To make the most of each practice session, you should select one or two specific driving techniques or track segments to concentrate on. Focusing on a specific agenda of items to practice during each event will improve your driving much faster than simply attacking the track with no particular intent to specifically learn something.
There are two approaches to having a specific practice agenda: to practice a single driving technique such as heel-toe downshift the whole session, or to practice all applicable techniques in maximizing your speed through a particular corner or track segment.
Inexperienced drivers should definately practice driving techniques first--even at the expense of going slower. To keep from getting totally bored however, it is not necessary to practice only one technique every session all weekend. Pick two or three techniques and rotate each session.
The most important skill to master first is heel-toe downshifting--it is the key to a smooth and fast corner.
Second, is braking. The smooth and gradual release of the brake pedal during corner entry is an important element to sustaining peak handling balance and maximum grip through the corner.
Next is to work on the line through the corner. Finding the right turn-in, apex, and exit points for each corner. Pick basic 90 degree corners with long straights on each side first so you can practice the classic late apex line.
Next, you can work on the complex corner combinations that require a modified driving line to maximum the speed of the last corner exit.
With these skills well practiced, you can work on being ultra smooth in your steering through corners.
Finally, work on traction sampling -- the ability read and feel the traction limits of the car. On each corner focus on feeling the grip of the tires. Learn how push the car to where it is slipping just a little bit (this is actuallythe point at which the tire has it's highest grip). At the corner exits, learn to apply just enough throttle to to where the tires are about to slip and spin, but don't.
As you practice a specific technique, drive the track slower than normal. This eliminates the need to focus on the speed and limits of the car. If you're practicing heel-toe downshifts, don't enter a corner so fast that you have to overly concentrate on the braking to make sure you make the corner. Go much slower than might be possible, so you can concentrate on the downshift maneuver. The same goes for practicing the racing line, and expanding your visual field. Slow the car down so you can concentrate on the technique, and not staying on the track.
Spend the whole session concentrating on just one technique. If you're starting with heel-toe downshifts, then work on getting that smooth, and don't worry about anything else. When you get the downshift smooth enough that there's no noticeable acceleration or deceleration jerk in the car, you can work on the whole braking phase. Once you've got the feel for limit braking and have the braking release smooth, you can concentrate on optimizing the turn-in and driving line.
Once you've worked on each specific technique, you can put them together to increase your driving speed. Doing this at every corner at first is going to be overwhelming. Start by picking one corner to concentrate on every lap. Work on getting that one corner smooth and fast using all the driving techniques together. Picking one corner per lap gives you time to think before the turn and after the turn and focus on what you need to change for the next lap.
As you get the feel of putting all the techniques together and are familiar with that corner, pick another corner about a half of the track away, and work on two corners per lap. This will give you time between the corners you're concentrating on to relax and think.
Next, work on a series of connected corners so you get used to using the techniques together, and generate a rythm through a track segment. As you develop the feel of a rythm through one segment, focus on another segment half a track away.
Finally, you can work on increasing your speed throughout the whole track. Even after you've become proficient in the basic skills, learning a new track or increasing your speed at a familar track should be done in this segment-oriented approach. By focusing on memorizing your plan for a specific segment each practice session, you'll memorize the whole track much faster than trying to memorize everything on every lap. As you more adept at recognizing the proper driving line through corners, you'll be able to focus on one segement in the first half of a session, and a different segment during the second half.
Anyone can hop in a car and attack a track (and squeal the tires, and spin off, and look like a hot-shot fool). If you really want to learn how to drive your car as fast as it can possibly go around the race track, it takes the self control to learn basic skills, and to "learn to walk before you run." Allow yourself three to four events to work on the basics. You'll be getting faster during this time just like everyone else, but as the hot-dogs peak, you'll have the skills to continue to get faster yet.
The next major thing to practice after getting "faster" is to work on consistency. It's one thing to concentrate well enough to put together a really fast lap once in a while, but it's another to be able to do that fast lap over and over again back to back with only 0.1 or 0.2 seconds difference. The pros can often put together consistent laps within 0.0 or 0.1 seconds. Start with a goal of .5 seconds, and get tighter from there.
A reminder that in every session, something to practice is a light hand grip on the wheel, and smooth shifting. Don't forget to relax your hands and arms, and don't slam the shifter between gears. With all that's going on and the adrenaline rush of being on the track, learning to relax your muscles can be one of the difficult things to master, and must be worked on every time you're on the track.
The first few laps of every session should be used to be sure the car still feels mechanically sound, and to warm up the tires and brakes. Warming up the tires is accomplished simply by driving on them. However, they will not be at their maximum grip level to start, so the car must driven quite a bit slower through the corners than during racing speeds. Warming up the tires typically takes 3 full laps, so take it easy during these laps. The zig zagging you see race cars do on the track is not for warming up the tires, but rather to scrub the tire to get debris off. A more effective method of warming up the tires is to use short acceleration and braking bursts.
Likewise the brakes (especially when using carbon racing pads) need to be warmed up. This should be done gradually. On the first lap, start braking much sooner than normal and don't use as much pedal pressure. On the second lap brake closer to normal race levels, and by the third lap, the brakes should be ready for full race braking. This is done to prevent warping the rotors by shocking them with a sudden heat buildup.
Experienced drivers who have their basic techniques well practiced, should still take the time to focus on sharpening their skills during at least one practice session in a weekend. However, the experienced driver is likely to be ready to work on optimizing track segments right away.
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