After months of class lectures, training courses, practice sessions, heckling, trash talking, anticipation, pressure, mind games and more, the exhibition matches for the Toyota Vios Cup are done.
The two heat race that took place last January 25, 2014 was, needless to say, far more exciting and exhilarating than any of us ever expected or imagined. By Toyota's official tally, nearly 6000 people made their way to the racetrack to enjoy the races, the trackday for the car clubs, the reverse bungee, the free karting experience and the concerts by SpongeCola, Ely Buendia and DJ Nina.
The event served as the kick-off for the actual Vios Cup; a one make racing series that Toyota Motor Philippines will hold this year and -if all goes well- will feature 35 identical customer and dealer cars racing on the grid.
Before that starts, however, I'd like to share my personal experiences and lessons that I had learned from taking part in the exhibition race. If you plan to try trackdays, racing or even the actual Toyota Vios Cup do read on; some of these might be useful to you.
Unlearn what you have 'learned'
Let's be honest with each other: most drivers typically come to trackdays, run-what-ya-brung or racing events with confidence. That's normal.
Most of us think that after taking part in a few racing events, after reading up on racing articles on the internet and Wikipedia, after watching Initial D, Days of Thunder, Rush, Top Gear, Fifth Gear or Best Motoring and playing Gran Turismo that we're all “knowledgeable” or “experts” to a degree. Therein lies the problem.
Given all the information on driving a race car or any other performance machine out there up for grabs with a quick Google search, it's common to step onto a racetrack with a misplaced sense of confidence. Having a belief that you'll do well right from the first practice session and don't need to learn from instructors such as the guys over at Tuason Racing School is the biggest mistake a novice or even an experienced driver can make. Such a mindset makes you unreceptive -stubborn, even- to any lessons, advice, tips or tricks they may have to impart on you.
Overconfidence or a false sense of confidence could have disastrous results on a racetrack. Contact while driving in city streets will result in a ding or two, but on a racetrack is far more dangerous, regardless of horsepower.
The best example of how to properly approach race training came in the form of an unlikely person: Rhian Ramos. Yes, many motorsport enthusiasts have scoffed that she's there as celebrity eye-candy for the promotional race, but the actress approached training with a very open and unspoilt mind when it comes to racing. Heck, she even had to learn how to drive a manual transmission when we all started our classes.
Over the course of the training period, Rhian dropped from her initial times in the region of 1:50's to low 1:20's after a few sessions. She absorbed all the training like a sponge and improved remarkably every session. Come race day, she was lapping at 1:18's, that's 30 seconds off her original times.
Approach training with an open mind. Regardless of your experience, there's always plenty to learn.
Practice makes permanent, not necessarily perfect
The cliché practice makes perfect is something I found to be quite untrue on a racetrack. Yes, it's fun to flog around a lightweight racecar around a circuit, but do keep in mind that practice is the time to learn the car, the track and yourself.
Admittedly we were all quite competitive during all of the timed practice sessions. It was only natural as we all tried to (1) get quicker, (2) measure our times against each other and (3) mess with each other's heads; we're here to compete after all. But such competitiveness has taken our focus away from fully improving our lines, shifting, cornering, braking and other elements needed to be quick on a track.
Repeated practice without analyzing and experimentation can make a slow line, a slow corner entry, over-braking and other errors permanent to the point that we as drivers don't recognize that they're preventing us from learning and getting quicker.
Only after you start to detach yourself from the actual times will you begin to experiment with different techniques, lines, corner exits, corner entries, kerb jumps and all other elements on the track. The TRS team also has a GPS datalogger so that you can see your speed on portion of the racetrack, an essential tool in getting us faster, allowing us to find the corners we could try a different technique.
Don't just drive and practice for the heck of it; focus less on the actual lap times and focus more on getting every element of your drive correctly.
Slow is fast, fast is slow
One thing I really learned in this whole experience is that to be fast, you have to take it slow.
It sounds strange in a business that's all about speed, but what it means is that you should hone your ability to slow down your mental approach and avoid rushing during any activity.
If you find yourself hustling the steering wheel, jumping on the pedals when braking or mashing the gear lever with gusto during shifting, there's a good chance you're slowing yourself down. The reason is you're rushing your motions and rushing your mind, and we all know that anything rushed can and will lead to uncharacteristic mistakes.
Try to slow down your mind when you hit the grid and when you're on the track. If you slow down your work behind the wheel, you'll be able to focus on actually getting faster.
No gameplan survives the first corner
We all have a tendency to play out different scenarios about how we do things.
In racing, that usually means a mental simulation about how it will go for you; how you will pass the car you might be chasing, how you will stay ahead, how you will get a jump on the leaders into the first corner, how you will choose to celebrate if you did win or even what kind of excuse you will come up with when you don't (usually drivers blame the car).
This is a fact: no simulation, plan or strategy will survive the first corner of the first lap. If anything, they end up getting flushed right down the toilet based on experience.
I had qualified in P2 for the grid of the first race, as it would mean I had the inside line (albeit a dirty line) for the very, very short run into the first corner of Clark International Speedway's West Short Course while P1 had a cleaner line but still on the outside. Needless to say I was confident of my chances to exit the first corner in P1, but even before the race the stewards declared a decision to move the entire grid. The polesitter would now begin at P7 onwards for safety and for a longer run into the first corner. Right then and there, my line advantage was neutralized.
Nevertheless I was still confident that ending up in P1 by exit first corner was very possible, so I had to adjust my plan a bit to account for that. On the grid for race 1 the polesitter, Phoemela Baranda, jumped the start maybe half a second too early and would definitely be penalized, but that meant I still had to pass her on the racetrack. Needless to say, there goes the plan... again.
On race 2 the grid positions were determined by the finishing order of the first race, so now I found myself on the clean but disadvantageous line at P1. Going by our practice launches during the many practice sessions, I felt I had a good chance at out-launching Jeff Reyes (P2) and James Deakin (P3) into the longer run to turn 1. When the 5 lights went out I made a great start but forgot to shift to second gear, and thus Reyes took the lead and I tucked in behind. Another plan out the window again.
Whatever simulation you have in your head for a race, it has a tendency to go straight to the gravel trap. The lesson here is to be adaptable to the ever changing conditions around you, and to not allow yourself to wallow in a mistake or a bit of misfortune. Be prepared to make it up as you go.
You need a little luck
A driver can be as great behind the wheel as he or she can, but if you're unlucky it can be the most frustrating race ever.
As in basketball (or any other sport), you need a few calls from the referees to go your way and at just the right time. Sure, you can be really really good, but that could all be negated if things beyond your control aren't falling in place for you.
During the second race, my prime opponent got a bit of luck at the start when I made a mistake, hitting the rev limiter in first gear. I had to give chase, applying increased pressure corner after corner, lap after lap. At one point he was able to extend enough of a lead to make catching up more difficult and, if I do, I'd have to push my tires and brakes beyond their best or even their limits.
Lady luck, it seems, was shining down on me after that botched start. I didn't know it at the time, but Rhian Ramos had a tough race after colliding with another driver. Her car has sustained heavy damage, and had slowed her down significantly, effectively making her the backmarker. Her pace after the collision enabled our battle to catch up to her far earlier than expected.
In all honesty the best place to catch and lap a back marker is on a straight; it just makes it easier to pass. As it stood, Reyes caught up to her in the worst place possible: the S turns of Clark Speedway, the slowest portion of the course and with no areas for the back marker to pull aside to.
Unable to move out of the way, Jeff was bottled up behind Rhian for three crucial, slow speed corners, and thus allowed me to reel him in closer. Apart from the gap disappearing, it also had the effect of disrupting a leader's driving rhythm.
Luck does play a big part especially if it kicks in at the right time on things you can't control. This holds especially true for one make races where there is no performance difference between the cars.
No one wins without a great team
In racing, often the fans just focus on the drivers; that's normal. Apart from the drivers, nobody else really sees the work behind the scenes, and there's a lot.
Save a thought for the amount of work that every instructor puts in to help you be faster. It may be challenging to deal with driving a race car around a track, but it's even more difficult for the instructors who have to sit there beside you as you do it. These guys can get quite dizzy riding in a racecar while you drive (especially if you're still learning the ropes of the car and the track), so be sure to thank them for that.
Most of all thank your mechanics and and treat them well. These are the guys that are truly behind the scenes that set up your car, the seat, the steering, suspension and everything else to your liking.
Over the course of the practice sessions for the 2014 Vios Cup, we all made adjustments to our individual racecars. My car was competitive, albeit I needed some adjustments to some of the controls. For one, I could barely fit in the seat, so they found me a slightly bigger one and installed it in a manner to suit my driving position. They also fitted the OMP 5 point harness to my liking so that I could be comfortable and safe around the track. Lastly, I asked the guys to put skateboard tape on the brake and clutch pedals to make it harder for my shoes to slip off. These are all minor things, but this group of hardworking guys all combined to provide and maintain a racecar that fits like a glove and performs like a dream.
The one thing you really want to avoid is to throw a fit and keep blaming the car. Take it from me, you don't want your team, mechanics and instructors to think (or possibly say): “There's nothing wrong with the car dude... but there's probably something wrong with your hands and your right foot.”
Observe others, but play your cards close to your chest
Now this is where a little gamesmanship comes into play: be observant of your competitors' driving techniques but try not to divulge much of your own.
Of course we're all friends when we're at the pits, but once on the track, we were all trying to improve ourselves and measure up against each other. The races last January 25 may have been for promotional purposes, but it's still a competition; what more the actual season that's coming up?
By observation, I don't mean looking at their times and yours when you head back to the pits.
Following a more skilled, more experienced and overall quicker driver is literally a front row seat to a treasure trove of information for the keen observer. Watch their braking points, their turn in points, their entry speeds, their exit speeds, steering angle and everything else you can. Eventually you'll see what they're doing differently from you, and you can incorporate those techniques (if they're quicker).
The reverse is also true: you also have to prevent yourself from giving too much information if it's you who is being followed by a fellow competitor. If you find yourself being tailed by any other racer, don't go all out and bare all of your techniques for them.
On one of the practice sessions, I was being tailed by Jeff, the driver who would eventually become my main target. Instead of showing the lines I was actually driving while practicing solo (including the neat little trick I was using at the Acacia complex of Clark Speedway), I chose to drive a slower racing line that someone would use to defend against an overtaking maneuver. It was about one second slower each lap, but that meant you won't be showing how you're actually getting your fastest times. In a one make race involving cars with low horsepower, having a few unrevealed tricks up your sleeve could be the difference between you and your fellow competitors.
At the end of the day racing is a game, and in a race where everyone drives the exactly the same car, every little edge counts.
Will power > Horsepower
I'll admit something I haven't told anyone: during the latter stages of the first race, I found myself questioning my own motivations for joining the Toyota Vios Cup.
They say the a race feels so quick if you're tailing the leader, looking for an opportunity to pass. I couldn't agree more. They also say the race feels like a lifetime if you're in the lead. Amen. In one day, I experienced both.
People watching said I just pulled away lap after lap after passing Phoemela and Jeff in the first and second heats, respectively. Let me tell you that there was nothing easy about it. You feel boxed when you're in the lead, tailed by a fierce driver with far more racing experience and far less body mass, with thousands watching including colleagues, pro racers, Toyota's top brass and hundreds of cameras.
When I sitting in that car, pushing it and myself to the limit, everything just hit me. It went something like this:
Do I really belong here? I'm the heaviest driver in a competition best left for lightweights. I'm tense. Wave that checkered flag already. I'm sweating. Can I go on? It's so hot in here. I'm ready to collapse. There are so many people watching my every move. I'm all alone. I want to pull into the pit lane. I want my mommy.
These were the things that crossed my mind while leading the first heat, but what you really find out is how much you really want to win, regardless of your own personal motivations.
Some join races for the material gains such as money or prizes. Some race because its one hell of an experience. Some race because they just simply love cars or want to be the best. Others race for pride, bragging rights and glory. All those reasons sound selfish, but it is what it is; no one lines up on the grid for selfless reasons.
That being said, the common thing is that everyone is racing to prove something, regardless of what that 'something' is. And that desire to prove something will hit you hardest in a wheel-to-wheel race. It will motivate you to push your lap times while you're in the lead, do things that you never thought you could do (i.e. race with your high beams) and dive, dive and dive again for any opening, pressuring your opponent to make a mistake... all for the desire to win in the moment.
You have to want it. You have to will it. And in a race involving equal cars, you have no mechanical edge above your competitors. The only difference you have is yourself, and the feeling you get is all the more incredible when you take the checkered flag in P1.
Toyota calls it waku-doki... and there's no feeling like it.
Check out my onboard video of the 2014 Toyota Vios Cup Exhibition Race - Heat 2 below as recorded by an FXD700 dashboard camera from Blackbox Philippines: