Racing In The Rain: How to be a 'Regenmeister'
A racing driver's guide to taming the elements..
Racing in the rain is often said to ‘sort the men from the boys’. It regularly throws up freak results, with hungry young drivers in uncompetitive machinery suddenly threatening for podium positions or even wins. Think Vettel in his Torro Rosso at Monza ‘08, or Senna in the Toleman at Monaco ‘84. A wet circuit levels the playing field, with lap-times dictated proportionately more by driver skill than by car performance.
But if driving in the rain was just like driving in the dry, but with less grip, surely the best cars would still be fastest and 'the natural order of things' would prevail? Well to a degree, yes- the fastest cars in the dry often are still the fastest in the wet, but there are so many other factors at play, and it's these factors that the very best drivers learn to exploit to their advantage. So what are they and how can they be maximised for the fastest possible lap time?
Sorry to say this, but a good foundation for wet weather driving is to completely forget everything you’ve already learnt from driving in the dry. Ok, not everything- but when it comes to something as fundamental as the racing line, the fastest way around a track is almost entirely different. Why? Surely the corner radius is the same? The simple reason for this is rubber. When it rains, rubber becomes like black ice- oils in the rubber permeate back up to the surface, making driving on it treacherous, regardless of how deep the grooves are in your tyres. And since the majority of the rubber laid down on a race track is over the typical dry-racing line, it’s a good idea to completely avoid it wherever possible.
During the braking zone is where a large percentage of that slippery rubber is, so it’s important to position your car just inside this zone when entering the corner. On a right-hander, you would normally be fully over to the left-hand side of the track. Yet, in wet conditions, just a car width to the right could make the difference between snatching a brake and going straight on into the barriers, or making the corner safely.
The best drivers have an almost supernatural sense of where the limit is before locking up, and can brake more efficiently than any ABS system. But, if you’re starting out on your journey to become a ‘Regenmeister’, a good tip would be to be gentle with the brake pedal and avoid stamping on it hard- as you might in the dry. During my karting days, if I locked up the rear axle in the rain for anything other than a split second, I’d be spinning off before I even knew what had happened. In cars with front brakes, a locked front wheel will make it impossible to stop or turn in, leaving you just a passenger with a one way ticket to 'crashville'- I've been there many times myself and don't reccomend it. If you do find you’ve locked a wheel, it’s imperative you release the brake pedal slightly to regain grip; this may feel counter intuitive at first- after all, you’re not stopping, so you must need to brake harder, right? Wrong. If a wheel isn’t turning, it’s not doing a whole lot to slow you down. It's the same way wheel-spin isn't the fastest way to get off the start-line. The maximum grip comes from being in a band on the absolute limit of adhesion, not below, and certainly not above it. Just consider what an ABS system does on a road car: it releases the brake until the wheel grips, then reapplies the brake again off and on many times a second. You won’t be able to feather the pedal like this, but with experience you should be able to feel roughly where the limit is and apply pressure to the brake pedal accordingly.
Max Verstappen's outrageous save, Brazil '16
I’ve mentioned that avoiding the dry line is integral to wet weather driving, and on turn-in is where this really counts. Generally, braking and turning at the same time are a no-no in the dry, but in the wet you really want to avoid this- you can use the brake on higher speed corners to get the weight of the car forwards, but in heavy braking zones you’ll end up in trouble. It’s just too much for the tyres to take and you’ll be fighting a losing battle with your old foe, centrifugal force.
When it comes time to turn, let the car travel to the outside of the corner before moving the wheel, allowing the tyres to grip the surface of the tarmac. This will at first seem unusual, but being on grit and marbles is a better place to be on that rubbered-in dry line, believe me. Turn the wheel assertively- one decisive movement gives the tread a chance to ‘dig-in’. In karting, I learnt to be quite aggressive on turn-in: the kart would understeer for a while and then eventually grip, so you must have faith that the kart will submit to your demands and that you’ve judged the speed correctly. Another reason for this style was to unsettle the kart and transfer the weight to the outside, increasing the grip of the tyres on that side. Karts obviously don’t have a differential, so you need to get the inside rear wheel lifting slightly to get the kart to rotate in the middle of the corner. We also used to literally throw ourselves sideways - half out of the seat - to increase the weight transfer. This particular technique is only really unique to karting, but it certainly worked. Either way, transferring weight to the outside of the car to corner faster is a universal concept in motorsport, and when grip is at a premium (as it always is in the wet), it's imperitive to make this occur.
So now you’ve slowed down, the front tyres have gripped and the car is rotating around the corner. You can use the throttle to aid this rotation, but you must be very careful- one wanton blip of the throttle and all your hard work is undone. With the car still turning, too much throttle will easily send you into a spin. The mid-to-exit is the trickiest part of the corner and one where the really great drivers make up the most time. Be patient here. Ideally, you want to wait until the car is aiming in the same direction as the next straight before you really get on the loud pedal for the fastest exit. Just like with braking and turning, too much accelerating and turning simultaneously will make your rear tyres cry, “Enough!” and you’ll be facing the oncoming traffic, staring into the whites of your competitors’ eyes as they try to avoid a head-on impact.
At this point you’re inevitably going to cross that deadly dry-line on the way out of the corner, so you really want to have got the majority of your turning out of the way beforehand. Accelerating over this rubber is going to be slippery, so treat that throttle like there's an egg under there- even if you have found traction coming out of the corner, you can still lose it as you cross this line; don’t think you’re completely out of the woods yet.
Above: Traditional wet-weather racing line. Blue line, wet. Dotted line, dry. Note how corner entry is inside the dry line andhow the blue line goes deeper into the corner, making the trajectory far straighter on exit.
Much like on the road, if you see standing water, avoid it like the plague. Race cars aren’t boats and are incredibly sensitive to aqua-planing. Once this happens, it all goes eerily quiet and you might as well brace for impact, unless of course you’re Max Verstappen, Brazil 2016 - what a save that was. Other nemeses you have to contend with are fogging-up visors (leave it a centimetre open and/or try to exhale through your mouth downwards) and spray from the cars in front. It’s easier said than done, but being in the lead is a huge advantage when conditions are really bad. Good visibility is a valuable currency in motorsports and if you’re at the back of the pack, you’re flying blind. If you’re religious, say a prayer. If you’re not, say one anyway- what have you got to lose. You can always try looking out for the white lines on the edges of the track - but please Jehovah, Allah, Schumacher, whoever you pray to - don’t drive over them. They are your enemy and will punish you severely. Kerbs can be cruel mistresses too, but sometimes, especially in karts, you can use them to pull you around mid-speed corners. Just hook your inside front over them and feel their force. It’s niche and can be risky, but in certain situations can work wonders.
I could go into ever more detail, but that’s pretty much it. These are the just basics of wet-weather driving, and the best drivers improvise as conditions change lap by lap. There’s no guarantee that the same line or technique will work at every circuit, or for every driver either. Racing in the rain is always a bit of a dark-art, but with practise comes progress and there’s nothing more satisfying than getting it right while your rivals spin off all around you.
I hope this goes some way to helping on your quest to tame the elements, but most of all, I wish you good luck. You might just need it out there!