Unlock time trials success: The data and strategies you need

By J.G. Pasterjak
Nov 30, 2023 | Time Trials, Track Driving | Posted in Features | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Dave Green

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Time trial racing has never been more popular or accessible. What was once seen as a steppingstone to wheel-to-wheel racing has matured into its own scene, its own venue and its own culture.

It’s a place for big wings, big imaginations and, as of late, big events. And those events have taken on a unique vibe. Instead of every driver for themselves, there’s a community spirit of “Let’s all go fast.” 

Time trial racing seems simple: Fastest car against the clock wins. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and complexities emerge. When done at a high level, time trial is a specific discipline requiring a specific approach to consistently succeed.

New to the sport? Looking to shave a few tenths in a quest for a personal record? Some best practices can help you achieve those goals.

Check Your Head

When you start approaching time trial as its own specialized venue, it becomes clear that success all starts with the proper mental approach. Motorsports is a head game as much as any other sport. 

You may think the proper headspace involves a total focus on apexes and exits, but when you start breaking down the specific discipline of time trial, you can spot some of the peculiarities of the sport.

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

So yes, you absolutely must be dialed in to pushing the car to 100% at all times, but you also have to be dialed in to whether or not what feels like 100% in the moment is actually 100%. This means knowing your car’s ideal conditions as well as knowing when to push, when to back off and when to give up. 

Under the Hood

Going fast is usually about making the most horsepower possible, but time trial racing adds a unique twist: making that max power when the clock is running. 

Any engine is going to have a sweet spot where it produces its ideal power, and we’re talking about factors that can mostly be monitored through temperatures. The three most impactful measurements–and also often the easiest to monitor–are intake air temp, coolant temp and oil temp. 

In general, for peak performance, you want low intake air temperature, moderate but not too high coolant temperature, and oil that’s warm enough to protect the engine.

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

If some of those factors seem at odds, well, it’s because they are. And if some of them seem somewhat out of your control, well, that’s also partially true, but knowing how they affect performance is a hugely beneficial data point.

The easiest way to do this is on the dyno. Many dyno operators provide their customer service by trying to produce the highest numbers possible during a session, so they’re often obsessed with allowing cars to cool as much as possible between runs to lower those intake air temperatures. 

But something as simple as running and logging a few hot dyno pulls can provide some important data points. Maybe your power doesn’t fall off much, or at all, with increased intake temps. If so, good for you. That’s one less thing to worry about. Or maybe output falls precipitously once at a certain temperature, meaning any laps run past that point are just a waste of time. 

Your rules might prevent you from making changes to the car to counteract any rising intake temps, but simply having this information available in real time–via factory gauges, a standalone ECU or even an OBD interface–can help you form a more strategic plan of attack. Remember, we’re after that one, winner-takes-all fast lap. 

On the Ground

Your tires also have a sweet spot they like to operate in. While you’re keeping an eye on engine temps, you also have tires to worry about. 

For most modern, track-focused rubber–think today’s 200tw tires–that sweet spot is barely above ambient temperature. This means you’re likely to run one or two–maybe three–hot laps before you need to do something to manage tire temps. 

If you have R-compound rubber, typically they need to build at least a bit of heat before they start producing max grip, but even that varies. A tire like the autocross-focused Hoosier A7 comes in much more quickly–more like a 200tw tire–while something aimed at the road race market needs additional warming before delivering max performance.

[How to make tires last longer? Heat cycling]

How about adding more complications to the mix? For instance, the number of heat cycles on a tire can affect its warmup curve. And don’t forget about ambient and track surface temperature, humidity, and even the heat retained by the tires between sessions. Oh, and if you have to drive through wet grass to get back to your paddock spot, how does that affect things? 

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

You see where we’re going with this. As with engine performance, there’s often precious little you can do about these factors, but knowing how they affect your overall grip is a huge part of the battle. 

This is where notes and data come in. Tires at their max grip level make themselves apparent on a data trace not only with high lateral numbers but with higher speeds in the final phases of cornering and less falloff at turn-in. If you’re seeing speed traces that dip under the mean at turn-in, it could be a driver confidence thing, but it could also be tires starting to fall off a bit. 

So how do you manage tires to your advantage once you know where their sweet spot is? Well, knowing how quickly your tires cool is an important data point. The easy way to determine this is to take tire temperatures after a hot pit entry; then take them again after a cooldown lap. 

In some cases–say, August at Sebring–you may find it difficult to cool some overheated 200tw tires without simply parking the car for a while. So unless you’re only trying to get more seat time, ending a session after a confident flyer may be the most strategic approach.

It’s About Time

Remember, time trial competition is all about setting a single fast lap, so having real-time feedback is a valuable tool. That’s why we’re huge fans of data systems that feature predictive timing displays. Keeping half an eyeball on a predictive timer during a hot lap is as important as keeping that other half eyeball on your mission-critical gauges. 

We like predictive timers that feature large, colored digits so we can primarily focus on the road. If our peripheral vision is picking up green digits from the predictive display–meaning we’re outpacing our reference lap–then we know to keep our right foot planted. 

If those predictive digits turn red, however, it’s time to start devoting a small amount of brain capacity to decisions about the rest of that lap. Again, familiarity and consistency are your allies here. 

Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

For example, if you’re down a tenth of a second after the second turn of a long, 17-turn track, there are still plenty of opportunities to dig yourself out of that hole. But down half a second three turns from the finish line? Maybe back it off and cool your tires and engine so you can attack the next lap.

Or you can sacrifice that lap a bit to leverage the next one. For example, you could take an extra-wide entry followed by a late apex on that final corner to build some extra speed on the next lap. 

Another option: Throw away that lap and use the track time to better reposition yourself for the next one. No matter the answer, that consistent, real-time data gives you intel that can help you fine-tune your approach for that perfect lap. 

Putting It All Together

You know your car and yourself. What’s next for nailing that all-important lap? Communication. 

Before you head out, chat with the others in your session regarding strategies and approaches. Is the lead driver going to take an aggressive out lap, or will they loaf it and get on the gas at the final corner? Are you gridded with more powerful cars that handle poorly or great-handling cars that can’t get out of their own way? 

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

How will you all let each other know that you’re on that perfect lap? A flash of the headlights? Or will everyone have to watch their mirrors and just realize when they’re being outpaced? 

And that raises another point: On-track courtesy is key to success. Keeping an eye in your mirror for faster traffic and adjusting your pace to allow those cars to pass at the least impactful moment is a skill you want to master, because those are favors you’ll want returned when the time comes. 

Get on Track

If this all sounds like we’re overcomplicating what should be a simple competition, well, that’s just the popularity of time trial pushing the competition to a higher and higher level. 

Photography Credit: Dave Green

The important thing to remember is that you don’t need to try to engage every single one of these techniques at your next event. No one wants to be stuck behind someone doing math on their fingers while they produce a four-axis grid in their mind cross-referencing their intake air temps, coolant temp, relative humidity and sun angle. 

Still, these best practices point out that this discipline is more complex than you may have given it credit for, and that’s what makes it fun.

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BA5 GRM+ Memberand Reader
11/15/22 10:33 a.m.

The real beauty of TT is that you can go out and just race yourself if you really want to.

Maybe my car just isn't competitive.  But I can go out and just try to go faster than I did last time.

rallynutdon None
1/20/23 4:24 p.m.

 Hillclimbs are time trials. Why aren't they mentioned at all?

SlowHonda New Reader
1/21/23 3:59 p.m.

Our Canadian based Ontario Time-Attack series is a bit different.  We have practice sessions in the mornings (with passing) followed by a series of competition sessions in the afternoon. Each session is only 5 laps and cars are released on to the track at about 6 second intervals. 1 warms up , 3 hot laps, 1 cool down, lather rinse and repeat.  Fastest car in the morning starts first and slowest starts last.  We run between 6 and 12 cars at a time depending on the expected lap times. Means you have to get up to speed pretty quickly but there is no issue with having to time your fastest lap around someone else's cool down lap (meaning no excuses either). Chance of car to car contact is virtually nil as there is no passing during competition sessions. If you improve significantly from the morning sessions, you move up the order (and vice versa if you get slower).  Street cars are welcome and can usually last 5 laps without overheating although you definitely want good brakes.

DavidGooden New Reader
11/30/23 2:53 p.m.

Clicked specifically to find out the GRM Z06's time at Sebring. indecision

Also, I recognized that turn 7 pic right away.

Here's mine...


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