Driver training, noughts and crosses, and chess

How do you improve a skill that’s impossible to perfect…why driver training is more like chess than noughts and crosses.

THERE IS NO noughts and crosses championship, but there is a chess championship. That’s because noughts and crosses is a simple game. Once you figure out the concepts, every game between two players will always end in a draw. This is because each and every permutation of the few moves has been figured out, so the game is classed as ‘solved’.

That’s unlike chess, which hasn’t been solved. Chess-playing computers can’t, and don’t precompute every possible move, they use sophisticated algorithims to figure out a set of probable moves at any given point, and then figure out which is likely to be best. Humans arrive at a similar result, but rely more on intuition.

Chess remains interesting because it has not been solved, so perfection cannot be reached. And that’s similar to driving. No matter what discipline of driving you tackle – road, truck, 4×4, trailer, racetrack, drifting, fuel economy – it’s always possible to do that little bit better, especially because driving is a dynamically changing environment. At least with chess there’s a finite number of moves and the chessboard remains the same from game to game.

But with all that complexity, how do you improve your driving? It’s a cliche that practice makes perfect, and while there is some truth in that but it’s a misleading concept.

Constantly practicing something will make you perfect at the skill, but will that skill be the one you need to get the result? Imagine a cricket bowler who spends his entire life perfecting the skill of bowling underarm, becoming the world’s best underarm bowler. Then the bowler discovers overarm bowling, and with it a new dimension of capability is opened up. Practice only makes for a near-perfect result if your technique is right to begin with.

And even if your technique is right, you’ll need a coach to fine-tune what you’re doing with a clear, dispassionate eye. It’s interesting that every top-line athlete has a coach focused on their technique – golf, tennis, AFL, running – you name it. Yet there’s one sport where coaches are rare, and that’s driving. Even when coaches are used their value is deemed to be in proportion to their number of race wins – yet the naturally talented often don’t make good coaches, as proven by many top-level coaches in other sports that have not been individually successful competitors in their own right.

The fact is that no matter how talented you are, you can’t achieve your version of perfection in something like chess or driving that hasn’t been solved, so you need coaching. Particularly if that ‘something’ is inherently dangerous, like driving cars at speed on racetracks where mistakes can be costly if not deadly.

And so it was that I turned up to Phillip Island do some driver training as a student. Last time I was at the Island I was the one delivering the training, but like I said, there’s always room for improvement and I think it a good idea to have your skills checked regularly to ensure no bad habits have crept in, and to have an expert pick up things you can’t.

It’s interesting that in aviation this sort of checking, cross-checking and professional development never stops yet in the world of motoring it’s assumed that once qualified that makes you an unquestioned demi-god who never needs to (im)prove your skills again for you have learned it all. And as an aside, I also think it’s really healthy for instructors act as students because after teaching for a while you tend to forget the perspective of the student.

So out we went onto the track, and I had my driving analysed by Dean Sammut of Evolve, a guy who’s spent more than 15 years doing exactly this job. And so I was happy but not overly surprised to receive a report card that said all the basics were in place, which really I’d been acting on the results of previous instruction and all my reading on racetrack theory had paid off.

However, there were four corners I needed to work on. The first was Turn 2 where I was using a bit more track between apexes than I should, and going too hard on the brakes. Also, I was making Turn 6 more of a V than it should be, should be more of a U. And my entry to Turn 8 was a bit wide, and the exit from Turn 10 was a bit wide too.

The explanations for all of the improvements were discussed, and that’s where all that theory I’d been reading helped. If you’re given instruction it’s far more effective if you understand why and how it’ll help as opposed to just following instructions with no real understanding. It also helps a great deal if you already understand the concepts and language used, so then you can devote more brainpower to understanding your specific improvement programme.

Out I went onto the track again and, initially, things got worse. I ran wide in Turn 2, missing the second apex by a couple of metres. And I was too slow into Turn 8. The result was my laptimes suffered, so, the coaching had made me worse.

But that’s entirely to be expected. You can get good results doing something the wrong way, and so when you change technique you’ll initially suffer before getting back to where you were, then reaching a new level. But that change takes time and effort, and of course people are naturally reluctant to change what works well for them already. This is why it’s important for instructors to build initial credibility so the student is willing to take the risk of putting the effort in to get their result.

Anyway, my Turn 2 problem was too much of a V shape, over-emphasis of the double-apex technique, and trailbraking too hard so I didn’t leave enough traction for turning. As I was aiming for the centre of the track this wasn’t too much of a problem, but with the tighter, faster line I had to brake earlier and use more traction for turning. That took a few laps, but when I got it the exit of the corner was better, and I spent less time in the corner itself so a double win.

I could go over the other corners in a similar manner, but the point is that I had an expert look at what I was doing, give clear advice that worked, I applied myself to the advice using my existing base of knowledge, and got the result.

That may have been on a racetrack, but it’s just as valid for any other type of driving you care to mention. Every so often I do road-driver courses too, even though I’ve had a license for decades and have lots of experience driving in many different countries.

Driver training. It’s what we all need, time after time, no matter how good we’re not.

Question: Anyone know which corner the title photo features?

Further reading

“It’s the end of a crisp autumn day with sunlight glinting through the trees onto the racetrack. There’s no other cars in sight.

It’s when you can lose yourself in the drive, the worries of the world disappear and all that matters is the next apex. All you can hear is the revs building and the tyres talking. All you can feel is the kerbs, the steering and the forces as you ease the car left and right.

Your world is telescoped into driving purity. Just you, the track and your car.”

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper