Racing in the rain has always been a divisive topic for many drivers. Many of them consider it a needless risk’ the chances of an expensive accident are too high to even run. Others see it as a gift. The slick surface calls for smoother inputs and the more skilled drivers get to move up through the field despite having a mediocre car. For this reason, the rain is often referred to as “the great equalizer” since power and outright grip have less of an influence on performance.
To make the most of a wet day, many things need to be taken into consideration. From a driver’s standpoint, the inputs need to be made with discretion and plenty of finesse. Certain parts of the track, which might be fantastically supportive in the dry, become completely worthless on a damp circuit. Setup also plays a huge role, as the suspension needs to be changed to make the car as forgiving as possible. Before one thinks of changing sway bars or adjusting wing angle, they must consider how to turn the wheel on a slick surface.
With the reduced amount of grip, every brutal or ragged input is immediately punished, so smoothness is paramount. As some more poetic drivers have said, “depress the throttle as if there’s an egg under your foot.”
While the braking technique should still employ a firm initial push, the overall level of grip is lower, so the pressure ought to be slightly lighter and, if possible, applied later. Because wet weather tires tend to reach their limit sooner and break away less progressively than dry tires, a bit of oversteer is bound to happen on a wet day. While the driver should avoid sliding the car needlessly, when it happens, quick hands are needed to catch the slide. When the car isn’t sliding, steering and throttle application should be as slow and deliberate as possible.
Searching for Grip
The track itself must be approached differently when the heavens open up. The traditional racing line and the “out-in-out” method of cornering often go out the window when it’s wet, or at least, they need a bit of augmentation. The conventional line runs along a space of the track which, having been covered by so may sets of tires, is impregnated with rubber deposits. While this may improve grip in the dry, in the wet this makes for a slippery surface. Braking, for instance, ought to take place one or two car widths inside of the dry line. However, like so many aspects of rain driving, finding the grippiest patch of pavement requires a bit of experimentation and the ideal line might be completely on the inside, or if the road is crowned, somewhere in the middle.
At times, the braking point ought to be extended well-past the traditional turn-in point, so instead of taking a smooth arc through the curve, the astute driver will sharpen their line in the rain. This is often called “squaring the corner” and is a simple way to avoid time-sapping slides. In effect, this approach “lengthens” the straightaways and “shortens” the corner itself. Since lateral grip is diminished somewhat more than the longitudinal grip, spending as little time turning as possible is the most practical way to go quickly in the wet.
There are several portions of the track which need to be given special consideration during a deluge. For one, the curbs need to be avoided at all costs – their painted surface makes them very slick. Standing water needs to be avoided like the plague, since no amount of driving talent can save you from aquaplaning. Taking a corner in a higher gear often means more stability since wheelspin is less likely. Finally, banked corners tend to collect moisture at the bottom, so the most grip is found higher up.
Compliance and Drivability
Since grip is reduced, the emphasis should be put on drivability instead of outright performance. Softer springs at all four corners will allow for more roll and a wider window; a more progressive transition from grip to slip. The sway bars ought to be disconnected if the surface is damp enough, or at least softened. Diminished braking capability at the front calls for the bias to be shifted to the rear to avoid front lockup. In addition, the amount of negative camber should be reduced to allow for more turn-in grip and greater stability under braking.
If there is one rule for handling balances in the rain, it is that understeer must be avoided. Understeer is time-sapping at best, but in the rain it tends to result in the car plowing off-course. Thought it may not seem it, the safer and more manageable setup edges towards a workable amount of oversteer; any driver who shines in the wet is no stranger to opposite lock.
Where setup becomes tricky is when aerodynamics are involved. Since speeds are reduced and drag less of a concern, downforce should be increased at both ends by altering the rake and increasing wing angles. This helps push the car into the ground and brings up the tire temperature – a real chore in the wet. However, in order to reap the benefits from these aerodynamic changes, a stable platform is necessary. When we soften the springs to allow for more roll and dive, the platform’s stability is diminished and the wings less effective. This is where consideration must be given to making the best compromise between mechanical grip and aerodynamic grip. Having an effective setup and good understanding of wet weather technique is most important, but tantamount to these is the ability to deal with limited visibility.
Lack of Visibility
Any experienced driver will attest to the fact that the real danger of driving in the rain is not the reduction of grip, but the lack of visibility. With open-wheel cars especially, the spray from the tires is blinding and often one cannot detect he or she is near a competitor until they are just a few feet from their car. For this reason, anyone who gains pole position and has a clear track ahead of them is going to stretch a huge lead.
There are a few products which can improve your vision. Using Rain-X on your windshield or your visor keeps raindrops from sticking and obscuring your sight. Failing that, a bit of shaving cream applied to the glass and wiped away makes for a similarly slick surface. Cracking your visor slightly can help prevent fogging in cold weather, and if you must wipe the visor clean, make sure your gloves aren’t soiled with oil or dirt.
While ensuring visibility makes the biggest difference in a driver’s confidence, the understanding of wet weather-cornering, an ability to improvise and test new lines and most importantly, a sensitive-yet-assertive touch are needed to excel in these sorts of situations. While racing is always a mental game, the challenging conditions presented by the rain reduce any sort of car advantage and pay dividends to the confident, knowledgeable driver who relishes walking along the cliff’s edge.