Thinking fast

Thinking fast

If there were a Venn diagram for the challenge that racecar drivers and teams face to maximize their collective performance, it would be comprised of two circles. One would be car setup. The other would be driver skill. The intersection of the two could be called “the thinking zone,” the point where engineering and talent meld in search of the ultimate lap time. And for AIM Vasser Sullivan Racing drivers Frankie Montecalvo and Townsend Bell, that thinking zone starts before they even climb inside their Lexus RC F GT3 racecar.

The benefit of two drivers sharing the same racecar is the ability to learn from each other to find the optimal line.

Through every turn on a race track, precious time and speed can be found, but they can also be lost. At the limit, there’s little tolerance for mistakes, and the more demanding a sequence of turns, the more there is to lose – or gain.

One example is the run between Turn 1 and Turn 4 at Virginia International Raceway.Turn 1 traces a long arc to the right until Turn 2 changes the direction and leads into a tightening left-hand Turn 3, before a final and abrupt change of direction back to the right at Turn 4b. To be quick through here requires impeccable timing and restraint.

Too much too early will force the driver into damage control mode over the rest of the sequence, virtually wasting the whole lap since it’s followed by a long, fast section.

“Getting that set of corners right is the key to a good lap at VIR,” Montecalvo explains. “Once I’ve had a session on track in the RC F and analyzed the data, then I’ll start to visualize how I implement what the data is telling me so I can achieve the target time on track.

“When I’m trying to think my way fast, I start at the brake zone, visualizing not just when I brake, but when I spike the brake and then release the pressure and transition to power. It’s not just about when to get on the power, but how much to feed in – especially coming out of Turn 1 and into Turn 2. The more laps you can turn in your head, the more it becomes muscle memory so that when you’re in the racecar, there’s no need to think. It’s just happening.

“We’re so spoiled with data because we can see the theoretical target time for each part of the track,” he adds. “So you almost know what’s possible, but the reality is that things like traffic or tire wear are never ideal enough to hit it. The data analysis and the visualization that we do before the session is what enables us to find the limit every lap.”

We’ve all seen images of racecar drivers, eyes closed, hands reaching out to turn an invisible steering wheel while they drive the track in their mind’s eye. As Frankie Montecalvo notes, active visualization between track sessions can be key to maximizing his performance in the No. 12 Lexus RC F GT3 racecar. But even before he gets to the race track, Montecalvo’s teammate, Townsend Bell, uses a driving simulator to get in the groove.

“Simulators are really the new visualization technique,” says Bell. “I’ve only started using one regularly this year, and the benefits are huge.

“Mostly, it comes down to running consistent laps in the sim on the track we’re racing at next, and building the muscle memory for all the key points of the track. The more laps you do, the more feel you can build, not just for braking and throttle points, but also for how much input is needed.

“When that becomes ingrained, it ramps up how fast we can get up to speed when we get into the racecar at the track. And since most everyone is using a simulator, the level as a whole has gone up dramatically. So, we’re seeing really fast lap times right out of the box on every race weekend.”