Nic Hamilton is that rare breed of racer who went from sim into real-world racing. So what makes for a quick driver? Psychology and confidence is key, as is a basic understanding of the principles of speed. So sit back, grab a cup, and get ready to learn how to be quicker with Nic Hamilton …
Finding Limits With Confidence
Anybody can be good at driving. Ninety-five percent of racing is psychological. Ultimately, it’s all about self-confidence. In the real-world, you’re risking your life, and drivers who take the most risks will often turn out to be the fastest—though there’s a balance here, too, because people who don’t use their heads can potentially get hurt and find themselves in trouble both physically and competitively. In sim racing, though, where your life isn’t on the line, it really does come down to confidence and experience.
I learnt everything from sim racing. I came from sim gaming, and I just took all of that knowledge to the real-world. I didn’t do karting, or go to a race school—everything I knew, everything I brought into the real world, was from sims.
I found the limit in the real-world the same as I do in sim racing— taking my time and building myself up with confidence, because with confidence comes speed. You get to learn the limit by eventually overstepping it, but it’s all about trial and error beforehand. You start off by carrying speed mostly through guesswork, then you think, ‘how did that feel, did it feel slow, can I carry more?’ If the answer is yes, then you carry more speed next time ’round. This type of trial and error technique continues until you start to feel the car working underneath you. If the car starts moving around to a point where you are having to correct and adjust the balance through the corner, but any more speed or a slight mistake could send you past the apex, into a spin or off the circuit, then you know you’re on the limit of what the car can do around that particular corner.
How Best to Learn a Circuit
Learning a circuit, for me, means building up to it. It’s not smart to go ‘flat out’ and aggressive on your first lap out of the pits on a circuit you’ve never driven, as you will not learn anything; not using your head in this vital first stage could end up in disaster. You build up to it by braking early, carrying a decent amount of speed through the corners, and concentrating on each characteristic of the corner that you have completed. You want to look at every aspect of the corner, such as—where are the bumps? Do they affect the car under braking, at mid-corner, on exit? Do you need to adjust your line to avoid them? What is the nature of the kerbs—are they aggressive, soft, can you use them to your advantage? How much kerb can you take, and what effect does it have on the balance of the car.
Take it easy for the first couple of laps whilst you figure each corner’s characteristics, but make sure you’re full throttle down the straights. Don’t be like my dad—when he would try and learn a circuit on a sim, he’d go around at 20mph! You’ll never learn a circuit that way, going that slow, so full throttle down the straights, but brake early, and build up to it.
It’s also a good idea to take a lower gear then usual through the corner to start with whilst you get to grips with everything, as the lower gear you take, the less speed you carry. If the corner is usually taken in fourth gear, then take it in third initially. As you build-up confidence, you can then use a higher gear, and you’ll automatically be carrying more speed. Eventually you’ll just start braking later, too. It’s important to remember that, the more you brake, the slower you go, so get off the brakes earlier and ‘roll’ the speed through the corner. By lap five or so, you’ll have a good foundation and understanding of the track’s characteristics, as well as the sort of balance the car underneath you has, and then you can push on and find the limits.
Learning the Limit and Working on Technique
One of the things I’ve learnt when coaching drivers is that peoples’ perception of where they think the limit is can be generally a lot lower than what it really is. They think they’re going fast, but if you put a racing driver in the same car, the limit can turn out to be much higher and much faster. The first thing I like to do is work on confidence because when people get confident in the car and their own abilities, the more likely they are to get closer to the limit. If people get more confident and understand the limits of the car, then they will naturally start to go faster.
The second thing I’ve noticed is that peoples’ technique is sometimes not quite right. There are, for example, a lot of people who are just too eager when they first get onto the track—they’ll brake too early and then try to power through the corner instead of letting the car do the work, or they’ll take too much speed into the corner and get a really slow exit. You know, road racing is simple in principal: it’s all about the braking, mid-corner technique, and then getting on the power as soon and as smoothly as possible. A lot of people get confused as to when to brake, or how to roll into and through the corner, or when to get onto the power. It seems an easy thing—only three things, brake, roll, accelerate—but maximizing all three, as well as your steering input and technique, is absolutely key, and all of it links back to confidence and your understanding of the limit, because the more speed you carry, the higher the limit of the car becomes.
The key to braking is to hit the brakes hard initially, and then bleed off as you approach the apex of the corner. It’s all about getting that spike, the peak of brake pressure, which is right at the onset of when you begin to brake. If you’re looking at the data traces, you want to see a really good amount of pressure as soon as you get onto the brakes. It’s the opposite of how you brake in your daily drive/road-car. In normal day-to-day driving, your initial braking is soft, and then you increase pressure the closer you are to wherever you want to stop. In a race car, you hit the brakes hard right at the onset. After that, good technique will see the trace come down as you bleed off the brakes, and the car begins to roll and rotate on its own. Find the point where the brakes bite but don’t lock, and that’s how deep and hard you want to hit the brake pedal every lap—hard, firm, and assured right when you get onto them.
Momentum and Working From The Exit Backwards
Momentum is crucial to being quick. The part that many sim racers misunderstand is that, when the car is doing all of the work, and the driver is doing nothing but steering on neutral throttle and brake, this is where the driver is gaining most of their time. Think about a particular corner, and consider how much time you’re spending simply steering. The speed that you’re carrying through this phase of the corner is paramount to your overall lap time.
This is what it means when you hear people talk about ‘letting the car do the work’. Hit the brakes, get off of them as soon as you can, and let the tyres and general balance of the car carry you through the corner itself.
Braking is important, but it is the speed you carry through the apex and at exit of the corner that is most important. The time you spend just steering with no throttle or brake as you carry your speed through the apex is vital and requires a delicate balance. Do not carry too much to where you have to apply unnecessary steering lock to stay on line, and do not carry too little to where you have to accelerate again to make up for the lack of speed carried.
Most importantly, do not wait too long to get back on the throttle: it doesn’t matter how good you are at carrying the speed through the corner—if you can’t get out of the corner efficiently, you’re just not going to be quick. One of the best pieces of advice I can give is this—work from your exit backwards.
Always focus on maximizing your exit, as your exit quality can help minimize any time loss that you have acquired due to a weak entry or mid-corner. Aim, always, to get on the power as soon as possible with the least amount of wheel-spin and maximum traction. Then think about your mid-corner: as well as it being the most important part during the cornering process, sometimes you can sacrifice your mid-corner speed to ensure a good exit. Indeed, sacrificing time in mid-turn to optimize the exit is sometimes the fastest way.
The least important phase initially is your braking technique on entry to the corner. What I mean by this is that, the later you brake with the wrong technique, the more you can compromise the other aspects of the corner: brake too late, for instance, and you will be fighting to get the car on the right line, which will harm your mid-corner speed. So work the corner backwards. In other words, braking comes last, because you build up to that. Carrying speed through the corner, meanwhile, is the hardest and most important phase of the corner. Then there’s the exit which, if you’ve done your braking correctly, and you’ve carried the right amount of speed, is actually the simplest part of the process. The interesting point about all of this is that, if you get your mid-corner and exit correct consistently, the quality of your braking technique goes from being the least important to the most important factor of the cornering process, as all of your time can be won and lost on the brakes.
Setup Matters—But Only When You’ve Found Your Limit
I have always been a self-critical driver. A lot of drivers, though, the first thing they do is change the setup if they are not quick enough. For me, I’m all about improving my own driving first, because changing the setup can also make it harder to learn new things. What I mean is this: I like to start with a decent setup, a base setup with a good amount of grip that doesn’t have any obvious problems—I only change the car if there is something noticeable that is effecting my lap time. First I want to get to the limit of what the car can do currently—and to do that, I do 10 laps or so, and if I can’t get any faster, and if every lap is consistent, then I know I’m on the limit. That’s when I’ll start looking at the lap, and start thinking about setup changes. I’ll start thinking whether I can go faster through this corner, or that corner, and whether what’s slowing me down is the car which won’t let me get through there quicker. That’s when I think, okay, right, I need to dial out understeer, or oversteer or whatever. So essentially, you want to get to the limit of what the car can do, and what you can do with the car, and that’s when you know what changes you need setup-wise.