Motor racing is a dynamic sport. This means that the driver is constantly encountering new situations, which require him to make different judgment calls on each lap. The number of data points that he has work through over the course of a race can seem overwhelming at times.
Wouldn’t be excellent for the driver to be able to have a way to take in information more easily, and select what information is the most important? It would make each race slightly easier, if I had a crystal ball to tell me what’s coming up and how to prepare for it.
While not being a crystal ball, being skilled at looking ahead up the racetrack provides the driver with the ability to gain a ‘sneak peek into the future’, if only a slight one.
The keys to this skill are preparation and anticipation. The driver must be able to keep his eyes on what is coming up next, not what is happening to him right then. Being able to stay focused enough to tune out the ‘noise’ of the racetrack and anticipate what needs to happen next is one of the skills that define a successful racing driver. (Read more after the bump.)
With so much happening while moving down the track at speed, the racing driver’s brain does not have the ability to keep up with all of the things that are happening every moment in each corner. Trying to react to every little thing in the moment will tire out the brain!
Looking ahead down the track allows the driver to ‘slow the track down’. By looking (and thinking) ahead into the next set of corners that the driver is heading into, it allows his brain more time to take in the information coming at it. The driver can focus on anticipating what will be coming up, before he needs to react.
The end advantage is that the driver is able to provide a more measured response to a given situation, rather than a knee-jerk reaction that he may have to overcompensate for later.
So what does this all mean? Tactically, looking into the corners ahead of where the driver currently is provides him with some strong advantages.
- It allows the driver to prepare himself to where he needs to be to take his ideal path around the track. (Speed)
- It allows the driver to see hazardous events that are unfolding farther down the track and prepare better for them, rather reacting to an accident that is ‘suddenly’ happening front of him. (Safety)
- It allows the driver to set up overtaking and defense opportunities more easily as it is easier to stay in one’s own driving rhythm when he can prepare for what is coming up. (Strategy)
(Noticing a theme?)
If you are looking ahead properly, by the time you arrive at the corner or are ready to overtake an opponent, your brain will be more prepared to execute what you need to do, and you will be able to turn into the corner with more confidence. Looking ahead through corners also helps to smooth out your driving style, as you’re able prepare what inputs you need in advance, rather than just throwing a bunch of lock into each corner at the last minute.
Now with that all being said, looking ahead is only useful if the driver is looking at the right things at the right time. For example, if I’m looking ahead at a billboard off to the side of the track, then I’m not paying attention to the apex. Visual attention is constantly shifting, due to the changing environment occurring ahead of the driver. That’s just racing. Relaxing your vision will help you take more in. Just keep your vision ahead.
As drivers become more experienced on particular tracks, they are able to move certain data points into their subconscious, (i.e.: the direction of the track) and start looking ahead to take in other data points. (i.e.: the positioning of his opponent on the track in relation to his own car). The more experienced racing drivers are actually running the race track in their ‘mind’s eye’, while looking ahead to take in other data points that will affect decision making.
So where do you start, if you want to improve your ability at looking ahead?
The sweet part about this skill is that is easy to practice every day. Believe or not, you practice looking ahead more than you think.
For example when you’re walking through a large group of people, hopefully you’re looking ahead at the spaces between the people, so you know how you can get around them. The same skill applies in a car.
You can practice these skills in your street car at low speeds, as well as in your racing machine. These below suggested steps are defined examples at the very high level, for the sake of the article:
- As you’re heading down a straight-away, look ahead towards the apex that you want place your car on when you turn in. This provides your brain the time to calculate where you need to engage the brakes, release the brakes and turn in, in order to drive your car along that spot.
- As you are passing by the apex, lift your eyes toward the corner exit. This allows your brain the time to plot the ideal route through the exit of the corner and maximize the speed that you have carried in while cornering.
- While exiting, lift your eyes into the next corner. This allows your brain to plan the timing of where and when you need to cross the racetrack and plan your corner entry into the next corner.
By practicing to this rhythm, it will be easier to practice looking ahead. Also having helpful reminders around the cockpit serve to improve performance. Initially, I kept a piece of tape on my windshield (and side mirrors) to help remind me where to keep my eyes when I was driving around town. As long as I could see the tape in my vision, I knew my eyes were far enough up.
I practice this when I’m commuting in traffic as well. By looking ahead, I can see when traffic is slowing down ahead of the cars that are directly in front of me. This way I’m on the brakes, before the driver in front of me makes that ‘panic stop’ because he was not prepared.
This example may be the strongest asset for looking ahead. By seeing what’s coming, I avoid having to ‘panic’ when making a decision. Panic decisions are rarely good ones.
In the case of cars in front of you, you want to be more prepared to react to the driver in front of you, rather than simply reacting to what they are doing. Looking ahead keeps you from being a step behind. If they make a mistake and you are not prepared, you risk making the same mistake.
Remember that looking ahead allows you to ‘slow the track down’, because you are giving your brain more time to make decisions. If you feel like the track is coming up too quickly or your opponents are reacting too fast for you, look farther up the racetrack and start to anticipate what will happen next. Also remember that this is not a fool-proof solution avoid all accidents and pass everyone in a blaze of glory. What looking ahead does is provide you more information to make the most informed choice possible.
With everything you do, the more you practice it, the easier it is to put less energy into doing it. When racing, look ahead to prepare for what’s coming up rather than reacting to what is happening. You’ll be surprised at how much ‘more time’ you feel like you have to prepare when tackling a racetrack, engaging in a battle, and how much easier certain moves feel like they take.
(Note: I will be defining the driver in the masculine tense throughout these articles, only because it makes it easier for me to write. (He, him, etc.) In reality, racing drivers are be both male and female. I actually encourage more women to get on the racetrack and start mixing it up!)