Learning to go fast quickly at any new track is a challenge. So imagine what it would be like to learn the 20.8 KM (12.9 miles) of the Nordschleife circuit at the Nurburgring in a very short amount of time. And your job depended on it.
I haven’t been in that situation. However, I’ve been to the Nurburgring twice now, the first time very briefly, and the second time this past May with a group of fifteen very enthusiastic and fun-loving drivers who were going for their first time. My friend Tom Roberts had put together a trip, and we worked with the team at RSRNurburg – by far the best outfit for the rental of cars, guidance, and instruction at the Nurburgring. Getting to know the people there was one of the highlights for me.
Kostas Sidiras is an instructor, and creates the amazing videos and photos for RSRNurburg. Check out some of his work on their website. After a dozen years of tracking his car in his home country of Greece, Kostas moved to Germany and went to work for RSR four years ago. And as he says, he’s been "dreaming of that perfect Nordschleife lap ever since."
So, I asked Kostas – a guy whose job depended on learning the Ring quickly – what tips he had for drivers learning any circuit. — Ross
When I started to work for RSR, an experienced ‘Ringer told me no matter whether you think you have this place figured out, you need thirty laps to learn all parts and close to one hundred to connect everything and start going really fast. One more specific problem with the ‘Ring, and any tricky high speed track, is you have to be going fast enough to really see some elements come alive and for it come together.
I’m actually quite a slow learner, so I found the above quite true. I’ve seen people go fast with a handful of laps, but that requires two things. First, a very solid driving skills foundation, and second, some good coaching (not the generic kind). But I think that rough "rule" above still stands true for most people.
I’ve also seen people go remarkably fast in their first laps and crash remarkably badly very early on, proving they didn’t really "get it." You need to do the laps, I’d say. No way around that. But having worked with hundreds of drivers at the Ring, Spa, and elsewhere, I’ve learned a few things that pay off when learning a new track.
1) Do your homework.
Attending a track day or racing on a track is something that usually has a high ‘cost-per-km-of-fun’ ratio, so there is no excuse not to put some work in beforehand, preparing yourself for it. From studying a track map to watching a couple of different onboards online, the information available these days is vast. It’s also good to watch onboard videos of cars similar in performance to what you drive, as well as race winning/qualifying runs by professional racers. The speed difference lets you better understand how the track changes the faster you go.
2) Embrace the virtual.
The extra step you can do before even arriving at the track is to attempt a couple of laps in a simulator. With many titles offering laser-scanned versions of real-world tracks, the time spent behind the computer, or the console of your choice isn’t just entertainment. Even if the interpretation of the track isn’t fully accurate, the big difference here is that contrary to watching onboards (that you see someone else doing), here you are actually doing it yourself and you are starting to build some muscle memory on how you drive this specific track. Of course, this knowledge should be separated from real-world, actual miles.
3) Try to get a passenger run before driving.
Although your first instinct upon arriving at the track would be to jump behind the wheel to take a stab at this new challenging riddle that lies ahead…do the exact opposite! Sit in the passenger seat with an experienced local driver, instructor or racer who already has track knowledge will help you tons getting up to speed quicker and safer. Since you are liberated from the piloting duties, you can use all your attention to focus on the actual track and start marking your points. Use your newfound knowledge of the track carefully, however, as you strap yourself into your car.
4) Sacrifice the first couple of laps.
Trying to analyze a new place, locate your visual markers for braking and turn-in points, and still drive at speed can be taxing. Again, although it goes against your initial urge to jump in and have fun, use your first laps to learn the place. Try initially to find the elements that make this track unique. Does it have elevation changes and where? Does it have a specific corner (Nurburgring’s Karussell, Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew, Eau-Rouge at Spa, etc.) that needs a unique approach? What are the corners leading onto big straights? On tracks with characteristic landscapes, locating visual cues is easier. Don’t underestimate how much help they can be on your way to get repeatable performance. It’s possible, on tracks you know very well – driving cars you’re very comfortable with – to stop using your visual cues. However, on a new track, mentally placing markers and moving them around as you learn, will speed up your learning process a lot.
5) When confused, take a step back.
It’s inevitable that you will hit a plateau sooner or later. You are driving what you think is the line as fast as you feel comfortable, and yet, you aren’t getting any faster. This is the time that you should start being a bit more analytical in your approach and split the track into sections. It’s almost mandatory for bigger tracks, but should be done for smaller ones as well. Tackling a big track like the Nurburgring Nordschleife requires breaking the 20km track down into sections before attempting any serious learning. However, even on a smaller scale, a connecting set of corners with an exit to a small straight should be tackled as one complex. Data will help you a lot at this stage, together with some professional coaching or having an instructor with you in the car to accelerate the process.
Bonus Tip! Never stop learning.
It is a given that, as you develop as a driver and as you get faster, you will realize that your perception of any given track will change. A good driver who carries no technique limitations will adjust faster to any new track. In true Speed Secrets fashion, they are driving the car (not the line, after all), so their ability to drive the car very quickly at its limit will get them up to speed, even in unknown terrain. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t tracks that are unique and want a different approach. As we characteristically say for the Nordschleife, it is a completely different track when lapping at nine minutes, a completely different track lapping at eight minutes, and so on (elements that weren’t linked before start to become relevant as speed increases, bumps and jumps appear out of nowhere, etc.). So always keep your eyes, but most importantly your brain, open for new feedback and always be ready to reconsider what you consider the "correct" approach.