us. The broader point is that we almost never are at the limit of grip at both ends of the car at the same time, and so whichever end is limiting us… the opposite end can usually tolerate *slight* slides without causing a loss in time, as long as the amount of grip lost due to the slide does not fall below the level needed at that end of the car.

      1. This makes me feel like I could improve my use of throttle on corner exit. I guess it matters if you’re a bottom up or a top down driver, but how do you know you’re properly utilizing that acceptable amount of sliding? I’m assuming that if done right you wouldn’t have to make any corrections.

        1. Author

          It’s not that you wouldn’t have to make *any* corrections; but the corrections you make would just be to control the attitude of the car… not the position, heading, or speed.

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