Cornering – the key to faster lap times

pairbikesOver the winter I’ve been thinking about the changes I need to make to my riding in order to improve my lap times. After reviewing footage from my last few track days, I can see that the biggest lap time improvement would come from changing the way I ride the corner entry and exit.

A few months ago, I rode the Silverstone GP circuit with Matt who was on his Honda VFR400 race bike. Despite Matt’s racing experience, I figured that the Daytona’s 10-15 mph speed advantage down the straights would result in similar lap times. The reality was that Matt’s greater skill and experience allowed him to cancel out my speed advantage by utilizing his brakes and tyres more effectively than I could.

Anyone can ride fast down a straight because opening the throttle and holding it open are easy as a bike is most stable under acceleration. Real speed gains come from:

  • carrying more speed in the corner
  • how quickly you get on the throttle at the corner exit
  • how well you brake for the next corner

I’m going to use a video of our bikes coming onto the Wellington Straight at Silverstone’s GP circuit to try and explain the things that I need to improve in my own riding order to achieve the faster lap times that I am after.

The video is running at half speed to give you time to pick up on the different things that I want to note. I suggest opening the video in a new window (by clicking on the YouTube logo in the bottom right of the video) so that you can see the text and video side by side in two windows.

The rookie on the Daytona is the top left view while the racer on the VFR is the bottom right view.

You can pause the video at the time intervals shown below as I try and explain some of the differences in our riding styles.

Time Comment
00:08 Notice the corner apex speed difference. My Daytona is doing 75 mph vs Matt’s 79 mph
00:12 Notice how much sooner Matt gets his bike upright – this allows him to get on the throttle harder
00:14 It takes the Daytona 4 seconds to reach the VFR’s speed on the straight by which time the VFR has pulled out a lead
00:25 The Daytona’s maximum speed is 123 mph vs the VFR’s 113 mph. The Daytona now passes the VFR, arriving at the bridge 0.2s ahead of the VFR
00:27 The Daytona is now easing off the throttle. The VFR is still flat out
00:31 The Daytona is braking at 0.6g while the VFR is only just starting to brake (hard). The VFR pulls 0.8g when braking
00:36 The Daytona arrives at the left hand turn sign board (arrow on the right of the track) 0.2s ahead of the VFR
00:37 The VFR has now caught the Daytona again because the turn in points for the two bikes are approximately the same and the VFR takes a tighter line to the apex
00:39 Notice how the VFR is carrying more entry speed into the corner; 62 mph vs 57 mph
00:46 The VFR reaches the apex of the corner 0.2s ahead of the Daytona and is carrying an extra 2mph of speed at the same apex point

The two areas that the racer on the VFR makes significant gains are coming onto the Wellington straight at the start of the video, and his approach to the next corner at the end of the same straight. Let’s focus on the corner exit coming onto the Wellington Straight.

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Once your braking is over going into a corner, you need to apply sufficient throttle to settle the (front) suspension – Keith Code calls this “maintenance” throttle. As you approach the apex of the corner you can start to apply more throttle as you pick the bike up. Matt is able to get on the gas earlier and harder coming onto the Wellington Straight which means that he passes the apex point at 79 mph compared to my 75 mph. It then takes me 4 seconds to catch him down the straight despite the Daytona’s higher top speed.

However, the area where I lose most time compared to Matt is in the braking zone on the approach to the next corner. Let’s break this section of the track down using the following diagram.

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Racers say that you should either be on the gas or on the brakes. The biggest mistake that rookie riders (myself included) is to coast in the transition phase between accelerating and braking. I spend nearly 2 seconds coasting from accelerating to braking in the transition zone while Matt spends just 0.3 seconds in the transition zone.

The other aspect that is important to note is that Matt’s braking marker is later than mine, so while I spend two seconds decelerating from 123 mph to 95 mph, Matt is still travelling at 115 mph. This combination of a later braking point and harder braking minimises the time spent braking so that he catches and then passes me at the end of the straight.

My poor race track skills come from years of road riding where you roll off the throttle and use engine braking before applying the brakes on the approach to a corner. This style of riding has no place on the race track! Gains are made by choosing a later braking marker and reducing the transition (or coasting time) between accelerating down the straight and braking for the corner.

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The lower part of the diagram shows the rookie rider while the upper part shows the more experienced (and confident) rider. It shows what kind of riding style change is required to improve a lap time. Note that the turn in point and the turn in speed should remain similar no matter where your braking marker is.

The first significant improvement that I can make, without even changing my braking marker, is to reduce my transition time from 2 seconds to 1 second or less. This means using the brakes as soon as I come off the throttle instead of using engine braking before applying the (front) brakes. The brake lever should be squeezed smoothly to load the front before being squeezed harder to rapidly slow the bike down. All (or almost all) of your braking should be done while the bike is upright in order to avoid having the front end wash out on you.

So instead of transitioning like this:

Off throttle -> change down -> apply brakes

the correct procedure is this:

Off throttle -> apply brakes -> change down

During the braking phase the throttle is “blipped” for each gear downshift. Downshifting should be done in the braking zone and not the transition zone.

The second significant improvement that I can make is to brake later by choosing a later braking marker. Focusing on a faster transition (between acceleration and braking) should automatically move my braking marker closer to the corner anyway. The important thing to remember is moving your braking marker closer to your turn in point means that you have to brake harder to compensate for the less time that you now have in the braking zone. Matt was braking at 0.8g compared to my 0.6g; however if he had been slowing down from a higher speed then his braking deceleration would probably have been even greater than 0.8g that is shown in the video. This also illustrates just how little braking force I am using compared to Matt and it is another area where I can make more of an improvement.

On an intellectual level I understand what needs to be done to achieve a better lap time, however putting that knowledge into practice is much harder than it appears. What’s that saying about “not being able to teach an old dog new tricks”!

I’ve been told that the best way to make this kind of riding style change is to choose one or two corners only and focus on trying your changes gradually throughout the day rather than trying to do it for every corner and all in one go as this quickly becomes overwhelming.

I’ll report back on any improvement that I am able to make on this particular section of track next time I ride it.