How to Brake Like a Professional Racing Driver

Heel-and-Toe downshifting in a nutshell 1 photo
In the world of motorsports, out-and-out horsepower or big team budgets are worth naught if the driver doesn't master a handful of braking techniques. Developing a few basic techniques into something close to a sixth sense is no walk in the park, but the right type of braking adapted to a given racing scenario usually makes the difference between a podium finish and lower rankings.
You need to know that the middle pedal isn't there just to be slammed. Don't take it for granted as you would an on/off switch. Even in real world driving situations, a spirited driver knows how to use the brakes to make him go faster through bends.

Professional racing also implies good knowledge of various types of footwork and pedal modulation, as well as bit of physics such as how to control the car's weight transfer during braking and how different surfaces and weather conditions affect traction and grip.

Before we go through those few important braking crafts, you need to know that there are three main steps as far as basic braking is concerned, relevant both on the street and track. Firstly, braking commences with a fast, but not instant, application of as much braking force as possible withough locking or forcing the ABS (antilock braking system) go all nutty.

Once the front suspension begins to settle from the first phase of braking, be aware of the vibrations you feel in your foot from the pedal and what feedback the steering wheel offers you with how the front tires are managing the situation. To make the car stop effectively, you must develop a feel for what's happening in this second stage of braking and pressure the brake pedal accordingly. It's a widely known fact that constant brake pedal pressure will make the car travel some distance, as well as cook the pads and discs if done way too often. 'Modulate' is the critical word in this phase.

The third stage of braking occurs towards the end of the braking zone, that moment when the car has slowed down near to the chosen cornering speed. A talented driver gradually releases pressure off the brake pedal, transitioning from maximum to zero braking force as smooth as possible. No, this is not done for the sake of your passenger's comfort. The front suspension and tires of any type of car are under heavy load when braking, which increases available traction. If you suddenly release the brake pedal, it will abruptly reduce traction and grip levels, which is a big no-no when you're about to turn into a corner.

During turn-in, the vehicle is most sensitive to sudden weight transfer transitions. Sloppy footwork will mess up your braking zone and unsettle the car's dynamics. Finally, as you exit the corner, feather the throttle to get out as fast as possible. Too much acceleration during exit translates to either oversteer or understeer depending on the type of drivetrain your car is equipped with. Basic braking lesson over, now let's go through those important techniques for stopping effectively.

Threshold braking

Thin soled shoes and an experienced foot are the two most important ingredients for mastering threshold braking. Also known as straight-line braking, this is the most fundamental skill you need to develop as a real world driver or as a full-on professional racer. The trick is to get as close as possible to locking up the brakes or engaging the ABS system. That sweet spot between enough and too much pedal pressure allows you to brake later and more efficiently.

The most important sign telling you that's the maximum braking power your car can offer is represented by the vibrations you feel in the steering wheel. With enough practice, you'll be able to tell from the steering wheel's feedback where the point of lock-up occurs. If you happen to slightly overcook it, gingerly reduce brake pedal pressure while still applying sufficient pressure to remain in the threshold zone.

Threshold braking is more effective than up-to-date antilock braking systems, but you can only master it by practicing. A lot, to be frank. We recommend not to wait for that emergency braking situation to take you by surprise, so give yourself a few hours and start practicing on a traficless B-road or on a closed circuit.

Cadence braking

You can further enhance the effectiveness of threshold braking by alternating it with cadence braking. It's an advanced technique that offers the driver the ability to steer while applying as much braking pressure as possible. If you happen to lock the wheels of a non-ABS vehicle under heavy braking, you can kiss steering goodbye. As you probably figured out already, this type of braking has more to do with motorsports than everyday driving because most new cars come as standard with ABS.

Cadence braking works by repeatedly pumping the brake pedal in a rapid manner for making the wheels lock and unlock. The science behind this technique is that you can maintain a little bit of steering control while slowing the car down. It's not as effective as threshold braking because the tires aren't at the optimum braking point at all time, but it will get you out of low grip situations such as a wet strip of ashpalt.

Also called stutter braking, the rhythmicity that's key to this technique will come in handy in emergency braking situations or last minute turn-in corrections. Basically, cadence braking maximises the driver's time to steer around the obstacle ahead while slowing the car down. Even though modern antilock braking systems perform this operation in rapid succesion as easy as A-B-C, a human driver can perform one lock-release cycle per second with lots and lots of hours of practice.

Top tip: on a very loose surface like fine gravel, simply locking the wheels will give you far better braking force than threshold or cadence braking thanks to the wedge of loose material that builds up ahead of the front wheels.

Trail braking

Now this is more like it! It's the Holy Grail of braking skills and it's used by every world class racing driver. As simply put as possible, trail braking means you sort of rotate the car's rear end into the corner. As opposed to the aforementioned techniques, this one works by braking far beyond the normal braking point, as close as possible to the entry of the corner. This last minute braking technique ensures a faster, more effective turn-in.

What you basically have to do is brake in the usual manner, but only up to, say, 80 percent of the deceleration process. Leave the remaining 20 percent to apply it while you are steering into the bend.

Late, aggresive braking will help you steer the car into the corner thanks to the high speed you already carry. Under braking, the weight shifts to the front, giving you better traction, but also decreases rear grip, which will aid you with inducing more rear slip angle than front slip angle. The tad of oversteer on entry will also help the driver by steering less when entering and exiting the corner. Just try not to induce too much slip angle because excessive sliding will render your fast lap obsolete by at least a few tenths of a second and wear your tires prematurely.

A word of warning though: don't try practicing it on public roads. Due to the high speeds trail braking requires, it's very possible for you to end up rear first into a tree. Even in Formula 1, trail braking mistakes are punished with serious consequences. We recommend you practice this technique on a closed circuit with an experienced driving instructor next to you.

Left foot braking

Before starting to experiment with left foot braking, try to get accustomed to the previously mentioned techniques. This type of braking is heavily used by rally drivers and even weekend warriors that hit their local track with a stripped out Citroen Saxos or other worldly car models. Because your left foot only knows how to manage the clutch pedal, rookies oftenly apply too much brake pressure with their left foot, which unsettles the vehicle and makes the driver almost headbutt the windshield due to the massive G-force under heavy braking.

Why would anyone want to rewrite their driver's subconscious to master this kind of technique? Well, left foot braking comes with way more than a single advantage... If you happen to go too fast before entering a corner, simply applying a little left foot braking and steering while nursing the throttle pedal will offer you far superior turn-in control and a faster exit. Why? Because it lets you control the weight transfer between the front and rear tires, that's why. It's especially effective in front-wheel drive vehicles simply because it's regarded as the best way to control the rear. Most modern subcompact and compact cars have their braking systems set up with a bias on the front, but come with a live axle or a semi-independent setup at the rear, which is rudimentary technology that can't keep up with the front suspension under heavy braking.

Left foot braking also decreases the time to switch between the throttle and brake pedal with your right foot. A flawless execution will also let you change from understeer to neutralsteer to oversteer in the quickest time possible thanks to the way you can change the brake bias to the rear. Don't get frustrated for not managing to do it properly at first. Practice makes perfect, so don't get discouraged because it will seem an easy thing to do soon enough.

Heel-and-toe downshifting

Even though it's technically a very complicated precision shifting technique, added braking force is a big plus of hell-and-toe downshifting. Before it becomes second nature, it'll take time and repetitive practice to master it.

Firstly, let's look at the steps you have to go through for properly downshift this way: lift your right foot off the throttle and press the brake pedal; a second or so before braking is done you press the clutch pedal; you shift into a lower gear while keeping your left hand on the steering wheel and still apply gentle pressure on the brake pedal; after shifting is done, you swiftly slide your right foot's heel onto the gas pedal, giving it a quick and gentle tap to match the engine's revs with the newly selected gear; while releasing the clutch, your right foot fully transitions back onto the throttle pedal without giving it the beans; accelerate accordingly out of the turn. The end.

Sounds a bit confusing at first and the benefits are slightly unclear, but it's the best way to brake through a corner all while carrying the highest speed possible at exit. Further more, the downshift and rev match from the gentle throttle blip sets the engine in its power band, which means you get the best oomph possible upon exiting the corner. As you might have concluded by now, precise timing and two steady feet are the key to do it like professional racing drivers.

As a bonus for our recurring readers, we've attached a video of the great Ayrton Senna showing off his incredible driving skills in a Honda NSX, including the complicated heel-and-toe downshifting technique. Pay attention to the footwork, not his lovely brown leather moccasins, ok?

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About the author: Mircea Panait
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After a 1:43 scale model of a Ferrari 250 GTO sparked Mircea's interest for cars when he was a kid, an early internship at Top Gear sealed his career path. He's most interested in muscle cars and American trucks, but he takes a passing interest in quirky kei cars as well.
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