Car Advice

How to change gears the right way (part 2)

Last time when we looked at how to change gears the right way, we covered shifting up and the art of skip shifting. This time we’re on the way down, which is more difficult.

LET’S SAY YOU’RE cruising around in sixth gear at 100km/h, and up ahead is a corner you’re going to take in second at 40km/h.  It’d need to be a pretty tight corner for second gear in a modern car, or you’d want some rapid acceleration, but let’s run with second gear.
You now have a problem.

You brake, slowing to 40, and as you do the engine revs will drop to maybe 1100-1200rpm in sixth. But the correct revs for 40km/h in second gear are much higher, more like 2500 or 3500rpm.

There’s a few ways to solve the problem. First, you could slow down all the way to the correct speed for the corner, then change gear. This would allow your foot to come off the brake onto the accelerator, and then while the clutch is dipped you can increase the revs to the appropriate level to allow second gear to be smoothly selected. This is probably what you were taught – slow down to the speed for the corner before the corner, select the gear, drive the corner, accelerate. It is still what is taught today, and remains the correct technique as it is safe, easy and does not stress the vehicle.

The problem is few people drive like that in real life, because you get to the minimum corner speed well before the corner, which is slow. You can argue all day about whether the couple of seconds per corner saved are worthwhile or not, but you can’t argue with the fact that Joe and Josie Average don’t drive this way.

Another option is to stay at 100km/h, not brake, and instead increase revs so you can select second or maybe third gear. Then with the gear selected, brake for the corner. That’s inefficient and noisy.

What most drivers do is neither option. They brake for the corner, and as they brake they dip the clutch and change gear. As the clutch comes up the engine revs are increased to without use of the throttle – the wheels force an engine rpm increase. The better drivers complete the gearchange before the corner and get both hands back on the wheel before turning, the less skilled are still trying to change gear as they turn or even on the following straight.

The problem with this approach is wear and tear on the clutch and engine. You’re bringing the clutch up in a low gear when the engine revs are well below the level required for the speed. This will stress the clutch and the engine. If you do it harshly enough you can even skid the driving wheels on rear-drive cars. It’s also not particularly smooth – imagine driving at 80 in sixth, dipping the clutch, selecting second and just bringing the clutch up. Ouch. You’re doing a version of this when you use this technique.

So, what is the right way to downshift a manual for a corner?

The perfect way to change gears downwards is the racing change, or heel’n’toe shifting. Let’s go back to cruising in sixth as before, and you start braking. As you brake with the ball of your right foot on the brake pedal you pivot your foot onto the accelerator pedal, blip the throttle to the appropriate point for the lower gear and at the same time select that lower gear. Then you pivot your foot back finish braking, nice and smooth, take your corner and accelerate. Your right foot has never left the brake, but you’ve managed to rev-match at the same time. Some manual cars have an automatic blip function to handle this and that works very well…but denies the driver the pleasure of executing the perfect downchange.

Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with this approach. First, it’s only feasible with sportscars that have pedals close together, and you really need to be wearing tight-fitting shoes. You also need to be braking quite heavily so the brake pedal is level with the accelerator. Sure, the highly skilled driver will be able to work around all of those problems but I’d still like to see someone heel’n’toe while braking gently in high heels – if any readers can actually do this please write in, I’d volunteer to try on behalf of the readership but I don’t own a set of heels. And regardless of footwear the entire technique is a lot of hard work which takes most people years to perfect. But when you do get it right it’s a sweet, sweet feeling and makes driving a manual so worthwhile and rewarding. In short, it’s not a technique suited to the road and it’s best left to the racetrack.

OK, enough. I’ve spent the entire article explaining how not to downshift, so I’d best explain how to actually do it.

The answer, like most driving situations, is to have a range of techniques at your disposal including all the ones mentioned above which you’ll use depending on the situation – the traffic, the road, the vehicle, your skills and even your mood. Sorry, but every driving technique article will end this way because that’s the way driving is, lots of situations that are in their own way unique so there’s few hard and fast rules.  You need to be sensitive to the situation and reach into your bag of tricks and pull out the best one for the moment.

Here’s one way you might change down and then slow.  Let’s say you’re in fourth, cruising at 60, and there’s a roundabout coming up you’re going to take in third. You may well downshift to third without using the brakes (but being careful to rev match), then let the speed fall away as you approach the roundabout in the lower gear. You wouldn’t want to take this to extremes and slow down from say 80 to 20km/h by using second gear, but it’s fine for small speed changes.

But in general, the “right” way on the road is the slow-down-then-change method and that’s the one you should use whenever you can.

But if you must change down while braking (and not use heel’n’toe), then do it right. First, leave your gearchange late so you complete it just before you begin to turn the corner, but you have both hands back on the wheel just before you start turning. Leaving it late means the car has got closer to the ideal speed for the lower gear. Second, slowly bring the clutch up to allow the engine to speed up. This reduces stress on the transmission, is smoother, and reduces the chances of rear-wheel lockup. Third, try one gear higher – modern cars are surprisingly good at using higher gears than the cars of five, ten or fifteen years ago. The lower the gear you change into the greater the stress on the vehicle, and in turn the passengers. And that’s a big part of what good driving is about.

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7 years ago

WTF… since when is it acceptable to go straight from 6th to second? Slowing down and changing down is a continual process – 6th, 5th fourth, third then second. By allowing the vehicle to slow incrementally there is minimal strain on the transmission, you will always be in the correct gear for a given speed and in complete control of the vehicle. Use of heel/toe braking is absurd for general day to day driving and beyond the capabilities of your average motorist. Ask a racing car driver if he (or she) skips several gears before entering a hairpin corner or chicane, they always change down sequentially.

7 years ago
Reply to  Dumbfounded...

Modern racing drivers go sequentially because that’s what their gearbox has to do, it’s push/pull to shift so skip shifting is not possible. They would very rarely skip shift upwards because they want to maximimise acceleration. Modern automatics often skip gears on the downshift too.

Skipping gears on the downshift is possible and many track/race drivers do it. Ask them.

If you read the article carefully you’ll note that h’n’t is not advocated for daily driving. Quote:

“In short, it’s not a technique suited to the road and it’s best left to the racetrack.”

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper