I recently had the opportunity to talk to former Top Gear USA Stig Paul Gerrard, author of Optimum Drive: The Road Map to Driving Greatness and he had some interesting insights into what makes a race car driver not only good but great.
If you are not familiar with Paul, he is an accomplished professional racing driver, precision/stunt driver, advanced driving instructor, vehicle evaluator and presenter. His career started in Europe winning a prestigious Winfield Scholarship that lead to successfully racing formula cars in both Europe and the United States. He made the transition into racing sports cars and simultaneously started instructing a wide range of drivers from military special forces to aspiring racers to teen drivers. He then made the move to television appearing on such shows as Top Gear (UK and US editions), MythBusters, Speedmakers, Supercars Exposed, Ultimate Factories and many others and even has the distinction of being ranked third overall for vehicle jumping distance with a very cool Hot Wheels promo stunt in 2010. In the last two decades he has been an accomplished race driving coach for a number of prestigious racing schools and took some time to talk to me about the art and science of driving a race car fast.
What to expect from a driving school
Motorsport Prospects: You have considerable experience as a head instructor with a number of driving schools as well as being yourself a winner of the prestigious Winfield Scholarship. What should a young driver enrolling expect of a good racing school? And more importantly, what kind of a mindset should they possess to maximize the most out of the experience?
Paul Gerrard: Excellent opening question! The mindset you need is absolutely humility. Most people arrive on some level hoping the teaching at the school is actually probably going to be wasted on them because they are “pretty sure” they are the next Aryton Senna. The reality is typically quite different as they find themselves scrambling to learn as reality whacks them over the head and they realize that they are really going to have to work hard for this.
On the practical side having good “footwork” (able to do precise heal and toe downshifts while simultaneously braking hard) and already having done a considerable amount of skid pad work really puts you ahead of the curve at any school.
The mental game
MP: Your book “Optimum Drive” deals a lot with the “all-important mental game” of driving a race car fast. Is it not just enough to be able to understand the mechanics of driving a race car? How does mental conditioning help a driver go fast?
PG: Driving at normal speeds on a road is already very complex and done well by a tiny sliver of the population. Go to a racetrack and multiply the speed and add in the stresses of competition into the equation and it will test the mental limits of any human being. To achieve this level of focus (called flow) you have to really have your house in order, everything must be comfortably accounted for for you to have any hope of reaching a flow state. This requires discipline and crazy levels of motivation just to sit in the car ready to flow. That is why it is achieved by so few. It’s not “natural talent” it is motivation and hard work that triggers flow (and victory!)
MP: To quote you from your blog, “The actual point of great driving is to raise the limit of the car by manipulating its balance therefore the car really has a variable limit depending of the ability of the driver.” How do you teach someone to truly understand this process so that they incorporate that into their driving skill set?
PG: Karting and skidpads and other “paddock” lower speed (lower risk) at limit driving. The goal is not to just be able to recover the car from going over the limit but to actually be really good at detecting and manipulating the limit with deftly timed tiny balance adjustments as you drive.
To really teach someone to understand the car has a variable limit and my the key factors are low speed (relative to an actual racetrack), safe (again relative to an actual race track due to the extra runoff room and the lower speeds…you can’t hit anything no matter how badly you mess up) and lots of time repeating approaching and exceeding the tires limit from every possible angle (too much gas brake steering, too little gas brake steering and too slow gas brake steering so on and so on) until you have ingrained that actual feel of not only the grip of the tires but how you effect and therefore can manipulate the grip of the tires to really find the true limit of the car. This is the basis of the skill of being a car balancer, not just someone who drives up to what they this is a find limit and holds the car there. By being able to continually adjust the balance you aren’t just lock into understeer or oversteer here and there you can balance out the understeer and oversteer (making the car more neutral) which increases the overall grip of the car allowing it to go faster than a driver that can’t do this.
There is so much more to it than this as these concepts are pretty deep and are fully explored in depth in Optimum Drive but in an understandable, comprehensive and meaningful way.
Art vs Science
MP: To quote you as a form of question “How does a driver actually make that leap, the seemingly superhuman transcendence from good to something that could only be described as art?” Is driving really an art or a science? Or both? I mention this because you indicate how a lot of driving books often get bogged down in the math or science of driving. How does this reconcile with being an art?
PG: To the driver it is art, to the engineer it is science. One deals in the feel (subjective) and the other with data (objective), they are of course trying to describe the same exact thing so it is both. Flow is the key yet again, that transcended level when you are so dialed in you lose yourself in the moment, the car seemingly driving itself but it actually is your near perfectly trained subconscious delivering driving at the level of it being able to be considered art.
MP: You say some drivers are better test drivers while others are better race drivers. How do you understand the different needs so that you can excel at both?
PG: Well first of all you should be both the test driver and the race driver. The test driver tries to isolate and eliminate problems and has that luxury because it’s practice or testing whereas the race driver is actually in a race and needs to create workarounds to the problems since it’s too late to be able to fix anything. Bottom line is if you test like a race driver you will have a difficult and probably slow car to race. The test driver needs to be analytical while the race driver needs to efficiently improvise in the moment.
Tires are everything
MP: You mention that the single most important point of focus in racing are tires and you talk a lot about that in Optimum Drive. I think a lot of young drivers may not necessarily understand tire degradation and how it affects their driving. Why are tires such an essential topic to understand and why does it seem that they are the least discussed topic when talking about racecraft?
PG: Tires are everything, to ignore the is to be sentenced to mediocrity. You control the balance (as discussed) and the pace, hopefully you’ve been a good test driver and come up with the most efficient compromise for the race. All of this is centered around the tire and your simple goal of doing the same lap times as the others with slightly less tire wear. The race will come to you and you will win. The problem comes when people prioritize their driving style or the presumed cars needs over the tires’ needs. These people are often frustrated because they never win.
Inside man vs outside man
MP: You reflected that coaching driving gives unique insights into the person you are coaching, in fact revealing the “inside man” versus the “outside man.” And you mention that when you coach you need to observe this “inside man” in order to tailor your coaching to their individual needs. Can you expand on this?
PG: Well, we race car drivers are world renowned for being able to come up with excuses for a poor performance faster than we actually drive. You need to be honest with yourself and your coach since that is the only way real progress can ever be made. Bottom line is don’t believe your own excuses, better still don’t say them in the first place.
The importance of confidence
MP: You talk about the one defining characteristic at the core of any great driver is confidence. How do you build confidence and is this the same kind of confidence outside the car as it is in?
PG: To build confidence you work. Confidence is earned one tiny improvement at a time. Improvements come from rational people who make methodical progress because they develop a (hopefully) efficient process of working through one variable at a time in the complex driving puzzle. No assumptions, no leaps of faith just a plan of methodical progress. As for in the car and out of the car both is better but only in the car is an absolute necessity. If you feel good in the car it will help you feel good out of the car but not necessarily vice-versa.
MP: Finally, you talk about mental preparation but how important is physical preparation in being a great driver?
PG: Modern race cars are very fatiguing, fatigued drivers are super easy to pass no matter how skilled they are. Always aim to be the fittest driver on the grid as it is a crucial element to your all important confidence and you start thinking of a hot race (for an example) being an advantage for you which is a critical mental edge. Notice that the “mental” aspect relies directly on the physical realities. They are inseparable.
You can get more information on Paul and Optimum Drive at https://www.theoptimumdrive.com. This interview is just a taste of the concepts covered in Optimum Drive. I would highly recommend that you order the book and really delve into the details to get the full understanding of the concepts only touched at here. You can also order Optimum Drive through Amazon at the following link: Optimum Drive: The Road Map to Driving Greatness.
A big thank you to Paul for his time and congratulations on the great reviews his book has been getting from within the motorsport industry.