The School of Torque: Understanding braking with TRACK & TARMAC
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Last time on School of Torque we took a look at basic cornering techniques.
Now, as we advance through the series, we’ll investigate the importance of effective braking techniques, and the importance of braking as it applies to your driving style.
As is the case with all School of Torque articles there are no confusing diagrams or pretentious how-to videos. Just logical, straight-forward advice aimed at improving your understanding of driving and at making you a better driver.
As the second article in our School of Torque series we will keep the lesson brief. As we work deeper into the technical elements of driving, our lessons will become more complicated. But for now, we’ll look at why braking is so important; braking with and without an anti-lock braking system (ABS); understanding pedal modulation; using braking markers; and common braking mistakes.
Why is braking so important?
Braking is a pretty important feature of a car. I mean, can you imagine trying to drive a car without being able to stop? It’s impossible. You’d have to drive very slowly and avoid the racetrack entirely.
Neither option is an ideal for the driving enthusiast. We know that our brakes are not only an important safety feature for coming to a stop, but also vital in getting a car setup for corners, and maintaining (or even shifting) balance as you change direction.
Obviously in a fast-driving or competitive scenario the later you can brake, the faster you’ll go. But this places massive forces on our car’s braking components. Braking generates friction which in turn produces a lot of heat. It’s also very hard on your tyres, and drastically alters the balance of your car as you change direction.
This is why it’s critical to arrive at a corner at the correct speed – and that means doing as much of your braking as you can while you’re still in a straight line.
How to brake with and without ABS
Depending on the age of your vehicle, you’ll most typically find a vacuum-hydraulic assisted system operating disc brakes, or a combination of disc and drum brakes. In most vehicles produced in that past 20 years, it’s safe to assume this system is further assisted by an electronic valving system known as ABS (or anti-lock braking system).
A non-ABS system is a straightforward hydraulic system in that more pressure is added to the brakes friction surfaces (pads and rotors or shoes and drums) the harder you push on the pedal. Push the pedal too hard and the brakes will ‘lock up’, sending the car into a skid.
The disadvantage here is that, besides destroying your tyres, a lock up means your wheels are no longer rotating, which in turn means you have no steering. A quick-thinking driver will be able to modulate this pressure and correct the skid promptly, but for the majority of us its not before a visit to the kitty litter.
ABS allows drivers to brake hard while still being able to steer the vehicle. A series of wheel-speed sensors and some fast-acting valves regulate the pressure sent to your brakes’ friction surfaces, pulsing the fluid in phase with the locking and unlocking of the wheel.
The continuous locking and unlocking action is so fine that most drivers won’t feel it through the pedal. This pedal feedback, as it’s known, was quite abrupt in early ABS systems, but is now so compliant that most drivers have become accustom to the action, fully utilising the effectiveness of their ABS system to their advantage.
Unlike a non-ABS car, a car with ABS can brake harder and later without the fear of lock up. Simply push the pedal as hard as you can, and focus on some of the cornering techniques as we explained last time.
Of course, this is a very binary approach to braking technique. Any experienced racer knows there’s a lot more to it. But if you’re just starting out, we recommend using ABS to your advantage – brake late, brake straight, and brake hard!
Understanding pedal modulation
Once you’ve learnt how hard you can brake using your ABS, you’ll want to start becoming a little more masterful.
It’s here that understanding how the brake pedal works comes into play. Simply, the brake pedal isn’t a switch. It’s more like a tap. The harder you push it, the more the tap opens, and the stronger the braking effect realised.
Initially you’re going to want to get your foot off of the throttle and on to the brake pedal as quickly as you can. Then, rather than ‘shocking’ the brake system with a sudden prod of the pedal, we’re going to try modulating our input to apply a lot of force gradually.
We don’t want to take our time about it. We want the ABS activated quickly and with enough pressure to decelerate the car at the threshold of its grip. This will get the weight transferred on to the front wheels and prepare you for steering into the corner, and allow you to then ease off the brake pedal to level the car back on to its four wheels for maximum mid-corner grip.
Using braking markers
On the racetrack, you’ll notice a series of braking markers placed at 50-metre increments before a corner. Depending on the severity of the corner, there may be more or fewer braking markers, but typically they’ll begin 200 metres before the corner. Sometimes, they may be as simple as a line painted across the track.
Whatever the case, these are important to learn as, depending on the braking capacity of your car, you’ll use them to know where you can repeatedly brake as late as possible. A reference like this is vital in knowing where you’ve initiated braking, and measuring whether you can brake later on the following lap.
And if you’re racing on tarmac, try using another reference in lieu of numbered braking markers. These could be a corner post, a crack in the tarmac, the end of a section of Armco railing, but try to use something that will still be there each time you go past!
Most racers recommend using braking markers only for longer, faster corners. In shorter, slower corners you’re better trusting your eye and using the techniques described in our previous School of Torque article.
When you pick your braking marker, start with an earlier point than you know you need then progressively move closer to the corner as you learn the capacity of your brakes. Remember, you need to be conscious of your reference as it can be lost on a busy racetrack. If you think you’ve missed it, get on the brakes, and make up your speed elsewhere.
Common braking mistakes
You might think it’s hard to stuff up something as simple as pressing the brake pedal, and for the most part it is. But as with any technique, there is always scope to improve.
Don’t take too long to get off the throttle and on to the brake – this will cost you valuable tenths of seconds. Remember to brake late, brake straight and brake hard. Not using all the pedal pressure you have available is eroding you braking performance, and therefore your lap times.
Remember your braking markers. Don’t brake too early, and don’t brake too late. You don’t want to be adjusting your speed once you’ve already committed to the corner. As we mentioned last time, you want to chose the speed that’s right for the corner before you enter it. Only practice will make perfect.
Finally, remember to keep your vision up. Look where you want to stop or turn and direct the car to do so. Looking at the apex as you enter the braking zone will make a marked difference on your cornering speed, and keep your eyes where they should be as you progress through the turn.
As we work through the School of Torque series we’ll look at some more advanced braking techniques you can use to really step-up your game. These include heel-and-toe braking, left-foot braking and trail braking.
The instructions here are meant as a guide only. A lot of dynamics are at play when braking and a lot will depend on the type of car you drive, the tyres fitted, your suspension setup, your pad and rotor material and condition, the weather, and the type of road you drive on!
Most of these things are factors we work around each time we drive. But taking a moment to read through the notes above and consciously considering them next time you’re at the wheel will help you to better understand the art of driving.