Steering in HPDE


Those of us who learned to drive during the Gerald Ford administration were taught to keep our hands at "10 and 2" on the steering wheel. Modern cars with airbags have contributed to moving our hands to "9 and 3" since we want our arms well clear of the explosive device in the event of an accident. Many of the minor controls on the wheel (volume, etc.) have also migrated to 9 and 3, where your thumbs can find them by feel.

Moving the seat close enough to the wheel so that the wheel can be easily turned without reaching or straining seems like a no-brainer to many of us, but if you're new to the sport, you're probably sitting too far away. I like to position myself so that my elbows are in contact with my ribs when I'm holding the wheel. One easy to try 'measurement': with shoulders relaxed and in contact the seat back, can you place your wrist on top of the wheel and flop your hand straight down? The goal is to be able to turn the wheel 180 degrees with your shoulders still in contact with the seat back.

I am 6'-6" tall, so sometimes I need to make compromises; maybe not as close to the wheel as I'd like in order to leave enough room for my feet on the pedals, etc. The other thing about seat position is that you want the seat close enough that at full pedal travel, your leg still has some bend at the knee. Locked knees in an accident are a bad thing.

Steering inputs are one of those things that most of my students get wrong at first; they are way too jerky. I like to encourage very smooth inputs. The vast majority of cars achieve maximum traction and performance by carving big smooth arcs. There are very advanced drivers who are constantly exploring the limits of traction by making minute adjustments to their steering, so it can be done. It just doesn't work well at the Novice / Intermediate level.

The other thing I see are white knuckles and lots of tension. A modern car generally requires very little effort to steer, you can do it with your fingertips. I encourage that, it gives you a better feel for what the tires are doing. I also advise my students to "wiggle their fingers" on an open straightaway, it releases the tension and reminds you to loosen your grip.

I'm a big fan of "one set of the hands" and seek it out at all tracks. This is where you do the steering input one time, hold it, and watch where the track "comes to you" without further input. It's not unusual for this to happen through two "named" turns (T4 - T5 at The Ridge comes to mind). Sometimes you need a touch of throttle steering to make this happen. Pretty much everything you do with steering slows you down, so looking for ways to "steer less" or "relaxing the wheel" makes you faster.

A topic closely related to steering is Trail Braking. I touched on it in the Braking page. If you can coordinate lifting off of the brake pedal as you turn in, the weight transfers smoothly from the front tires to the outside tires and helps with stability. Around the limits of traction, some cars will severely understeer (plow) if there is no attempt to put a little more weight on the front tires. Trail braking helps with that. To a lesser extent, just lifting throttle transfers weight forward as well.

Rain-
I often hear about how driving on track in the rain forces you to slow down your control inputs. This confused me a bit until I started writing this stuff down and really thinking about it, and the progression of skills. At lower levels of experience, this is very true. I encourage those of you not blessed with exposure to rainy track driving (not a problem in the Seattle-Portland area) to not sit out when it rains, and go out on track instead. It's an incredible learning opportunity, a chance to get advanced car control skills at very low energy levels. It will teach you to smooth up your inputs, and overall make you a faster driver in the dry. Ironically my hands are actually faster in the rain; I'm still smooth on my basic inputs, but in reacting to a slide, you have to be quick with your hands to keep up with it. I had the pleasure to go out in the right seat of a senior instructors Porsche GT3 in the rain, and his steering reactions were like lightning. Spins happen rapidly in a rear engine Porsche in the rain, and you have to stay on top of it.


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