Speed Secrets: What the Best Race Drivers Do

Features, Racing I By Ross Bentley I November 30, 2022
Speed Secrets What the Best Race Drivers Do

One of my longest-lasting friendships in racing has been with Jeff Braun. It started when I got hired to drive a World Sports Car in IMSA in 1994, where Jeff was the engineer. Since that time I’ve learned more from Jeff than from just about anyone else… with the possible exception of what I’ve learned by coaching and being friends with Jeff’s son, Colin Braun.

I reached out to both Jeff and Colin to ask, “What do the best drivers do?” Jeff has worked with them; Colin has co-driven with them, raced against them, and is one of them.

Jeff came back first with his random observations, and then Colin added to what he’d written. As Colin said, “When Ross first talked about writing this article for Speed Secrets Weekly, he mentioned a bit of perspective from both my dad and myself. But I have to say after my dad finished his part up first, I really don’t have too much to add to it. This is a really insightful article that everyone can learn from, whether you’re a race mechanic, engineer, data guy, or driver.” Colin’s added observations are in red.

Random Observations: What the Best Race Drivers Do

by Jeff & Colin Braun

I have been very lucky in my forty-five years of professional race engineering to work with some of the very best drivers in the world. Ross asked me to write some random observations on what they do, and why they are the very best. So, that seemed easy: just list what I see them do with training, data, video, and all that, and then others could follow that, do those things, and also become one of the best drivers in the world.

I started to make the list and… it’s useless. When I thought about it, every one of these world class drivers did things differently from the others. There was no exact path to greatness. Some were data hounds, some never looked at it. Some trained like crazy, some almost never. Karting… that’s the answer they must all do that… nope, some do, some never. You get the point. I was struggling to write this because I could not find the common method they all used. Then, thinking about it — while trying to not think about it — it dawned on me.

They all have one thing in common. A deep-rooted desire to be the best, to perfect the craft, to be better than they were the last day, or lap, or corner. They never did it for the money or glory or fame or adulation, they did it because that’s ALL they wanted to do, nothing else mattered to them, that’s all they knew, or ever considered. This often made for dull, or crazy, or strange people, but they don’t care; they just want to be better, so they could win.

So many drivers “think” that I would be talking about them, but 99% of them are NOT really that person. They like the “idea” of being that person, but they are not and don’t really know what it’s like.

You can’t “decide” to be that person. It happens organically and the scary part is no one can stop it or slow it down or knock it out of them. It’s 100 times more than passion and desire. It’s more than obsession or drive. Commitment is not nearly enough to describe it. And that brought me to something written by one of the people who helped me most in racing, Steve Johnson. He thought he found the common thread all the greats had, and he explained it to me like this, many years ago.

“Singularly what sets them apart is an elemental, molecular, overwhelming self-confidence in their abilities. Not a single shred of self-doubt. It simply never occurs to them that they won’t be successful. Do they win all the time? Nope. Does it bother them? Of course. Do they learn something from every combat? No question. Does it affect the way they approach their decision making process? NEVER. They know that their talent, abilities, and work ethic will prevail. They KNOW this… They don’t just say to themselves, ‘Well, I have a good chance here and I can do okay if things go right.’ They say, ‘If I simply execute properly, no one can beat me.” And then they take whatever the situation is, bring whatever resources are required to bear and without hesitation or second guessing, wrestle the situation to the ground and overwhelm it with singular discipline and force of will.”

I think Steve may be onto something here. So how do these people (and I say people not just race car drivers because I think this applies to many more than race car drivers), but let’s stick to that. How do these people get that supreme self-confidence? They have it, but the trick is how to get that. They prepare and prepare and keep preparing until they know no one is better prepared than they are. They think about every aspect of racing and what they do and work to be better in each area. It is not something all of us would want to do or could stand to do. So that’s those guys, maniacs to be sure.

You and I may not be willing, or able, or even desire to be the best in the world at driving race cars, but I’ll bet using some of the things they do, and understanding that you don’t need to do them all, may get us closer, or make the weekends more fun. And I know there is some of that, “I just want to be better every day, lap, corner” attitude in everyone who drives a race car at any level. So let’s look at some random things I have seen these guys do to achieve that remarkable self-confidence. I hope you can pick some that make your racing more fun. If that works, then you may have something over many of the best in the world. You may have more fun racing than they do. Being the best is often just plain hard work and exhausting. As the world class Alpine climber Alex Lowe said, “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun.”

Whew, this is a pretty intense opener, but so true…. I would say for me, I have driven at quite a few different teams and cultures over the years, and the places I feel like have the most success are where more of the team members have this same attitude. This is important for the driver, but equally important throughout the company to really achieve high level success day-in and day-out. And I would add that maybe this mindset and attitude can be a bit hard and tiring when you get going with it, but once you are bought in and see the results, it really doesn’t seem so hard – it just becomes the way to operate. ~ Colin

  1. Prioritizing. This is a big one I see. The best guys know they can’t “do it all.” Data, video, notes, gym workouts, karting, study engineering notes, etc. So, what they do so well is to figure out what’s most important for this next event (race or test or simulator session). It is never the same thing that comes to the top, but they always get it right. This is key. I’d go a step further and add in compartmentalizing, too, with this, during the weekend. So important to be able to separate your thinking on days you are driving and put your focus on the right things. ~ Colin
  2. The best drivers always seem to gravitate to a way of study or learning that suits them best. This is common with everyone; we all learn best in a certain way. But the great drivers can also use any method to learn and improve, and they are open-minded to adjusting and trying things to learn faster.
  3. The greats never think they “got this” and know it all. Just a few weeks, ago I saw a multi-time sports car champion with many 24-hour race wins and years of experience, currently driving at the top of his game, study data from a driver who was quick in small formula cars, but with very limited pro racing. The youngster was not quicker than the pro, but the pro wanted to see what he could learn and took a deep dive into the data, then tried a few things on track. It did not help, but drivers like him never stop trying to get better. Sort of goes with the opening statement. I think the best package is when you have a bit of inner belief of “I got this” coupled with the burning desire to keep improving and getting better. For sure, the know-it-all mentality won’t get you far in this sport at any level! ~ Colin
  4. It always amazes me at how good the great drivers are at building a team around them. I am pretty sure this extends to great business leaders, stick-and-ball athletes, and political leaders, as well.
  5. Most great drivers can coach others really well. They can explain it exactly and describe what they are doing. I think this also relates to the ability of these guys to give good feedback to the engineers because they can describe what they do in simple terms, either to a driver they are coaching or an engineer. I think drivers who can’t do that are in the really, really good group, but never reach great. I’d also say don’t underestimate the impact that coaching someone else can have on your own driving. I know for me, the more I’ve coached folks, the deeper understanding I’ve gained of how to go fast, what works in the car, and how to explain things in a simple way. ~ Colin
  6. If there was one aspect of driving that I think stands out with the great drivers, it’s how they use the brakes. The magic is there. That’s where you see these guys balance the car on the limit of the tire in an area of the lap where things are changing so fast. Weight transfer, aero load changing rapidly, aero balance changing with pitch, usually bumpy corner entries, makes mechanical grip inconsistent. And the great drivers find a way with their brake foot to keep the tires — all four of them — at max grip level through all that. Study Ross’s books and webinars for this! ~ Colin
  7. The great drivers balance risk and reward better than the good drivers. There is a time when it’s okay to risk it and possibly get it wrong and crash. There are other times when that exact same move is the dumbest thing ever. The amazing thing is that the great ones evaluate that risk/reward every corner, not just every lap or session or event. And they almost always get it right. It’s okay to get it wrong, it’s never okay to get it wrong at the wrong time. This is a tough one to find the right balance and it is easy to get wrong! Watch some classic races from the likes of Scott Dixon or Jimmie Johnson — these guys are masters at this! ~ Colin
  8. The greats adapt and adapt again and then adapt some more. It could be heavy fuel, old tires, traffic, low grip, broken car, or lost aero parts. They figure out a way to adapt and get the most from the car. I have seen drivers take a few laps, adapt, and get right back to pole pace lap times, using a completely different style. I have driven with a number of incredible co-drivers over the years. This is very true; I do not think there is only one way to go fast in all corners. Sure, some corners you cannot be too creative, but in others, there are a lot of different ways to find lap time. Comparing my data to others is always fascinating to see the approach and style, sometimes even the lines can be slightly different! ~ Colin
  9. Adapting sort of relates to something that seems obvious, but only the great drivers can do. They drive the car at the limit of the four tires and can adjust the style they use, based on the grip available to them on each tire, in this corner, right now. They feel the grip on all four tires, and then can adjust the brake, steering, clocking of the car, speed of turning the wheel, speed of the feet on the pedals, to not exceed the grip on any one tire, while keeping them all at max grip production. This feel and adjustment happens thousands of times in a corner as they adjust to keep all four tires right at the limit. See the above point to reference how you can change what you might think is the “limit of the four tires” – don’t get stuck on, “Well, I just cannot do that with my car….” Start to think about how you can — line change up, approach change, compromise the entry or exit more depending on the corner, etc. How can you maximize the limit of your four tires?! Feeling the limit is one thing, but creating a new higher limit can be the next level. ~ Colin
  10. The great drivers manage the race or stint. They can drive right at the limit and still understand the race around them. Who has pace on them, who is on better or older tires, who is burning fuel too fast. Then they adjust how they use their car in the specific situation to be ahead at the end. Some of the best strategists in racing are sitting behind the wheel…take note race engineers, you have a fantastic resource there if your driver is one of the greats.

Have fun!

– Jeff & Colin Braun

The Guide to Road Racing: Winding Road Magazine's ultimate guide to getting your start in racing.

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