Timing is (Nearly) Everything
Or, “Patience young Grasshopper”.
2nd in a series of articles about vintage racing techniques.
In this series of articles I am 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.
Please be patient while I set the scene.
How many time have you watched a race and seen an attempt at a pass that, even from the fence, was obviously ill-timed?
Sure, it may have been the first opportunity, or even the last, but everyone could see it would end in tears.
So maybe, actually, it never was an opportunity? What do you think?
Post a comment about it online. Say something like “doomed from the start” or “in retrospect, not smart”.
Then count the mere minutes before someone types a famous racing driver quote as if it is some sort of deep truth only they grok.
I’ll be shocked if you need two hands.
Never, ever, regurgitate this quote in order to explain yourself. Neither you nor I have even a 10th of the speaker’s raw talent and to use his words in reference to ourselves is just putting a harsh spotlight on that fact.
The quote I wager you will see is Ayrton Senna saying “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you’re no longer a racing driver.”
You can probably guess I am going to take some exception to that. So here it is…
What I typed up there is actually a misquote! It is just a snippet from the full sentence and lacks the context which gives it meaning. If you don’t already know the context, it may not be what you expect.
You may not expect it was a complete lie.
Here is the first part of the context, the title deciding Japanese Grand Prix of 1990:
More of the context is that the quote comes from an interview with Jackie Stewart, (critically) questioning Senna in reference to the event above.
- As you watch this, keep in mind that Stewart is himself a three-time World Champion.
- Remember that by crashing out with Prost, Senna tied Stewart’s world championship tally, but by default.
- Consider that Stewart is universally respected and admired for his sportsmanship in the cockpit. He is known for working passionately for driver safety throughout (and continuing well after) his driving career.
- Know that in 1988, Stewart famously said he believed Prost was a better driver than Senna.
- Realize that a year later, Senna publicly admitted he was lying, explaining with “I said to myself: ‘OK, you try to work cleanly and do the job properly and you get fucked by stupid people. All right, if tomorrow Prost beats me off the line, at the first corner I will go for it, and he better not turn in because he is not going to make it’. And it just happened.”
Senna was stratospherically talented and we are right to be awed by his many displays of brilliance in the car. There is no argument in that. But he was also flawed. When this famous quote was uttered, Senna was being prickly and petulant. His is on camera in front of one of the most respected F1 drivers of all time, defending himself with a lie, and struggling with clinging to the tatters of his own respectability.
So you see, that quote was not Senna being sage, but childish. It was not Senna at his best, but rather at his worst.
In Vintage Racing, We Know the Difference
The whole point of the introduction above is to illustrate that there is no such thing as a gap that you must go for. It simply doesn’t exist; Senna knew that and now so do we.
Instead, there is a time to make your move and you can easily recognize it as Vintage Racing appropriate. In fact, we not only need to recognize the difference, but know it intuitively before we even get in the cockpit.
Here are some easily identifiable characteristics of when it is a gap a Vintage Racer can use, and when it is not. The gap exists if:
- It will still be there when we arrive.
- We have complete control of our car upon our arrival.
- We have margin to account for being wrong about 1 and/or 2.
Lacking any of those three things, there is no gap. This is not your moment. Find another.
A Practical Example of Patience
For example, let us use a situation you will most definitely find yourself in. It is the most typical passing situation in all of racing; Carry greater speed onto the main straight, draft, and outbrake into T1.
Maybe it doesn’t work? For some reason, the gap just isn’t there and knowing “the difference”, you back out.
In this moment, the Vintage Racer must avoid disappointment and frustration. The mindset can’t be “Dang, that didn’t work.” but rather “Why didn’t that work?” and “What might work better?”
Here is a video example of that thought process as it goes through my head.
39th Lime Rock Historic Festival. Formula Ford Feature Race. Battle for 4th position. Stefan Vapaa (me) in the 1969 Macon MR7. Chasing Larry Webster in the 1978 AAR Eagle DGF.
We begin a couple of laps into the race. Having just disposed of a fast but inconsistent driver between us, I catch the Eagle fairly quickly through Uphill and West Bend. But I really close in Downhill and find myself right on the Eagle’s (very svelte) tail rather rapidly.
Initially, this looked like an easy and forgone conclusion type of pass. As you saw, Larry and his Eagle quickly corrected me on that. Despite my closing rate through the apex, once we hit the straight and I pulled out of the draft, I couldn’t even hold onto my overlap!
Checking my frustration, what are my thoughts?
“I am faster through Downhill.”
“Eagle is faster on straight”
“and better into T1.”
“Is there anywhere else I have an advantage?”
I pay attention during the lap and discover I am slower from T1 “Big Bend” to the entrance of T5 “The Uphill”. I gain from T5 through T7 “The Downhill” (final corner). It takes me until The Downhill to make up the ground I lose through the first half of the lap!
I make a plan to employ the “slingshot” move from Vintage Racecraft – Part 1; Make a small adjustment and hang back a little entering Downhill so I can get a bigger run at him.
How does that turn out?
Despite executing on my plan and getting my timing exactly as I planned, I close too rapidly, again. I have to pull out just before shifting into top gear. I don’t even get the fractional overlap I had last time around! The time, or timing, wasn’t quite right.
“Try a bigger gap and roll speed longer before popping out.”
It is a good plan.
Sheesh. It was a good plan!
Either my apex speed was down or his was up because I didn’t see the dramatic closure (at track out) this time. What I did see though, is I finally had a higher top speed and gained on him down the whole straight!
That was something new. The skinny Eagle doesn’t punch much of a hole in the air but I was tucked into whatever little draft it would give.
“His car’s handling is coming in.”
“He is rolling speed in Downhill better.”
“Plan? Be closer than last time and time the pop-out for after the shift to 4th.”
Next lap. Bingo.
Timing is perfect, draft effect is perfect, pop-out at last moment, present car, own corner, eyes up. Go forward.
Conclusion and Final Words
The timing to pull off a pass, especially in a situation where the cars and drivers are well matched, WILL need to be exact. The difference between a gap that exists and one that does not, may be small.
Know when your timing is right. Know when your timing is wrong.
You may need to adapt your plan, and your timing, to changing conditions. Be aware of, and avoid, focusing too much on a single solution based on observations from too many laps prior.
It is ultra-rewarding when you execute on a plan and it actually works! Even greater satisfaction comes when you fabricate your right “moment” where none existed before.
In the interest of full disclosure, if you watch my video to the end, Larry does get me back. I managed to put a fair bit of space between us after I made the pass but when we caught lapped traffic, that space evaporated. Larry made use of my draft and paid me back for the earlier pass. On the final lap, my timing was good and I was able to get alongside but couldn’t get in front before the finish line. “Perfect” wasn’t perfect enough and I came in second best.
I wasn’t disappointed. I was thrilled. I had the utter honor of racing wheel to wheel against a skilled and fair driver in one of the most historic Formula Fords ever built. I couldn’t believe my luck. I gave him a hearty “thumb’s up” after the line and he gave me one back. “Thank you to Larry for knowing what it means to be a Vintage Racer.” THAT my friends, is Vintage Racing. Honor the cars with sportmanship and skill!