What I learned from chasing a V8 Supercar driver
We get a lesson in how to drive properly fast by following ace V8 Supercar driver, Steve Johnson, around Phillip Island.
DRIVING ON A racetrack is dead easy. There’s just one loop of road, with wide corners, no roadsigns, one-way traffic…it’s about the simplest road with corners you can imagine.
But if you want to drive really fast then things become very complicated, very quickly. That’s when you need to understand exactly where the car needs to be on the track, when and how to use the brakes, accelerator and steering – and then you need to all that theory into practice.
It’s far from easy, and entire books have been devoted to the topic. Aside from the adrenaline rush of driving fast, I think much of the attraction of the sport is that the premise is simple – complete a lap as fast as possible – but the execution is so very complex in so many ways, which means it’s hugely rewarding when you get it right. Certainly there must be some reason why so many car enthusiasts trek down to racetracks on weekends and drive as fast and hard as they can.
I should know, because I’m just one of those ‘weekend warrior’ sportscar drivers who enjoys unrestricted driving. Perhaps the only difference with me compared to my fellow drivers is that I’ve made sure to do a lot of driver training, and through my work as a journalist I have the opportunity to drive a huge variety of cars. Such as the 2016-spec Audi RS 6 Performance I’m now sat in, parked behind an RS 5 driven by Steve Johnson, ex-V8 Supercar driver, Bathurst veteran, current Porsche Cup competitor and Audi driver trainer. He’s about to pull out of the pits onto the main straight of Phillip Island, and my brief is to follow him, using his lines.
The idea is to start slow, seeing how I go, then pick up the pace if all looks in order. Specifically, he’s looking for smooth accuracy – hitting apexes not running wide, following his lead and me generally demonstrating I’m likely to return the car to the pits under its own power, not on a flatbed truck. I’ve spent a lot of time on this particular track, so I’m looking forwards to driving a different car and seeing what I can learn.
My RS 6 weighs two tonnes with me on board and is good for a 0-100 time of 3.7 seconds. Steve’s RS 5 does it in 4.5 seconds, and weighs around 1725kg – but with him and his passenger probably only 150kg shy of my car’s weight. Nevertheless, both prove to be quick cars as we gain speed out of pits and head for Turn 1, where we enter much slower than I’m used to. I take the opportunity to play with the car a bit, jabbing the throttle to see how responsive it is, because I’m here to test the car so readers of this site get an idea of what it’s like to drive, how it responds to the right and wrong control inputs. Then we’re into my favourite corner, the double-apex Turn 2, aka the Southern Loop. Steve doesn’t hang back, arrowing to clip the corner on entry, easing the car back out into the centre of the track mid-turn, and then powering out. I’m right with him…so far, so easy. We take Turn 3 flat out, and he brakes early for Honda, Turn 4. I’m not working hard, just enjoying the drive – but also still evaluating the car, making steering inputs that I don’t need to, playing with the gears and the different driving modes. I do this while I can, because I know what’s coming.
Past the kink that is Turn 5 and the next serious corner, Turn 6 – Siberia – is next, a longish left-hander. And then something happens. Steve takes the corner a bit quicker, and I have less time to play around, needing to pay a bit of attention.
The next turn is another kink we take flat out. And then there’s Turn 9, Lukey Heights, a long left-hander up a hill. I’m working harder and harder here, as Steve somehow realises precisely what I’m doing and when, and every corner he takes up the pace just a fraction – slightly later braking, greater speed mid-corner, earlier on the power – I can see exactly what he’s doing through fractional changes in his car’s attitude, and its position relative to mine. My concentration level continues to increase, and by the time we’re halfway through the second lap my limit has been found – I simply cannot drive this car any faster, and I’m 100% focused on the drive. It’s not a question of bravery, I’m happy to go faster. Nor am I concerned about losing control; the RS is easy to handle, especially as all the electronic aids are still on.
The reason I can’t go faster is because I’m running out of grip. I’m braking hard enough for the tyres to squeal, and they continue their protest around the corner. That indicates I’ve found the maximum grip level of the tyre, but it doesn’t follow that the car can go no faster. If my line isn’t optimal then I’m travelling too far (or not far enough), wasting grip with unnecessary direction changes, perhaps not being smooth enough with weight transfer, or myriad other small errors which add up to an overall loss of pace relative to Steve. It’s like when I learned to scuba dive – novices and masters had the same amount of air in their tanks, but the novices used it up far quicker.
Experienced eyes would notice my car is now fractionally sliding, and I’m not always as accurate as I was earlier in the session. Steve notices this, but doesn’t comment until we are back in the pits so it can’t have been too much of a concern.
So where exactly is Steve faster? The short answer is ‘everywhere’, but driving a couple of car lengths behind him is a revelation. He’s more accurate on his lines than I am. I might brake a couple of metres too late, wasting time hauling the big Audi’s nose around. Or I might enter the corner on slightly too tight a line (early apex), maybe by half a metre or so, I pay for my sin, (im)patiently waiting until I can accelerate out of the corner in one smooth movement. If I don’t wait, I’d run wide and commit the cardinal sin of needing to lifting off the throttle when I should be accelerating…there’s no surer way to lose time down the next straight. Steve doesn’t do that, so he’s able to get on the power that fraction earlier.
And it’s just a fraction. More than once I see he’s gone to full throttle, and I know that I won’t be able to do the same until just after the point where he’s applied maximum power, maybe half a car length or so. Importantly, I can see what I’ve done wrong, and I can see it well before it happens, action and consequence laid out like a red mark on an exam paper. Every corner I’m filling my mental notebook with improvements for next time. Without Steve ahead I’d still note the error, but it wouldn’t be as obvious and the magnitude not as clear – it’s a bit like shooting a gun at a target, and seeing your bullet hole was a bit below and to the left of the bullseye instead of just shooting at a tin can on a fence and knowing you missed it.
Sometimes I get the line right, but lack smoothness, there’s a shimmy from the car, which causes me and the electronics to correct the deviation and I’m fractionally, fatally, slowed. That shimmy isn’t the car’s fault, it’s mine for not being smooth enough. Oh, and I suppose I should dig into the race driver’s book of excuses, Chapter 3, Section 4, which says “it was the worn tyres”.
This little exercise has shown again that a big part of driving fast is being consistent. There’s no point getting half the corners inch-perfect and then being hopelessly off on the remainder. Professional drivers are not only quick, but they’re also very consistent, rarely making errors, or when they do, making tiny errors. Actually, what’s happening is that they are very good at anticipating the error and correcting it early enough so the damage is minimised, as opposed to lesser drivers who don’t notice an early turn-in until they are nearly at the apex, or in some cases, beyond. Even at my level, I’ve been following other cars and correctly predicted they would run off the road within a few corners, and when they did the error was apparent very early, often at the exit of the previous corner.
When I do get a corner right, and I mean exactly right to the point where I’m smiling, I’m quicker out than Steve thanks to my extra power. But that just means he raises the bar on the next corner to see if I can match him. It’d be interesting to see how much pace he had left – I’d quite like for him to have driven as fast as he could in an identical car to mine.
So was this valuable? Absolutely, it was a close-up view of what should be done, and how. Steve didn’t say anything on the radio, but he didn’t need to because I had a ocean of information right in front of me – like I was attempting to paint a portrait and had an expert right next to me doing the same thing, demonstrating exactly how the brushstrokes should touch the canvas. However, I’m not sure that same approach would work for complete racetrack novices, who would need to learn the basics of steering, vision, trailbraking and the like before they drive that fast and hard. But once that’s done, and it is covered in Audi’s entry level courses, I can’t think of many more valuable exercises than having your driving technique matched against a template of what may not be perfection, but is a lot closer than the average driver could hope to achieve.
How much faster is fast?
The Phillip Island circuit is 4.445km long. If we take a two minute laptime then that’s an average speed of 133.35km/h.
If the average speed was increased to 134km/h – just 0.65km/h quicker all round – then we get a laptime of 1 minute, 59.42 seconds. Which is over half a second, and in motorsports terms that’s quite a difference. It may be only 0.05 seconds per corner, but it adds up to 22 metres distance. And after five laps the quicker car is nearly three seconds ahead.
Those are the tiny differences that add up in motorsport. A professional is unlikely to be able to drive a car 10-15km/h quicker through a corner than a good amateur, but they don’t need to. Even 1-2km/h, let alone 4 or 5 makes a big difference. Going back to our two-minute laptime, let’s add just 4km/h an hour to our speed, about the same as walking pace. Now we’re averaging 137km/h, and our laptime is much quicker – 1.56.51, some three and a half seconds and that’s a world apart. No professional driver could allow that big a gap to their team mate and hope to keep their job.
As an example, qualifying at a recent Phillip Island V8 Supercars (#32) race there had the pole position on 1.30.753, and the next 18 cars were less than one second slower – equivalent to average speeds of 176.3km/h to 174.5km/h. Last-placed car 25 was 1.32.553, only 1.8 seconds adrift, average speed 172.9km/h. In the 14-lap race, the fastest driver averaged 170.9km/h, second place 170.8, and third 170.7. So if you’re 2-3km/h slower on average…you’re nowhere.
Phillip Island Myths
Phillip Island is universally agreed to be Australia’s finest racetrack, not least because of it’s long, flowing corners. These corners are more complex than a standard squarish circuit with long straights linked by sharp corners, so the fastest line – the exact path you take around the track – is not obvious.
At club level you see lots of different ways to drive the track, and they can’t all be right. So to make sure, I asked Audi’s team of aces about two of the most-discussed corners:
Turn 2 is double apex, not single apex
The basics of a racing line is out-in-out. So on a left-hander, enter from the far right, cut in all the way to the left, exit on the right to create the biggest possible arc and therefore maintain the fastest speed. However, like all simple rules, reality gets in the way and that rule often needs to be broken. There’s many reasons, and two are factors at Turn 2.
Turn 2 follows the high-speed Turn 1. If you take Turn 1 properly fast, which in a roadcar is around 160-180km/h, then you simply won’t be able to get your car all the way over to the right for the entry of Turn 2. You can see this for yourself on the track map – draw the biggest possible arc around Turn 1, then continue that same radius arc to the right of the track and you end up mid-track as you enter Turn 2. Slowing down more for Turn 1 is an option, but then there’s the second factor and that’s exit speed, the prime criterion for most corners.
After Turn 2 there’s a longish flat-out section down past a the Turn 3 to the low-speed Turn 4 (Honda), so exit speed out of Turn 2 is critical. Normally, this would mean sacrificing the entry of Turn 2, but as Turn 2 is so long and fast, it kind of doesn’t matter too much where you enter it, at mid-corner the car will be in the same heading, position and speed anyway. This is distinct from say Turn 6, Siberia, where if you tried to enter it from the centre of the track you couldn’t get the car into the correct exit attitude and speed because there’s not enough corner to do it. Again, if you draw the ideal exit line out of Turn 2, you’ll see you can easily get the car onto it whether you approach from the middle of the track or the far right.
So if you do go very wide on the entry of Turn 2 you’ll compromise your speed through Turn 1, travel a long distance you simply don’t need to, and be no faster on the exit for the run down to Turn 4. Hence the correct line for Turn 2 is about in the middle of the track.
Lukey Heights is a mid-track entry
Much the same applies to Turn 9, Lukey Heights. If you take the Turn 8 kink flat out, then you can’t really get most cars all the way over to the right for the corner. If you try it, then yes your entry speed will be higher…but you’ve travelled extra distance, and had to turn the steering wheel more to get there. The more the steering wheel is turned, the slower you go – just having your foot to the floor doesn’t mean to say the car is moving as fast as it can, as can be proven by experts vs novices on any indoor kart track. And exit speed out of Turn 9 doesn’t apply as there’s the tight Turn 10 right-hander, MG Corner to brake for.
So you’re best off maximising speed through Turn 9, and then keeping more or less close to the kerbs up and over Lukey, making sure you end up on the far left for Turn 10. The exit of Turn 10 also needs to be compromised, otherwise you’ll be too far to the left on exit and that will make Turn 11 more of a turn, and therefore slower which is no fun at all. So like we said, the objective of racetrack driving is simple, but the theory is complex and difficult to execute. That’s the challenge, and that’s why we love it!