As the drivers sit on the starting grid, their eyes fix keenly on the light or the flag marshal, they bite their lips, breathe shallowly and tense their grip around the steering wheel. When that flag finally drops and they engage their clutches, they need to spend most of their focus on getting off the line neatly and without much wheelspin. If they start briskly without too much trouble, they must immediately turn their focus to the impending first corner – a site of pileups, race-deciding overtakes and silly mistakes all the same.
There are several things to consider when approaching the first corner. If the driver has snagged the first few gears cleanly and is approaching the first corner at a good pace, the can look ahead and not worry about defending. Quick starters should try and guess where the right braking point is. Basically, because the driver is used to approaching the first corner at a faster rate, the abbreviated run starting halfway or so down the front straight forces them to guess just where they can brake. This can be complicated if the driver is forced to run off the standard line, where there’s not nearly as much grip.
The inside is the safest side, and never try to overtake around the outside. Fighting a car that’s on the inside line is not much use, since its cold tires, relative deficiency in grip and uncertain braking point means it might lock up. If this happens, it will probably run into anyone trying to pass around the outside. There are some situations which one ought to avoid, no matter how appealing they appear.
Therefore, it pays to drive somewhat conservatively here. Without a definite idea of how much grip there is – a warm-up and/or formation lap can only tell so much – and without a definite braking reference, it’s safer to brake earlier than it is to outrun the first corner. This depends on two aspects, however. If a driver is in the lead, they must approach in one of just a few ways, but a driver caught in the group of cars gathering at the first corner has fewer options.
Let’s take the first scenario. If the driver leads neatly off the line and into the first corner, they get to dictate the pace to some extent. They can brake early and cause the field to bunch, but must be careful not to brake so early that someone can nip by – the leader can brake as late as is comfortable. Braking in the middle of the track is an effective trick at this stage, since no following driver is likely to carry enough speed via a proper out-in-out line to exit much faster.
Conversely, if a driver is caught in the midst of the group, it helps to be considerate of those around them and not weave excessively. The bunching will cause a bottleneck, so it helps to brake a little earlier than imagined, as there’s a chance of running into a rival, ruining your own race and another racer’s, which is no way to make friends. Unfortunately, you’re at the whim of the surrounding racers, and must obey.
After all, a race is long and, with exception of a few very tight tracks, rarely won in the first corner. Give the first few corners some consideration when making a brave move, but if nothing opens up, it’s wise to drive conservatively. Instead, think about Turns 3 and 4, as those are the corners where the drivers begin to brake hard again, and on cold tires, it’s easy to nip by safely. Getting a good run into and through these corners is a bankable approach to gaining a position or two without much risk. Avoid the commotion at the start, and pounce when the pack begins to straighten out and assume a running order.
There is a good way to look at taking a chance, though. It’s one of the best ways to make up ground, but also one of the riskiest. It will help move up five positions in no time, which is hard to do elsewhere. Obviously, this only helps in sprint races; endurance races require more long-term planning. At the fraught start of a race, a cool head helps, but so does an assertive touch – which means a driver can take a risk as easily as play safe. Never dither – act!