It’s quite easy to start a race full of confidence and aggression, but burn them off mid-way through the race, turning a blazing start into a mediocre finish.
There are different moments when, during a race weekend, managing the tires correctly can reap huge rewards. One of the most important points during the weekend is getting the tires up to ideal temperature early in the qualifying session, so that you have the most time to find your braking points, refine your driving lines, and find the confidence to lean on the car in the corners.
Getting Them Up to Temperature
To maximize your chances at getting pole position, it’s crucial to get all four tires hot early, but that requires a special approach. Many drivers slowly build their pace up in the practice and qualifying sessions by taking the line they would normally take and using the inputs similarly, but that approach, depending on the layout of the circuit, isn’t always the best way to get the tires working.
If a course is primarily composed of left or right-hand corners, the inside tires will sometime struggle to get up to operating temperature if you drive very gingerly. Though the inside rear tire can be heated with a little wheelspin, the inside front is never as willing to join in. To get it to operating temperature, the inside front can be scrubbed by inducing lots of understeer, i.e. turning the wheel aggressively well past the ideal slip angle so that it’s skating across the surface of the road. This heating is best done in conjunction with a brake application, so that the brake heats up; this in turn heats the rim, which then heats the tire throughout the entire carcass, not just the surface.
Staying Quick the Entire Race
Setting quick laps while qualifying is one thing, but ensuring a competitive pace over the course of tens, if not hundreds, of laps is a something else entirely – in fact, it’s much more difficult. Some think preserving the tires late into the race is simply a matter of driving more slowly, but that’s not a complete answer.
Turns out, driving more slowly can reduce the chances of lock-ups, sliding, and wheelspin, but the chances of colliding with another driver are increased if you’re wildly off-pace. The key mistakes to avoid are overdriving: wheelspin, lock-ups, and excessive slip angles.
Again, this is a case of horses for courses. High-speed tracks will typically ask more of the front tires, so understeer ought to be avoided at all costs. While you can brake a little earlier to ask less of the front tires, this isn’t a useful strategy if you’ve got a competitor nipping at your heels.
Instead, the setup side of things should be addressed to ensure decent race pace. For high-speed tracks, a car which is willing to turn and borders on oversteer can run quicker laps over the long haul. This is interesting, since rear stability can provide a faster lap time over one lap. It seems that race setup and qualifying setup differ wildly here.
Similarly, the slower tracks with lots of hairpins ask more of the rear tires over the long haul, so the setup should edge towards understeer, which typically goes hand-in-hand with rear traction. Like the setup dilemma faced on long tracks, having a stubborn front-end will make turning in challenging and almost certainly affects one-lap pace, but is nevertheless the best strategy.
It’s important to note the behavior of the car over the course of the race and how it changes depending on tire wear. Unfortunately, small problems can quickly spiral out of control until you’re completely off the pace and being passed left and right. Therefore, a pinch of foresight, a delicate touch and a double-dose of specific setup expertise are needed to ensure a comfortable start turns into a dominant race.
This is why some of the cleverer drivers spend their time setting the car up for the race weekend days before the race, instead of struggling to stretch their braking points and cornering speeds during Friday practice. Depending on the durability of the tires and the abrasiveness of the track, a race setup is much more important overall, though it always helps to have those tires working for you as soon as possible, since being able to eke out strong lead at the start is a great ace up your sleeve.