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Congrats you found a league! or maybe you just stumbled across this post, either way, I assume that you are finding that learning new tracks every week can be frustrating and even daunting at times. I still can’t be bothered to learn the original Bridge Grand Prix Circuit at Silverstone after spending hours trying to diagnose it years ago. Despite this single oddity I have developed a solid strategy for learning new tracks that I like to call "doing the Goldilocks Methodology".
Disclaimer: I am not a driving coach nor do I hold a pro-license and I’m sure every single sim racer or racing coach will tell you a different method, and hell there may even be a best practice that I am not aware of but this is my method and I am pretty satisfied with it. It should also be noted that this is not an on-track tricks and tips guide, this is simply a methodology that can be applied to learning new tracks.
Are you familiar with Goldilocks and the Three Bears? If not here is the TL;DR: (I am aware that there are multiple versions of this story depending on where you live in the world) Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a story about a young woman that has made a habit of breaking and entering into the home of 3 bears, burglarizing the kitchen for porridge, and ultimately sleeps in all of their beds until she finds the one that is just comfy enough for her (spoiler alert in 3...2...1: it's always the 3rd bed that is the most comfortable). The Goldilocks Methodology is essentially testing out all three beds from the most comfortable to the least comfortable in order to gain an understanding of what I am getting myself into on race day.
Bed Number 1: This Track is just right
Anyone who is an expert at anything will tell you that it is easier to improve good habits than it is to correct bad ones, it should be no different when learning a new track while sim racing. The first time you set out on the new track go ahead and make sure the conditions are perfect, the time of day varies at different tracks such as Le Mans when happy hour is in the morning, and Indy where happy hour is in the late afternoon. Ideally set your conditions to cooler air and track temp and if your sim of choice allows, make sure there is some good rubber on the track. With the perfect setting, you will learn the track as it was designed and it sets the stage for the perfect baseline. For the first few laps ease into it like a Sunday drive by taking it slow and identifying the entry and exit points to each turn, study the braking zones, identify track markers, in simple terms, build a map in your head.
After a few laps start increasing your pace and focus on the racing line, do not worry about your lap time or even if you are getting as much out of the car as your can, just take your time and make sure you are comfortable with all of the turns as it will soon become muscle memory. Once you feel comfortable and you are cruising through the course with smooth movements, it's time to get after it. I like to walk my way into braking zones, each lap brake a bit later into each turn until you start to overshoot (the advantage of sim racing is that this technique doesn’t result in wrecking a $500k race car or dying. Please don't use this tip in the real world). Once you are feeling good start comparing your lap times, how far are you off the pace, and is it up to your satisfaction? (this is where you need to put your pride in check, remember this is a learning exercise, we’re not here to set lap records right now). If you’re feeling good, move on to the next step, if not keeps improving your racing line under optimal conditions.
Bed Number 2: This track is too hot
Now that we have established a baseline by learning and studying the track in optimal conditions it’s time to start adding some adversity. Get on to the track right in the mid-afternoon and make sure it’s nice and hot outside and that the track temp is too hot for your dog to walk on. Starting where you left off the last session, attack the track as if it were under optimal conditions, you will quickly find yourself with no grip and your tires looking like hamburger meat. As you continue, start taking notes about which sections of the track are stressing the car out past its limits, where are you experiencing understeer or oversteer, when are your tires struggling to find grip and when are you experiencing more body roll than you are used to. Once you have identified your problem areas, go ahead and change up your inputs maybe that means breaking earlier and sacrificing entry speed in order to keep the tire temps down through the turn and in return getting more grip on exit to punch it, or maybe you need to employ a tire and fuel-saving strategy of coasting for 50 to 100 yards prior to applying the brakes. None the less, your goal here is to get your times as close to your original baseline as you can while adapting to the conditions. (Once again, I am NOT a driving coach and this is simply what works for me)
Step 3: This track is too cold and maybe even dark
Now regardless of your choice of sim, some tire models are better than others but they all seem to have one thing in common: when the track temp is too cold you may as well be driving on ice. For the 3rd and final step, set those track and air temp to something you might experience when the sun has been down for a few hours, you might even bust out those cat eyes and get out on the track at night. What you’re going to notice is that there is little to no grip under acceleration as well as in the corners. You’re going to have to take a few laps to get some heat into the tires and even then, you’re going to get a butt puckering loss of grip every now and again. This stage is really all about understanding and exercising your own physical restraint on track and adjusting not only your driving style but adapting your mind to unpredictable change.
Like I mentioned before I am NOT a driving coach and I am not promising that the Goldilocks Methodology is going to land you endless podiums but, what I will say is that it may help you partition good habits from bad ones. As we mentioned in our Chess Not Checkers article, it is your responsibility to do all of this in a controlled environment and not to subject others to your learning curve. When learning new tracks the key is to make mistakes now and correct them early which leads to fewer mistakes when it counts.
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