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Opinion

How to prepare for driving an unfamiliar car

Whatever your level of experience, it can be daunting to hop into a new car for the first time. Our new Autosport Performance columnist Adam Carroll, a race-winner in GP2, A1GP and GT cars, shares his tips to impress and make the most of the experience

Adam Carroll, NIO 333 Racing, NIO 333 001

Photo by: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images

Performance

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Your first time driving an unfamiliar car can be a daunting experience. It’s important to make a good first impression and get on the pace quickly, but this is sometimes easier said than done with all the pressures involved.

In my experience, there are several methods that a driver can employ to prepare for their first drive. Some I find to be more useful than others and a few will not be relevant for everyone, depending on the level of professionalism and complexity of the car in question. For example, if you’ve never driven a Formula E car before, you first need to understand a huge number of systems, so sim testing will take on a much greater importance relative to, say, a Fun Cup car.

This article is assuming that the driver already knows the track they are going to sample, and therefore focuses on the tools most helpful in preparing to jump into a car they don’t know – although of course this won’t always be the case, and sometimes you have to learn both car and track at the same time.

In most instances, a car will come with a driver’s manual. Some are more detailed than others – there’s absolutely tons in the Formula E one – but it’s always a good idea to get yourself acquainted with the settings even if you find it difficult to retain all the information.

The Audi I’ll race in British GT this season has a new steering wheel after its latest Evo upgrade, and they can be quite complicated now. It’s a good idea to look at the buttons, either by having the physical steering wheel in front of you or just a picture of the wheel, and know what they do. Otherwise, you could get caught out by something really basic and start your day off on the wrong foot.

When jumping into different cars, it’s the finer detail like knowing how the buttons work that you can easily get wrong in a high-pressure situation. Often you’re just put in the car and it’s assumed that you know the procedures to pull away, but there are lots of little things that can catch you out.

Make sure to learn the buttons on the steering wheel and what they do to avoid any embarrassing mishaps

Make sure to learn the buttons on the steering wheel and what they do to avoid any embarrassing mishaps

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

On some cars, it’s as simple as knowing how the pit limiter works, how you start the car and select first gear, then how you turn the car off. Those are just the pure basics and, as you start to get into more complicated or faster cars, you have more functions and procedures.

Audi has brought in a new safety feature on the GT3 where you have to hold the start button down to be able to pull away. Just adding that extra little element sounds so simple, but if you’re not used to doing that it can cause a problem in a pitstop under pressure. It’s important to be aware, and make sure you’re familiar with the vital functions.

What I find most helpful is spending time with the engineers – they’re an invaluable source of information that can help you with setting expectations, which is often managed badly in motorsport

Visualisation is a technique that I’m not a massive fan of. But it can be useful to practise holding the steering wheel and pushing the buttons. Like everything, you just need to make sure what you’re doing is correct. There’s no point in running something over in your head 50 times if it’s not.

As a general principle, it’s a good thing to just sit in a new car. Normally you’ll see it when you go for a seat fitting, then it’s quite good just to sit inside and run through the systems.

What I find most helpful is spending time with the engineers – they’re an invaluable source of information that can help you with setting expectations, which is often managed badly in motorsport. Whenever I drive a new car, I always sit down with the guys to understand the set-up. Then, I’ll ask how much fuel will be in the car, how old the tyres are, what the pressures are and what hot pressures we’re aiming for.

You could be getting into a car that has full fuel, 120 litres in it, and 250km tyres, so easily end up lapping two seconds off the pace and start panicking that you’re slow, when there’s 1.5 seconds’ worth of time in the car. Those are checklists I always run through so you can manage the situation better.

The expectation as a pro is always that you jump in and be fast right away. But you simply can’t be fast when the car and tyres are not in that window. If you’re not aware of that, then your day can have a very bad start. All of those basic things make a massive difference. The process of establishing what’s expected and what the car can do there and then is for me the most important side of preparation for a new car.

Downloading what's expected of you from the mechanics and engineers beforehand is Carroll's top tip

Downloading what's expected of you from the mechanics and engineers beforehand is Carroll's top tip

Photo by: GT Open

Fitness doesn’t get talked about in terms of what’s expected car to car and what it’s like physically to drive, but it should be. Trainers can give you advice on what to do, but it might not necessarily be the right thing for that car. I remember when I had my first IndyCar test with Andretti Autosport in 2010 at Mid-Ohio, I did 110 miles and I hadn’t raced for a year. Those cars are really physical; to turn the wheel you have to be strong.

Clearly, not all cars have such physical demands, and modern GT cars are designed to be accessible for gentleman drivers too, but it’s a point worth considering. Ask questions of the engineers beforehand and you’ll have a much better idea of what to expect, so you can prepare accordingly.

I touched on simulator work earlier, and that’s worth expanding on. Although this may not give you a truly accurate feeling of what the car will feel like, it can be a good reference for the direction and nature of a given track. There’s probably only a handful of sims in the world that have completely representative vehicle dynamics models, it’s such a complex and expensive process to get right. But you can have a commercially available sim that drives really well too and can be good for honing technique.

Like everything, it needs to be used correctly, with the reality of it kept in check and the session run by people that understand this. Your brain computes slightly differently on the sim and there are many little areas where you can effectively cheat the system – like with track limits – should you get carried away with it and prioritise chasing lap time over using it to prepare for driving in real life.

Bear in mind, if you’re going four wheels off the track to carry 10km/h more through a corner, it’s not the same corner anymore and you’re not learning anything that you can apply in the actual car. Also, there will be things that you don’t notice until you get to the real track, like particular bumps or the proximity of the walls in certain instances.

Another helpful tool is video, especially if it’s the car you’re going to drive and the track you’re going to drive on in similar conditions. The onboard tools we have now are really good and build on the foundations laid down in the sim. You always want a camera that points out of the front, so you see the full windscreen, and I like to have a camera angle that shows the steering wheel too, so you can see the driver and what inputs they’re making. That way, you can see how much kerb is used, you can see the lines and figure out how much track to use past the white line.

There’s all these things now that have changed a lot over the past 10 years. Drivers have many more tools to help with reparations for driving an unfamiliar car, but be careful to make sure you’re using them in the right ways so they don’t become an unhelpful distraction. It can be easy to overthink things. Remember to keep it simple and you can’t go too far wrong.

Watching video can help to check how drivers are approaching track limits and brake/steering inputs

Watching video can help to check how drivers are approaching track limits and brake/steering inputs

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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