I read a couple of great articles in the US based Road and Track magazine recently about the use of electronic stability controls on track days. The author, Jack Baruth, is a highly experienced BMX and auto racer who regularly competes – and from the articles, clearly attends track days to help drivers not only enjoy their time on the track but to get faster.
I related to both articles, having raced in my youth in an MGB – no electronic aids there, but not a lot of power either! I have also attended many track days in the past 10 years or so firstly with a Honda S2000 (not many electronics on the 1st series) and latterly in cars with plenty of electronics and heaps of power. Before I raced back in the early 1980s, I attended a 10 day race driver course at the Jim Russell School at the Snetterton circuit in the east of England using front and rear drive Alfa Romeos and Formula Ford single seaters.
In the first article Don’t Touch That Button: Turning Off Stability Control Is Dumb and Dangerous, Jack writes about why it is not a good idea to turn off the electronic systems when driving fast on a track – especially as a novice and discusses the “Three Horsemen Of The First-Time Trackday Apocalypse”: Misinformation, Ignorance and Ego.
Jack describes how the misinformation is one of the reasons why people switch off the electronics – they have read articles from journalists who decry the aids believing them to get in the way of car’s ability to perform. As he writes, if the lights on your dashboard are flashing, the systems are working overtime to save you and without them you could end up in a big expensive heap for both you, your passengers and your car. On the track, they serve another purpose and one that I hadn’t thought about until I read the article: they show you where you are rough and this should be taken as a signal to learn to drive smoothly.
Ignorance is an interesting one – and related to misinformation. Many drivers believe (through their friends or watching programs like Top Gear) that these systems slow them down. As Jack points out, the computers in cars can think faster than a human brain can when physics comes into play as the driver throws the car around. I have certainly had friends who have bragged about switching off the aids before heading out on track and then spun out (thankfully without damage).
Ego is the third horseman. Ego gets in the way as the driver heads out on to the track. He feels wimpy if he leaves the systems on and combined with the other two horsemen puts themselves and others at risk.
Jack finishes up to point out that even the best drivers can make mistakes that cause the car to unsettle and lose grip – even in full race cars with the best equipment available. He highlights the fact that you must be doing something stupid to have the car warn you that it is taking control.
The second article As Long As You Think You’re Fast, You’ll Always Be Slow was even better! It was a retort to the (apparently) many hundreds of comments from armchair critics who thought they knew better than an expert! He discusses in some detail the third horseman: Ego and why it is getting in the way of people and covers that undeniable fact that modern electronic systems do not get in the way of the driver. The way to go faster is to be smoother, know the circuit and its lines and know your vehicle’s abilities as well.
This reminded me of two stories: When I was in my teens, I went to see my brother at a track day at Mallory Park in the UK. He had a Ford Escort at the time and was getting OK lap times. After one session he came in to the pits with a big cheesy grin and he had figured out the best line for the car’s power and grip through the circuit’s main sweeping corner and had shaved many seconds off his lap times!
The second story was from a track day I did at Wakefield Park near Sydney. A guy turned up in a new Porsche 911 with his son in a new Subaru WRX. They posted average lap times and then watched another driver go faster than them in a Mazda 323 (with no more than 1.8 litres and 140hp). They asked him what engine transplant he had done because he was so quick – the driver said none. He was fast because he knew the lines, was smoother than the other two and knew when to brake, when to apply power and when to turn in to a corner. Crucially, he knew his car and his own limitations.
I really think that both of Jack Baruth’s articles should be compulsory reading for all drivers who want to drive fast – or think they do. They were a timely reminder that we humans are all fallible and that modern machines are clever enough to help us when we run out of talent.