Instead of thinking, “I need to hit the brakes to slow down,” say to yourself, "I need to apply the brakes only just enough to make it through the corner as fast as possible.”
Boris Peharda’s day job may be in product support for Caterpillar, but his accomplishments on the track should not be taken lightly. He is the Motorsports and Track Events Chairperson of the Illini Chapter of the BMW CCA, the lead coach for Hooked on Driving’s Great Lakes Region, a 1994 graduate of the Skip Barber Driving School and has completed both the Porsche Club of America and BMW CCA instructor training programs. Whew! Boris has driven on some of the nation's best tracks, including Laguna Seca and Daytona, but the track nearest and dearest to his heart is Road America in Elkhart Lake Wisconsin. In fact, he and his wife Kelly saw their very first sports car race at Road America. Boris and Kelly have owned many performance cars through the years, including four BMWs. Their current track car is a 2013 Porsche which was acquired via European Delivery. Boris writes for his BMW CCA chapter newsletter, the Roundelian, and offered to allow us to publish his articles. So enjoy this one and keep your eyes out for future articles submitted by Boris.
How to Brake Like a Pro
By Boris Peharda as taught by Shields Bergstrom
The Last Thing?
A very distinguished gentleman by the name of Sir Jackie Stewart once said that proper braking technique is the last thing any driver learns to do well. He went on to say that the reason he was so successful in F1 was because he was able to out-brake his rivals and ease off the brakes slightly better.
If you think about it, even if he were able to brake just a 10th of a second later and enter a corner just 1 mph faster, that would mean he would be 1 mph faster on the straight preceding the corner, 1 mph faster through the corner, 1 mph faster out of the corner, and most importantly, 1 mph faster down the following straight. A 10th of a second, or 1 mph may not seem like much, but on a modern F1 grid, where the top 5 spots are separated by two 100th’s of a second, it means the difference between the pole position and starting near the end of the grid.
It is unlikely that any of us will achieve the success that Sir Jackie Stewart did, or for that matter that any pro driver has, but we can learn from their techniques. For the purpose of our conversation, I have organized this article into three parts: the purpose of the brakes, how to use them properly, and finally, ways to practice proper braking techniques. So let’s get to it!
What Are the Brakes For?
Most people will say they are for stopping the car. That is true for street vehicles: you need to stop for stop signs, lights etc. But on a race track, the primary purpose of the brakes is to adjust the speed and balance for the approaching corner. Sure, you will eventually need to come to a stop for pit stops or at the end of the race, but the rest of the time the brakes are just a tool for the driver to adjust the balance of the chassis, in order to get through the corner at the optimal speed. It may seem counter-intuitive, but that is only because of how we’ve been taught to drive on the street. Our street habits usually result in most drivers on a race track “over-slowing” when approaching corners.
Next time you are on the track, try thinking about the brakes in a different way: Instead of thinking, “I need to hit the brakes to slow down,” say to yourself, "I need to apply the brakes only just enough to make it through the corner as fast as possible.” Changing the way you think while driving on the track has a big influence on how you use the brakes.
How Should the Brakes be Used?
First, the brakes, like the throttle, are not an on-off switch. They require finesse and modulation, just like the throttle. Too much initial pressure and they will lock-up or activate the ABS. Too little pressure and you will slow the car for too great a distance and overheat the brakes, or you’ll enter the turn too fast and miss the apex.
The ideal technique is called the “25-75” method: 25% initial brake pressure, followed by 75% brake pressure to reach the 100% threshold. In other words, when you are approaching the corner and you reach the point where you are easing off the throttle and you need to apply the brakes, the initial pedal pressure should only be 25% of your car’s maximum braking ability. This allows for the initial load transfer to the front wheels. Once the load has begun to transfer to the front wheels, you apply the remaining 75% braking capacity to reach 100% or threshold braking. It is important to note this happens within a half a second. Really exceptional drivers, like Sir Jackie Stewart or Shields Bergstrom, can do this almost imperceptibly while keeping the car balanced, in a few tenths of a second.
Why do it this way? Think about how the car is balanced on a race track. While accelerating, the load is transferred to the rear tires, meaning there is not much load on the front tires. If you were to simply slam on the brakes and immediately go to 100% braking capacity, you will “lock-up”, as the brakes can react faster than the chassis can transfer the load from the rear tires to the front tires. So you, in essence, will beat the load transfer by applying too much braking, too soon. By applying only 25% braking capacity when you initiate the braking, you give the chassis more time to react and to begin transferring load from the rear tires to the front tires. This allows you to achieve maximum braking in a shorter distance, without locking up and upsetting the balance of the car. This is even more critical on bumpy, uneven, or changing surfaces and other adverse track conditions. And this is only the “first half” of the braking process. Easing off the brakes (aka, trail-braking) and turning into the corner is the other half. It is this “second half” that differentiated Sir Jackie Stewart from his competitors.
When I observe my “advanced” students in driving events (DE’s), I can’t help but notice their biggest challenge is easing off the brakes. Time and time again they ease off too quickly, unload the front tires, and upset the chassis balance, resulting in a poor transition. If they are driving anywhere near the limit, their car will understeer at turn-in, going wide at the apex, as well as the exit of the corner. This results in a slow exit onto the next straight, or worse yet, results in an off the track situation. When I ask them to tell me what they think they are doing incorrectly, I usually hear that they need stickier tires, more negative camber in the front, etc. Very few admit they need to learn how to trail brake.
Brake Pedal Modulation
Modulating the brake pedal, especially easing off the brakes as you begin to turn into the corner (aka trail-braking), is a difficult skill to master and one I spend most time practicing at DEs. Why? Because it is the skill that pays the biggest dividends in racing. Like most skills, the only realistic way to master brake modulation is through practice.
Let’s break it down, piece by piece, then we will put it all back together when we are on the track practicing. Under ideal conditions, as you approach a corner, apply the brakes (25-75), reach the threshold, begin to trail off as you start the turn-in, finish trailing off and apply the throttle (25-75) as you accelerate through the apex and out of the corner onto the next straight. Under “real-world” conditions, with pavement changes, traffic and mistakes, this is not always possible. A typical mistake is misjudging when and how much to apply the brakes. This usually leads to the drivers applying too much initial pressure, then reducing pressure, then getting back on the brakes. This will certainly cost them a tenth of a second, or more, per corner, depending on how big a mistake is made and how much they unbalance the car. Over-slowing also causes the drivers to compensate for their poor braking performance by having to make additional steering, throttle and brake inputs. This often results in overheated brakes and tires, sometimes worn pads and warped rotors, and occasionally, an early end to their DE or race weekend. How many times have you heard “smooth is fast?” Always remember this applies not only to the throttle and steering inputs, but to braking as well.
Rethink Your Reference Points
I have found that the best way to combat the scourge of “on-again-off-again braking” is by using better reference points. Instead of using a reference point for when I should get on the brakes, I prefer to use a reference point at which I should be done braking. This is the “brake off” reference point. I find it much more accurate and consistent than the “brake-on” reference, especially in racing.
Let’s use Road America’s front straight and turn 1 as an example to illustrate this concept. You have a perfect line through turn 14 and are accelerating strong up the front straight in your GT3 RS, traveling at 150 mph by the time you reach the “5 marker” at turn 1. The 5 marker is your “brake-on” reference point. You brake from marker 5 to marker 1, then turn in at “1 marker” and accelerate out of the turn. The next lap you turn in too early at turn 14, have a poor exit onto the front straight, and as a result you are traveling at only 140 mph going into turn 1. As before, you reach the “5 marker” and apply the brakes, but because you were traveling 10 mph slower, you over slow the car, because as your muscle memory from the previous lap caused you to apply the same pedal pressure as before. This mistake then upsets your rhythm, and may cause you to make additional mistakes before you regain your focus.
If you take the “brake-on” reference point (5 marker) out of the picture, and focus on the point at which you should be done with your braking (1 marker), you will lessen the impact of the mistake from the previous corner and become much more consistent in your braking. This too will take lot of practice, especially if you have been using the brake-on reference points thus far. However, once you get the hang of it and become more consistent (and ultimately faster), you will wish you had been using the “brake-off” reference points from the beginning. If you start racing, you will find that many times, “brake-off” reference points are the only ones available to you since the “brake-on reference points” are blocked from your view by the cars your are overtaking.
Like “trail-braking,” “heel-toe” and other advanced driving techniques, “brake-off reference point braking” was not developed in the classroom or by some engineer in a lab, it was arrived at by racers, simply out of necessity. I am trying to save you the pain and agony of having to learn it the hard way, or just never learning it at all and wondering why others are several seconds a lap faster than you in the same car.
Left Foot Braking
YES, use left foot braking, or, if you ever decide to race, learn how to use it. At Road America, there are 4 turns at which you need to brake/adjust speed without changing gears. These are ideal for left foot braking, as this technique speeds up the transition from the throttle to the brake and back to the throttle again. It totally eliminates “coasting” which is the time when your right foot is on neither the brake, nor the throttle. If you drive a car with PDK, SMG, DCT or F1 gearbox, you should already be left-foot braking. If you have driven a racing cart, you already used this techniques, out of necessity. If your daily driver has only two pedals, start to develop braking feel in your left foot when approaching stop lights. Alternatively, go drive some racing carts.
What are some ways of practicing right-foot braking techniques? Well renting a track and having it to yourself for a day would be the best, but you can practice when you are driving on the street as well. For example, when you approach a stop light alone, look for a point at which the car will come to rest (usually there is a white line there) and practice braking to that line using single pedal movement and consistent pressure. This will help you with distance judging and pedal feel. If you have access to a large, empty, parking lot, practice the 25-75 method there. Then drive in a circle and apply the brakes with varying amounts of pedal pressure and note how it affects the car, including the direction of travel. It is common knowledge among race drivers that brakes and throttle have a larger impact on their lap times than the steering wheel. Get comfortable with your car’s brakes and the “brake-off reference point braking” before you get to the track. You will be much quicker than drivers who believe the only ways to attain faster lap times are more powerful engines and/or more expensive track cars, or racers who believe only “cheaters” can beat them in a race.
So there you go, braking in 2,000 words. Proper braking technique is the last thing I learned and is likely going to be the last thing you will learn to do properly as well. Yes, it will take a lot of time and practice to fully develop proper braking skills, but that is just another reason to go to the track, one of your favorite ways to spend time. Don’t worry… there is no final exam and no shame in making mistakes as you learn and practice.