Even the absolute best drivers can sometimes need help. There are many excuses for why not to get a coach, but no excuse to not learn from what a coach can teach.
If coaches were unnecessary, hockey teams would be just a group of teenagers or twenty-somethings slamming each other into the ice. Coaches within sports provide guidance and some semblance of order. They tell the team vital information. They give pep-talks. They setup game plans and they coach (etymology/wordsake at work) players to be the best that they can be. Why is racing treated any differently?
In my years as a track day coach/racing instructor/crew chief, I've heard lots of excuses for not getting some outside assistance. The most common one I have found, is usually some arrogance mixed with anxiety. Everyone loves to think that because they passed an Audi RS6 at their favourite track, they're the greatest driver ever. That driver might be in a purpose-built, racing-prepped Honda S2000 or such, but it doesn't matter; they passed a car with much more power and so they're the greatest driver. Meanwhile, the Audi RS6 driver is actually out at his first track day ever and he's only using 30% throttle and missing every apex. The slightly more experienced S2000 driver has no other reference point, except his prey in the Audi RS6. Nevermind the idea that an S2000 on R-comp tires or even racing slicks has much faster cornering speeds, no, that's unimportant. Nevermind the colossal size and weight difference and the difference in experience, the S2000 driver is proud of overtaking his prey because that proves his manliness.
Within that last example, the S2000 driver is ten seconds off of the pace of what is possible in his S2000. The Audi RS6 is 20 seconds off of the pace of what is possible in his Audi RS6 - it's his first track day and his primary focus is not crashing his expensive, unprepared daily driven Audi. The S2000 driver, though, thinks that he has absolutely maximized the potential of his car because of his prowess in overtaking "perceived-faster cars."
The Audi RS6 driver knows that he has room to improve. For months he practices, now, to improve. The RS6 driver hires a driver coach. He returns and drops 15 seconds off of his lap times now. Suddenly the S2000 driver gets passed by the RS6. He asks the RS6 driver which part of his car was different from last time. The RS6 driver looks bewildered. "What do you mean?" he asks, out of complete confusion.
"Well, it's just that, last time you and I were on track together, you were so slow! Now you're so much faster. How are you going faster?"
"Well, I hired a driver coach. The car is still the same, except I had to change the brake pads and brake fluid to keep my braking performance more consistent. My coach told me that braking is the key to getting a good lap time in an RS6 and taught me how to do it. He also mentioned that my brakes were inconsistent and that a lot of my anxiety in going faster were due to the underwhelming budget pads I had installed on the car. Now I changed my brake pads and my driving style. That's all I changed."
Sadly, however, the S2000 driver just hears "brake pads" and thinks that this was the entire solution. It wasn't. His S2000 - his pride and joy track toy - is very well prepared with years of testing. Whenever S2000 driver wants to go faster, he looks at the car. He spends thousands of dollars a year on tires and puts in a lot of effort to keep up with the latest tire trends. The S2000 driver is missing the biggest difference in the equation. The S2000 driver doesn't know that his grip is not perfectly linear, and that at higher speeds, he has less grip, so in lower speed corners he can push a little harder without losing grip. He's missing a lot of time. He's still missing 10 seconds per lap off of what the car is capable of.
Now, S2000 driver retires from racing. He sells his S2000 to a young hot-shoe who wants to use the car for time trial. Suddenly the S2000 is 9 or 10 seconds faster without even a single change to the setup. The young hot-shoe praises the car's setup and incredible performance. Suddenly, the retired driver sees the error of his ways.
I've actually seen this situation play out more than I'd like to admit. Okay, maybe it was never that conclusive that the driving was the biggest issue. Maybe the difference was only two or three seconds. Unless you toss rain, dirt, or snow into the equation, most drivers can still get within 6-8 seconds of each other. I've never seen anyone ten seconds off pace first hand. But, I have heard the stories from longer tracks like Germany's Nordschleife or America's VIR, of people being several seconds - or even minutes - slower per lap than the theoretical best lap.
I don't want to self-advertise too much, but, I will toss in some real-life examples that I have experienced first-hand. You see, a very good friend of mine whom I have mentioned several times within Melons' Better Driving content, but never by name, he has been playing sim racing games for several years. He thought that he had absolutely mastered his driving potential within these sim racing games... Until he raced with me and saw what I brought to the table. It was at that same moment that he sat back and listened to me telling him almost everything there is to know about racing. He went from being ~5 seconds per lap slower than me, to now challenging me to go faster... And don't even get me started on that day we went karting together and with my coaching he was able to edge me out by less than a tenth of a second. Okay, okay, I was bump-drafting him because we wanted to set a new track record, so maybe his lap time wouldn't have been faster if I hadn't literally pushed him to go faster. But, as a coach, when you long-term student is now suddenly faster than you, it's a double edged sword of both pride of a job well done and jealousy of knowing that your diamond in the rough is now more polished than you.
Author of the article driving his old car as fast as it would go with his ex-girlfriend in the car at Toronto Motorsports Park, Cayuga. The car experienced brake fade after a single lap, but that single lap was one of the most exhilarating things that she had ever done. Photo of a touge.ca event. Photo by Kevin Kwan.
That's not saying that I'm slow, it's just saying that my student is fast. Very fast. Like, he's absorbing what I'm teaching him so quickly that within a year he has gotten several seconds faster across the board, with better knowledge of suspension tuning and geometry, among other things. He knows that he has a direct line to me at all times, be it via cell phone, Facebook messages, or even emails. If he's got a question, he can ask me and get instant answers. People like him - people who love racing and want to improve their race craft, or people who love cars and want to build better cars - are what inspire me to keep going.
But, here's the thing: some of my students didn't always believe me and didn't always believe that I was faster until I proved it. There's a huge amount of arrogance associated with driving. Everyone thinks they're the best at it. It needs to stop. I'd dare anyone who thinks they're good to try to race against the likes of Pat Richard, "Crazy" Leo Urlichich, or Antoine L'Estage before claiming that they're the best. I'm fast because Crazy Leo taught me, and because I have like 14 years of racing experience. I really want to race Leo on tarmac, which is my specialty, but I will easily cede that he is a far better driver on gravel. I am not brave enough to drive like him on gravel. I'm not the best driver ever; therefore, I chose Leo to be my coach. He taught me a lot and I learned ever more and I got even faster by applying what I already knew to what he taught me.
You're not fast until you've proven that you're faster than a top level driver. This is Rally of the Tall Pines 2014, where Subaru Rally Team Canada was leading until the car rolled with a bad pace note. Rally drivers are a different level from us mere mortals; driving like this on roads that they barely know!
Certainly, if you can afford to, go and hire yourself an internationally acclaimed rally driver to be your coach. Or, if you can't, hit up a less expensive coach. Even I offer my services as a coach, with a far more personalized system and with more time to dedicate to you, and all for less money. Race Lab, Crazy Leo's own business creation is great if you have the time, money and so on. But, some of us are budget limited and so we can't always afford to have him coaching. But - regardless of whomever you choose to go with - coaching is something we can all benefit from. Ask Leo yourself, on his Facebook page, whether he learns from other drivers and whether he ever had a coach or someone to teach him. You know he did. Driving coaches are important.
Andrew Geier is an accomplished automotive enthusiast, with 15 years of automotive experience. At age 22, he created Melons' Better Driving in an effort to make people rethink the automotive world with insightful vision and articles about the future of the automotive culture and all of its subcultures, including motorsports. Seen in the site's background image, examining a road which was torn up by rally cars with his friends, his passion is clearly demonstrated by his excited pose.