That’s Too Close
As with shaving, so goes racing. If you get too close you bleed.
1st in (hopefully) a series of articles about vintage racing techniques.
In this series of articles I am tentatively calling “Vintage Racecraft” I will discuss the techniques I use in vintage racing that are specifically different from those typical in modern racing. Vintage racing has different cars, rules, attitudes, and drivers. So it should not come as a surprise that the driving is different too.
In vintage racing there is no conceptual difference between a $50,000,000 Ferrari GTO, $5,000,000 Bugatti T37, $100,000 Lotus 18, or $15,000 Club FF. The rules apply equally.
I speak specifically of the rule, common across all true vintage racing, that car-to-car contact is strictly verboten.
Vintage racers are not racing for their livelihood. Winning or losing isn’t going to determine their career path. It is racing for fun, nostalgia, vehicle exhibition, and preservation. Attitudes are purely “sportsmanlike”.
Vintage is no less “racing”, but the rules say the racing is different.
Please Note: The above definition does not include the style of events “as seen on TV”, such as a particularly popular one over in England where professional drivers are the norm and car damage is common.
In recent years, I have had the honor of being asked to participate on several Driver Conduct Committees (aka the “DC”). Typically made up of experienced vintage racers that are well respected within the club, the DC are tasked with the unenviable job of debriefing drivers who’ve just been in an accident on track. Those drivers are still in their driving suits, hot, and understandably, very bothered. So the conversation is never a fun one.
When looking for the root cause of car-to-car contact we frequently discover a driver was following closely behind the other car. I won’t say “too closely” because this is racing and everything is relative. Common phrases to come out of this are “I had nowhere to go” and “I didn’t expect him to do that.”
It isn’t the least bit surprising. In fact, it is damn predictable.
Following closely behind another car is natural in racing, but challenging. Decisions need to be made more rapidly and actions completed with greater precision. As it turns out, many drivers can gleefully turn quick and consistent solo laps but completely lose their cool when following another car closely. It may be unkind of me to call them out like this, but that doesn’t change the truth of the statement.
Think of how many times you have heard someone say “I’d rather lead than chase” or “I’d rather follow than have someone right on my tail”. Clearly these drivers realize that their driving is affected, one way or another, by their proximity to competitors.
Look at your own feelings for a moment.
- Are you someone who turns their best laps when running free and in open space on track? That’s most of us.
- Do you gain focus and flow when someone is pressuring you and you need to pull a gap? The best of elite athletes have this.
- Do you “find” speed while chasing down a competitor? Perhaps, but frequently, this becomes the dreaded “Red Mist”.
Multifarious factors affect this situation, and not all of them are attributed to the following driver I so ungraciously called out above. Remember that the leading driver is now under additional pressure too. Pressure can break focus and cause mistakes to be made. In point of fact, the chasing driver is hoping those mistakes are made. But are they ready for them?
Here are two Driver’s Committee incident reports from vintage races this spring. (I’ve summarized the information and the driver names and car numbers have been replaced.)
Incident 1: Driver “A” was having trouble with gear selection both on Thursday and Friday. During the afternoon race he was leading driver “B” and driver “C” onto the front straight out of Turn 11 over the rise. Driver “A” missed the 3-4 upshift and slowed dramatically. Driver “B” braked and swerved to avoid and started to spin at which point he was struck by driver “C” sending driver “B” into the barrier.
Incident 2: Driver “A” was exiting Turn 1 and missed a shift between Turn 1 and 2 and slowed to gain control. Driver “B” braked and attempted to avoid but contacted RF of car “B” to LR of car “A”. Car “A” went off on driver’s right. As driver “B” slowed to try to avoid car “A” he was struck from behind by car “C”.
Don’t pay attention to the commonality of “trouble shifting”. That’s incidental. Instead, keep in mind these simple factors:
- The chasing driver is racing with reduced working space.
- Their field of view is compromised since a large percentage of that view is made up of the ass end of the car ahead.
- The draft (or disturbed air) is causing the chasing car to be faster (or slower) in certain areas.
Whether you intend to make a pass or simply wish to keep pace, adjustments are now necessary. NONE of what I just described is unique to Vintage Racing. But the adjustments you need to make are Vintage Racing specific because in Vintage Racing…
contact of any kind is forbidden.
Vintage Racing rules say “Thou shalt not touch”!
This is because “racing” is not the sole purpose of Vintage. It has a dual purpose, with the other one being to honor the history of the cars through preservation and proper high speed exercise. Different Vintage Racing organizations use different words for that idea. The gist of it is that Vintage Racing doesn’t happen so that someone can win a race. Winning is about the DRIVER. The car doesn’t care and has long since lost any relationship to “Win on Sunday Sell on Monday”. You and I may strive to win whenever we can, because winning is awesome, but it is NOT why Vintage Racing exists!
No, Vintage Racing exists for the CAR. That is because the history that these cars represent is important to memorialize and, in the eyes of some, that is best accomplished when the cars are doing the thing they were designed to do.
No racecar was ever designed to sit still.
We do not honor the cars by cracking them up. So, no touching!
You Need Options
My technique for dealing with this safely is both obvious and illusive. The obvious part is of course…
Allow space! If following closely is causing issues, then don’t do it! Or, to remind you of the Vintage Racing context, don’t follow as closely as you might in a non-vintage race. I’m not talking about a huge difference here. This is a minor adjustment.
Even in modern-car racing, you don’t want to physically push someone off the track if one of you makes a mistake. So you leave a little room. In Vintage, you leave a little more. Enough so that if one of you makes a mistake you don’t end up pushing paint between the two cars.
And yes (or maybe). This may compromise your opportunities to make a competitive pass. However, one must keep in mind that this is Vintage and compromise is written into the rules! “Thou shalt not touch!”
So the effect of that is that if you break that rule and have contact, NO MATTER HOW MINOR, the bare-ass minimum result is:
- Your race is instantly over.
- You have to put on your shame-face, park in the shame-box, and ashamedly meet with the Driver Committee.
That is because the rules (of all the vintage racing organizations that I run with at least) say that after any contact, with anything, you must report to the Black Flag Station on that same lap. Since vintage races are typically 20 to 30 minutes long, there’s no way to recover from that delay. Race over. If that contact is with another car, the rules say you must report to the Driver Committee immediately after the session.
OK. Enough shaming. I hear you asking now “So what is the illusive part?”
Well, to some at least it may seem counterintuitive to back off a bit to improve your competitiveness. It may not feel like you are making the same effort if you aren’t picking your nose with the tailpipe of the car in front. To change your “optimal” driving style to improve your chances of making a pass sounds wrong, but is in fact what you do every time you make a pass. That is racecraft!
Now are you asking “Can I make up what I lost in the compromise?”
This is my suggestion. I consider it to work well, if not equally well, in a car with a power advantage and a car (or driver) with a momentum advantage. I call this “rolling the corner”.
- Corner entry should be far more conservative than on a solo race lap. Brake early, but lighter.
- Corner apex should be faster than on a solo race lap. Get on the gas early.
- Corner exit should be more aggressive than on a solo race lap. Be confident with the throttle pedal from your early application to carry maximum speed up the road.
All the above actions give increased vision and working space but do not compromise lap times. I mean, of course it compromises lap times, but even if you have a pace advantage over the car you are chasing you are still stuck at their pace until your overtaking move is completed. What I mean is that it will not compromise your lap time relative to the car ahead.
Those paying close attention will recognize this as nothing groundbreaking. You’re shouting at me “it’s just the classic slingshot move!”
Yes. It pretty much is.
By the way, this works even better if you sell the opposite to the driver you are chasing. Sell them the idea that you will try to outbrake them into the corner. They’ll either brake later than usual or change their line into the corner to defend. In both cases, it compromises their exit which works in your favor.
Now I hear you saying “Well, that’s a lot of words. Sounds great. But does it really work?”
In the video below I am driving my Dad’s Series 1 Lotus 7 CC. I’m chasing a Series 2 Lotus 7. The Series 2 is a superior car in any case, with more tire and better brakes, but even more so this day because I have a problem with my brakes. The wrong brake shoes are fitted to the car and I only have a fraction of the braking I should. But the other driver doesn’t know that!
We join the action part way though the race, as I accelerate away from the Haybale Chicane. Our cars are fairly even on acceleration and despite my brake problem I have better pace. I have been working on this pass for a couple of laps and have a plan.
Carrying more speed off Panther Hollow Bridge I sell him an outbraking attempt into Westinghouse Fountain corner, but it is all a show. (I still set up for an over-under attempt but he covers that off. I never really expected it to work.) That gets him concerned and he outbrakes himself entering the LongAndNeverEndingLeft. Coming out of the woods and up to the golf course section I move offline to make it look like I am going to try again, but drop back in line quickly. I hope I’ve set the hook firmly enough, as there are no more good spots to bait him before I need to launch my true attempt.
Coming over the Start/Finish line, I drop back a bit (it looks excessive in the video, but felt right at the time) to give myself plenty of room to roll the apex of Turn 1 even if he makes a mistake… Which he does. He brakes too late and misses his apex so he has to overslow and delay getting back on the throttle. I get exactly my desired turn in, apex, and track out and am early to gas with excellent exit speed. All I need to do is move over and go around him on the haul up the wide hill of Panther Hollow Road Straightaway.
Take a look.
NOTE: While the video is linked to begin at the correct point mid-race, it does continue on to the finish. The part important to our topic is over by 12 minute mark.
An exception to this is if you are chasing a car with a significant advantage in the braking zone. In that event, my technique is being applied by default, outside of your control.