The Driver’s Seat- Part 1: Right-foot vs. Left-foot braking

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The Driver's Seat
On the Podcast the question of left foot vs. right foot braking came up. I gave a quick answer to what is a much deeper and more complicated subject. From the annoying old man on the interstate who’s brake lights pop on every 2 secs as he rests his foot on the brake pedal of his Buick skylark, then spills his McCoffee on his lap when he abruptly brakes for an invisible object to the hot rod drag racer that brake torques his Camaro in the high school parking lot to only burn out straight into a lamppost. Left and right foot braking is a hot button topic amongst racing drivers all over the world; it’s a technique toward a very specific goal the driver is trying to achieve in the car.

I broached this question while sitting down at lunch with some of the other instructors at the school the other week and it turned into an hour of great conversation and analysis. So I thought I would let you into the world of the racing driver and what we talk about around the water cooler, No housewives of New Jersey here I’m afraid.

We thought we’d offer a two-part series to let you see how two different styles can be argued in the professional driving world by two very fast and professional drivers.

Part one will feature Nico Rondet arguing on behalf of right-foot braking.

In the right corner Nico Rondet Chief instructor at the Jim Russell Racing School. Nico has won multitude of championships around the world including the Dodge Pro Series. He was also a winner in the Formula Atlantic’s.
If there’s anything I don’t quite understand on the technology side (I know, it’s hard to believe I don’t know everything) I discuss it with Nico, we usually agree with most things on the drivers of F1, especially our love for Felipe.

Part two will feature Jeff Westphal, who we’ve interviewed on F1B Downshift, arguing on behalf of left-foot braking.

In the left corner, Jeff Westphal. Formula Ford 2000 champion and Grand Am racer Jeff is a true student of the sport, when not off racing, he is an excellent instructor at the School. Very analytical in his approach, he is often hired by teams to drive and engineer their cars to greater success. Not as old and jaded as I, Jeff is just starting out on his racing career but Nico has been heard saying Jeff is one of the only guys who is good at left foot braking so the perfect person to argue the point.

Both these guys are very fast drivers, but also have great engineering minds so enjoy the perspective. Be sure not to miss Jeff’s rebuttal tomorrow on left-foot braking. Here is part one of our feature:

Why have I been opposed to Left Foot Braking?

Reason number one for drivers to want to left foot braking… is because they don’t know how to heel-toe downshift.
Reason number 2 is that’s what they have been doing in Go-Karts… and those require a completely different technique.
The main benefit of Left Foot Braking is the possibility of keeping a more stable degressive pressure not influenced by the blips… nice theory…

Why is Right Foot Braking better?

• First, there is a ballistic effect when you are in a rush to get to that brake pedal… optimal transition times are between 3 and 5 tenth of a second, from full throttle to peak brake pressure. Any faster and you will outrun the load transfer which in Formula cars is the time it takes to compress the front tires. In other cars, you have to factor in the time it takes to compress the suspension as well. There lies the first biggest caveat of Left Foot Braking… it is easy to not only make that too short, but actually to overlap the pedals… and getting front lock-up before the load is there, as your other foot on the throttle is keeping the load back! Once those front wheels are locked… they will stay locked unless you let go… of the brakes.

• Now let’s speak of the braking efficiency itself. The faster you go, the more kinetic energy you have, the more load will you be able to transfer to the front tire as they, we all know do most of the braking. So the more braking power you might have without getting lock up. As speed goes down… so does the kinetic energy and your potential load transfer… and your front tire grip. That’s why you need to get on the brakes right away, and then have a degressive trend throughout the braking zone. This is true to any vehicle… and even more important when you are speaking of aero cars. When Left Foot braking, it is extremely hard not to increase that pressure, as you have nothing to support yourself… The belts can be as tight as you can and the seat molded onto you (and that’s the best scenario as in an open wheel car). It is never enough. When you start getting more than 2-3 Gs in deceleration, it is almost impossible to not add pressure… but that’s when you need to be coming away from that pedal! Furthermore, I have encountered drivers getting problems with their automated transmissions… (Think paddle shift systems) because of the big Gs and nowhere to go, their RIGHT foot was actually applying Throttle within the braking zone… stopping the transmission from downshifting… if your foot is on the brake pedal… it is not going to be pushing on the gas without you knowing.

• Now let’s say that conscious of the overlap, the left foot braker slows down his footwork … chances are he then will ease, rather than stab that brake pedal… not achieving peak pressure soon enough.

• Having your Left Foot on the Rest Pedal, bracing yourself is the best way to stop you from adding more pressure when you don’t want it… Even very tight submarine belts (ouch) are never as good.

• That left foot on the rest pedal is also your only mobile contact point in the car. The steering wheel moves right? And your seat as well. Just like you learn how to balance yourself on a single foot, that single solid contact point gives you much better feel than your… humm glutes… although people love to say that they feel the car through their pants, I think that they feel much more through their feet, and of course your inner ear for balance.

• Now let’s get to the corner and the brakes… Left foot brakers there too tend to overlap pedals… and immediately induce understeer because of picking up the power too soon rather than letting the car turn… then next lap they delay their brake release…over slowing the entry to then be able to get on the power soon rather than let the car roll freely at peak cornering grip

• There is also the intimidation factor… some corners take some nerve to conquer, think Eau Rouge in Spa or worse, Blanchimont at Spa as well, Becketts at Silverstone, the Bridge corner without the Bridge at Road America. Anyway. Corners like these, if you are Right foot braking… you know you need a quick brush and then right back to some throttle… no time to linger on that brake pedal… if you are left foot braking… it is easy to slow down a little bit longer… and lose a few mph too many. Of course you could apply power already to keep that speed up, but then again that overlap would be inducing understeer and a false sense of the limit wouldn’t it?

• Now, another issue is that if your left foot is on the brakes… well you really can’t use the clutch now can you? I recall many times in my own little career where not being perfect with my blips and… well dipping the clutch just saved the car… sure I may have lost a few tenth but compared to a spin or worse. That downshifting business is quite aggressive. I’m still always amazed to see the front wheels of our FJR coming off the ground just because of a bad downshift! The clutch will always smoothen things a little both for peak braking performance and for mechanical sympathy. There is a point, where the brakes and grip level of the car is so high that now it is no longer the engine slowing the gears but the wheels dragging down the rpms… at that point, you can blip you life away, it is not going to cure the problem anymore… you need to use the clutch then, even if only about 20 percent of its travel.

• So I end up starting the braking or what I call zone 1 with my left foot on the rest pedal, lasts about 3-5 tenth of a second, and results in peak deceleration Gs. Then as my right foot reaches over to blip the throttle, my left foot slightly depresses the clutch as well; the gear slips in and my feet both release the outer pedals. Repeat for each downshift. That is Zone 2. Then we enter Zone 3, the brake release: At that point my left foot has returned to the Rest Pedal and gives me the best feel of the car. 100% of the reason why I’m still braking is to make sure that the car will turn exactly where I want it. I don’t need to slow down anymore but my front tires still need that extra load. If they don’t need it… I’m going too slow!!

• All that overlapping ends up burning through more fuel brakes and tires… not good for any length of race.

• The only place where Left foot braking belongs is on ovals. On ovals, you car is set-up to turn left. The alignment is different, the corner weights are different, the spring (if allowed) and shocks are different… you need to steer to the right in the straights! If you lift off the gas the response is quick positive… plus the speeds makes things more dramatic… I never ran Indy, but even places like Milwaukee, Phoenix or Gateway are really fast when you turn into turn 1 flat out. I always left my left foot right above the brake pedal, if the rear of the car was moving around too much I would brush that brake… torquing the front wheels but not allowing the load transfer as I would stay pinned down… and then the car would understeer gently, then if needed I could gradually come off both pedals simultaneously to slow down. I kept a little bit more Front Bias to achieve this at best. And that allowed me to drive a car fairly loose on the ovals without taking too many chances…

• Of course all of that is only relevant to rear wheel drive cars… when driving front wheel drives, whenever you overlap the pedals, you really are applying mostly the rear brakes, kind of using the E-brake but more subtle, that’s why it became a popular technique with rally drivers.

• And of course, there are plenty of cars where you need to use the clutch period… so you need to know how to Heal-Toe anyway. I always tell young karters: keep your left foot for Karting and ovals and train your right foot for cars… Luckily we don’t have 2 separate brakes for Front and Rear as Motorcycle do…

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