Saturday, July 13, 2013

How to drive a racetrack

Yesterday afternoon, after the track shut down after a day of practice, I went for a track walk along Toronto's Honda Indy street circuit, along with a hundred or so drivers, crew, photographers and safety officials. While I've walked through these streets winding through the Canadian National Exhibition grounds countless times since I was a boy, I've never seen them as a race track except through the photo holes cut in the fencing.

I did it on foot, taking just less than an hour, while most of the drivers and crew traveled along them in golf carts or pit tuggers. During that hour, I think I was lapped by Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti at least twice.

As I walked, I recalled the interview I'd done with British Indy driver Justin Wilson just a few weeks before, at the annual press event at William Ashley's china shop on Toronto's ritzy Bloor shopping strip, where they balance an Indycar on top of four bone china teacups to prove something I'm sure you'd just forget the moment you dropped one of these cups into your kitchen sink and saw the first part of your wedding china shatter.

photo courtesy Honda Indy Toronto

Wilson, who won his first race in Toronto while driving for Champ Car, Indy's predecessor, has as much of a right to call himself an expert on the Toronto street track as anyone else, but before we got down to talking about braking zones and apexes, I asked him about the first start of the double-header Toronto race this year - the first standing start in Indy history.

I'd always presumed that a standing start was a little bit safer than a rolling start, if only because the cars wouldn't be traveling at nearly the same speed heading into turn one, but Wilson disagreed.

"When you've got twenty-six Indycar drivers going around the track there's nothing safe. The standing start you have the risk of stalling, but with the rolling start you get to turn one faster, people are closer together, so there is no clear choice which one gives you the best odds of making it through turn one."

looking down the start/finish straight
Before you get to turn one, however, you have to make it down the start/finish straight, which runs past the big new convention centre on the Exhibition grounds, and has all the peculiar qualities of any public street turned into a race track.

"Coming down this straight there's a couple of bumps where start/finish is, you try and get your upshifts done so when you hit those bumps it doesn't bounce the car and spin up the tires and you hit the RPM limiter because that loses time, so you're trying to time your shifts over the bumps."

And finally there's turn one, just in front of the Princes' Gates - a right hand turn that wants to be a hairpin, and which is as likely a place to see cars wreck as anywhere else on the track that isn't turn three.

"Turn one - you're going to brake late here but it's very bumpy. There's a big bump just before you brake, and then there's a lot of ripples in the brake zone, so the car's kind of skittering and sliding, and then as you turn in you hit the concrete, so the front of the car slides, and you have a split second of 'I'm not going to make it' but you turn in, turn in, and just as you get close to the apex the front just starts to grip, you touch the throttle and the back starts to slide and the whole car just drifts out of the corner. You'll feel like you're doing to slide and hit the wall - just the way this track is designed, the concrete ends and you hit the asphalt and the car grips and goes forward. It's cool when it goes right."

I point out to Wilson that he's talking about drifting - someone you're not supposed to do in an open-wheel car, which is all about aero and grip and pasting yourself to the track.

"Typically you wanna go forwards rather than sideways, but it's just the way this track drives. Trying to get the car to rotate through the corners."

The drivers don't consider turn two as a corner, Wilson tells me, but rather as a slight curve you negotiate as you build up speed heading down to the long straightaway carved out of a stretch of Lake Shore Boulevard, within sight of Lake Ontario. It's the highest speed bit of the track, but drivers only get to about 180 mph before they have to brake hard for turn three. Still, it's enough speed for something very bad to happen, and it's the reason why turn three is the site of the only fatalities in Toronto Indy history - the 1996 Champ Car crash that killed driver Jeff Krosnoff and track marshall Gary Arvin.

"It's a big brake zone. To be fast, it's all about breaking late. In all three, turn one, turn three and turn eight, you've got to brake as late as you can, because that's where there's a big chunk of lap time. You come in at 290 km/h down to 50 km/h, tricky corner, very tight, and once again you hit that concrete and the car slides again, so you've got to flow through the corner but you've got to carry some speed."

The exit of turn three is the only real elevation change on the whole Toronto course, as the straight that precedes it is basically a long, descending line. It leads into a very slight uphill curving corner that seems to want to be a chicane and probably rewards drivers who've come out of three with a perfect line.

"Right about here you come off Lakeshore and you start to climb up the hill, but you're trying to get the power back on, so we're spinning the wheels all the way through turn four trying to get drive up the hill. It's a a difficult balance, because you don't want to spin them up too much and wear out the tires, but any time you can get up this short spurt is big time."

The next corner is a tight right angle formed by the Better Living Centre, the Queen Elizabeth Centre and BMO Field. It's the start of a part of the track that's unseen by spectators, and as such gets built from the oldest, least pretty bits of concrete barrier and safety fencing.

"Turn five is very low grip, the car is skipping and sliding around. You're just trying to flow the speed through there. Turn six is quite fast, it shows on here as a couple of right angles, but it's just one long big curve, and you're just trying to keep the minimum speed up and carry that speed through turn six. Very tricky corner, because the wall is right here, and all the grip is right here next ot the wall. And you can't see through the corner at all - it's totally blind. I guess it's third gear, I want to say a 160 km/h blind corner, and the front of the car keeps slipping as you go through, and when it grips again you're hoping you don't brush the wall. There's been a couple of crashes there where people have brushed the inside wall. It breaks the suspension and then you turn hard left into the outside wall. So that's the tricky part."

After driving around the Food Building, there's a corner formed by the side of the old Horse Palace - now Ricoh Stadium. It's a higher profile bit of track, and for this year's race it's been bought wholesale to advertise Rush, Ron Howard's new film about the James Hunt/Niki Lauda F1 rivalry. (Which I hope to God is as good as the trailers.)

"Seven is just flat out, and then you're hitting the brakes for eight. Right as you're hitting the brakes there's a big bump, and the car's trying to recover, and then you go to turn in, and you're hitting a manhole cover. And no matter where you position the car, you always end up hitting that one manhole cover. The track's seventy-five feet wide or whatever it is, and there's a three foot manhole cover, and no matter where you position it, you hit it every time. If you paid us we couldn't hit it, but because we don't want to, we hit it every single lap. The whole car slips over it, unsettles it, and again it steps out and you catch it, and the whole time you're just trying to react and recover the car."

The next series of turns - nine-ten-eleven - pass through the open part of the Exhibition grounds where the whack-a-mole and games of chance set up during the midway every summer. Wilson describes it as the most technical part of the track, as you try to keep enough speed to head into the start/finish straight again - or head into pit lane.

"Turn nine you can carry good speed. Second gear, and it's all about trying to carry the speed in, keep the minimum speed up, because if you brake too hard you transfer too much weight to the front, and then you overslow the corner, and it's easier just to roll out the throttle, roll back into the throttle, roll out early but slowly and it keeps the car more balances, so you can carry the speed through that corner."

"Ten and eleven is all about minimum speed, trying to keep the minimum speed up. If you can go a couple of miles and hour quicker through ten and eleven, that will flow with you all the way down the next straight."

Wilson says this last section is what makes Toronto unique - more like a custom-built road course than a street circuit, something nobody buying cotton candy or losing at roulette on a hot August night at the Ex would ever imagine as they stood there.

"There's nowhere else like it. It's tight, bumpy, change of surfaces on all these corners. A typical street course type of driving. But then you've got this section here which is all about flowing and minimum speed and it's not very street course like. It's a complete contrast - you've got to drive these different to how you drive these other corners."

Indy is unique in that its season contains everything, from street circuits to road courses to ovals to the most iconic race track in motorsport. I ask Wilson if there's any particular track that he prefers.

"I like 'em all. I like the fact that we have to do them all and be good at them all. I started out road racing back in Europe, I seem to have adapted to the street races pretty quickly, and I got my first win here in Toronto. I love the street races, but that's the appeal of Indycar for me - you've got to be good on all these types of tracks."

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