Speed Secrets: How To Best Use A Test Day – Part 1

Features, Racing I By Ross Bentley I November 15, 2016
Okay, you finally have a test day where you’re able to focus just on tuning your car’s handling and your own driving, instead of having the pressure of an event’s practice and qualifying sessions and race. Yes! But how do you make the most it?
That’s the focus of this and next week’s issues, as I personally take on a big topic that I’ve been asked about more than once.
Not everyone reading Speed Secrets Weekly is in a position to be concerned about how to best use a designated test day, but I think that many of the concepts I’ll share apply to practically anyone.
Enjoy! – Ross
I’m going to assume you’re not driving for Roger Penske or the Mercedes F1 team. In fact, I’m going to assume you look at your team manager, engineer, chief mechanic, sponsor, data guru, catering crew, transporter driver, and “gofer” each and every morning when you look in the mirror. Oh, and of course, you’re the highly-paid driver, too.
Test days are used primarily for two different reasons:
1.     Car development
2.     Driver development​​​​​​​
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to include learning a track in the driver development area.
While it’s possible to do both car and driver development at one time, that usually results in a mediocre job of both. Decide up front what your priorities are. Is there more to be gained from developing your car than from developing your driving, or vice versa? Decide which one should be your focus. It’s possible to split the day up, spending half the day on your driving and half on the car. But again, trying to do both at the same time rarely works out.
If you do decide to focus on both car and driver development, then break the day up, and focus on just one for a period of time, and then the other at another time.
Why is it so important to focus on just one area at a time? If you make a change to your driving technique and the car’s setup at the same time, and you go faster (or slower), how do you know which one caused the improvement? That’s why.
Which leads to a key lesson/message: Make one change at a time, whether to your driving, or to the car. While there are some very experienced engineers who can get away with more than one setup change at a time, it’s because they have a very deep understanding of why each change will do what it does, and they’re able to sort out what did what. But even they would prefer to make one change at a time.
Since there are so many variables and details I don’t know about you, your car, or your budget, I won’t be able to cover the details of every single adjustment that you’ll make to your car or to your driving. Instead, I’ll focus on the overall strategy and plan for this coveted testing opportunity, and you’ll have to adapt it to your own situation, based on your financial and time budget.
Let’s start right there: You need a plan! And it needs to be written down, and not just in your head. Preparation is the key to making the most of your test day.
Having said that, one thing I can guarantee is the test day will not go exactly as planned. In fact, you’ll have to adapt during the day as you learn. But if you start with a plan, and stay with it as much as possible, you’ll learn more and your day will be more productive.
And that’s what the test day is all about: learning. So let me state one of the most important factors, something you must keep in mind at all times: It’s just as important to learn what doesn’t work as it is to learn what does work. Many race teams – drivers, engineers, managers, mechanics – get frustrated and discouraged if every single change they make to their car setup, or to their driving technique, doesn’t result in a gain.
So why is it important to learn what doesn’t work? First, many gains happen after something has gone "wrong." If you’ve ever made a mistake with your driving – let’s say, carrying what you thought was too much speed entering a corner – and found out that it actually worked, if even just a little bit (and it needed further fine-tuning), then you know what I’m talking about.
The same is true when tuning the handling of your car. Sometimes you’ll try something, and it doesn’t make the car go faster. But it makes the car do something different, something that you don’t need right now, but something that you might need sometime in the future. If you make note of it, you can use it when you need it.
Second, there will come a time during a race event when you’re struggling with a handling issue. And when that happens, you have to figure out what to change. If you’ve found things that don’t work during your test days, and made note of them, these are things you can eliminate from your thinking – you won’t waste time trying them.
Did you notice something I said twice in the past couple of paragraphs? Making notes. One of the worst things you can do when testing is to not take notes of every change you make. If it requires bringing a volunteer to the test whose only job it is to make note of every single change you make, then do that. A change that improves your car or driving that isn’t written down is likely to be forgotten, which means you’re going to have to learn it again.
What you do with these notes after the test is also important. Making a change that made an improvement, but not knowing why it worked is almost as bad as not finding any improvements. You need to sit down after the test day and think about every change you made, and understand why each one worked, didn’t work, or didn’t have any effect at all. Understanding is a critical part of the process. Often, you don’t have time to fully think through everything at the track, so you need to do that after the day is over.
So, let’s break the test day down into the two areas, driver and car. To make this a little easier to take in all at one time, I’m going to cover the driver this week, then the car next week.
An analogy I often use is this: If football teams practiced the way most race drivers practice, they would show up to a practice session and play a game. But they don’t do that. Instead, they break the game down into discrete skills and practice them with drills – blocking, passing, running, kicking. Only once in a while do they put all of them together to play a scrimmage (and even then, it’s usually just parts of the game). But what most drivers do is go on the track and practice the whole thing, as if they were playing an entire game.
Driver development is all about strategically breaking the act of driving down into discrete skills, and deliberately practicing them. And practicing different things, because if you simply practice the same thing you’ve always done in the past, at best you’ll get more consistent at what you’ve done in the past. But if you want to change a driving technique, you need to practice it differently. Even if you just want to fine-tune what you’ve been doing in the past, you need to practice it in a very deliberate way.
Often, this strategic and deliberate practice is not intuitive or obvious. This is where a good coach can make all the difference in the world, as they will have you practice things that you may never have thought of.
For example, if a driver is late getting to full throttle coming out of a corner, I might have them focus on a smoother and slower brake release. Sometimes that results in the driver being able to get the car turned in and rotated more easily, lining the car up to a better line exiting the corner, and allowing them to squeeze back to full throttle sooner. Without the experience of a good coach, the driver might just try to apply the throttle sooner, without identifying the real core of the problem first (not having the car on the ideal line to exit the corner). At best, this will lead to the driver getting frustrated by the lack of improvement, and even reinforcing the habit of getting to full throttle late. At worst, they will, in frustration, use brute force, and stand on the throttle before the car is lined up right. The result? A big spin, ending the test day early.
It would take the next year’s worth of Speed Secrets Weekly to cover all the specific driving techniques and skills you should work on during a test day. And, well… I’ve covered them in the past articles, books, videos, eCourses, and just about everything else I do. I’m also listing many of them (but not all) in my sidebar article to the right.
What I will cover right now is the approach to driver development.
First, get all the tools you can put together and test. I’m talking about video, data, and even a stopwatch (you may need to convince someone to operate this). You may not have all the tools, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is having a tool, and having to learn to use it during your test day. Preparation is the key.
You might not be able to collect and review all the data (from video and data acquisition system) during your test day, but you should at least collect it.
If you don’t have a data system, no worries. There’s a lot you can do with video, and even just with a stopwatch. Overall lap times are a must to collect (but not get overly focused on while driving), but remember that it’s very possible to make an improvement in an area of your driving that doesn’t show up in your lap times. You could improve a technique or specific corner, and yet track conditions have deteriorated, or you made a mistake somewhere else that cancels out the improvement in lap time.
This is why you need to use segment times. I prefer to set up a segment from just before the braking point for a corner to just before the braking point for the next corner, comparing the time to travel this segment, lap to lap. With a data system, this is easy (again, figure it out and be prepared before going to your test day). Without data, you’re going to have to rely on a person with a stopwatch (and often a person can’t see from the brake point for one corner to the next brake point, so they’ll just have to time as much of that as they can clearly and consistently see), or video.
With video, you can time segments with a stopwatch while replaying the recording. If you’re trying a couple of different approaches to a corner, for example, plan it and give a signal to the video camera by showing one or two fingers (indicating which option you’re using).
When you decide to try different approaches to a specific corner, make sure you give each option a fair chance to prove which is faster. If you drive one option for just two laps, it’s likely that you haven’t actually performed it well. Instead, drive each option enough times to make sure you’ve performed both as best you can.
It’s critical that you keep an open mind throughout your test day. The worst thing you can do is try something that you’ve already made your mind up about whether it will work or not. If you don’t think it will, you’re right.
Test days take discipline. It’s easy to get caught up in just turning laps, getting seat time for the sake of seat time, pounding around lap after lap, but not learning any more. Stick to the script (plan). It’s also easy to get overly focused on lap times.
Huh? “I thought lap times were what’s it’s all about?” you ask. Yes, ultimately that’s the metric when focusing on improving your speed, but it’s not everything. Being able to consistently turn fast laps, rather than just one super-fast one, usually wins more races. Being able to drive fast laps comfortably is also important, as is doing so without abusing your car.
More importantly, you will rarely turn your fastest lap when you’re focused entirely on your lap times.
To sum up:
  • Keep the key messages I’ve mentioned in this article in mind at all times (write them at the top of your Test Plan).
  • Think about, and then write a Test Plan for your development.
  • Prepare – make sure your tools are ready and you know how best to use them.
  • Stay disciplined, focusing on what is most important to practice (chasing lap times are not usually most important).
  • Try different techniques, keeping an open mind and giving each option a serious chance of working.
  • Break your driving up into discrete skills, and work on them, one at a time.
Next week I’ll focus on car development, not as an engineer (that’s not me), but from the driver’s perspective – and from a strategic perspective.  – Ross Bentley 

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