Friday, January 22, 2016

RallyWagon Goes To School

Last Saturday we were fortunate to spend a day at Crazy Leo's all new advanced driving school getting some much needed seat time and learning from the master of loose surface driving. The school is just outside Hamilton, about an hour's drive from Toronto and provides different packages for anyone - from die hard rally fanatics like us, to people who have never heard of the sport.

The forecast called for a snowy or wet day, so we took the snow and gravel tires, leaving the ice tires behind. Naturally, Murphy's law kicked in and when we got there we saw that the surface was ice, with a sprinkling of gravel here and there. Our Yokohama A034 tires designed primarily for deep snow (of which there was none) would have to do.

Street snow tires vs. rally snow tires

The car we would be driving was Herman's Impreza Wagon - our backup to the original RallyWagon this season, while the RallyWagon undergoes a heart transplant and some other much needed work. We also brought out a second Impreza Wagon - a backup to the backup, in case Herman's car decided to blow its engine... again. Should have called the site "RallyWagons".

We arrived to the sight of Leo's school cars standing in front of the CSCS truck - a Legacy with an automatic gearbox for those wanting to learn about loose surface driving without being distracted by shifting gears, and a newly-acquired bugeye WRX for more advanced students. Both cars available for arrive and drive experiences, perfect for people who want to try their hand at rally driving without having to invest into building or buying a car.

Lastly, there was the Race Lab GC coupe. A fully prepped rally car with roll cage, rally suspension, and STi drivetrain. This car was the real deal, used by Leo to scare the living daylights out of willing passengers.

After a brief driver's meeting outlining how the day will run, we got to the starting line, did our best Crazy Leo impersonation for the camera, and set off on our session of open lapping. That's right, open lapping on a two-minute rallycross course, driving flat out as much as we wanted. The sessions were restricted to a very limited number of competitors so we rarely had to wait in line for more than a car or two.

To gauge our progress and compare different driving styles we've equipped the car with a simple data logger. A mobile phone app, with an external bluetooth GPS unit mounted to the dash for higher accuracy and higher refresh rate. It was a very valuable learning tool.

We started off the day with times in the low 2:30-s, but as our confidence and familiarity with the car and track grew, the times decreased... as did our distance to certain obstacles on the course.

Log of one of our faster laps

In order to reduce our speeds on some long straight sections, artificial chicanes were set up using large metal barrels. In competition, touching one of these barrels would result in severe time penalties so a cautious line would be the better choice. Given that this was a school and not a competition we quickly got a little too cocky with our lines and entry speeds.

Danil chose a line that was as close to the barrels as possible. In autocross, with soft rubber cones, and only your best run counting - this would have been a great strategy. Given that the barrels weren't as forgiving - not so much. In one run, he got way too comfortable with the barrels, came too close, and clipped one on the driver's side... and another one on the passenger's side, for nice symmetrical scratches.

I on the other hand had a problem with entry speed. At first, I was being cautious through the chicanes as I would in competition. But I soon decided that the best strategy to reduce lap times was to maximize speeds on the straights. Our fastest ever speed on the straight before the last chicane was 80 km/h (according to our trusty logger). I decided to try it at 83. As I got to the chicane, I pitched the car sideways, locking up all four tires under braking and saw the first barrel quickly heading towards us. At the last second, I decided that there's no way I'm making it through the chicane, so I swerved off track and completely passed around it.

Interestingly, I didn't learn my lesson there. Thing is - Leo told us that rallying is all about searching for grip, not necessarily on the racing line. And I spotted a nice patch of gravel just at the entrance to the chicane. If you overshoot it, you hit ice and loose any chance of slowing down but if you hit it just right you can slow down from just about any speed, so I thought. So on one of the next runs I found myself barreling down (pun intended) into the same chicane at 87! That's a whopping 7 km/h faster than the speed at which any of us were able to successfully negotiate it. Naturally, the gravel patch didn't help me slow down from that speed, and I went on yet another off-track excursion!

At some point in our lapping session, Leo hopped into the car with us to give us some coaching. At first, he asked me to run a lap with him watching so that he can assess my progress and identify what I should be working on. It took a lot of focus not to mess anything up with Leo watching, but I ran a 2:24 - one of our best times that morning.

Then Leo got into the driver's seat to check how our car handles, and to show us specific examples of technique, lines, and things to look for on the track. Leo was amazing - it took our full concentration to drive as fast as he did, meanwhile he casually talked, explaining things as he flew sideways through corners in a car he never drove before.

At the end of his run, he noticed our data logger on the dash. He said - did you catch the time for that run? I had a look at the logger, and - surprise! - it was 2:26, two seconds slower than my run! This didn't sit well with Leo's competitive side, so he jumped back behind the wheel, put his game face on, and ran a 2:21 - a full 5 seconds faster than any of us were able to manage.

Leo is a phenomenal teacher. In my years racing I've often asked people for advice, and you sometimes meet people who are very fast but are either reluctant to share their "secrets" or simply can't articulate how they do what they do. Leo is the complete opposite - he is a rally encyclopedia and gives teaching 110% as if sharing knowledge and watching others succeed fuels him. If you're willing to listen, you'll walk away with so much information your head will want to explode. All while having a blast, and sharing some laughs in the process as well.

By the end of the open lapping session, a lot of the ice had melted and the times really began to drop. Danil managed a 2:09, and my best run was just 3 tenths of a second slower. Even Herman was starting to put down some impressive times, considering it was his second time ever driving a rallycross course. His technique improved dramatically too.

Unfortunately the melting ice wasn't good news for our soft compound snow tires. There was so much gravel on the track that it just ate away at the tread blocks. At some point we decided it was time to try out the gravel tires - both to reduce wear on our snow tires, and to see how the different tires would cope. We had the time for it, so why not experiment?

We got to the paddock, swapped to gravel tires, and I got behind the wheel to see what the difference would be like. Oh man, was there a difference! There were only a couple corners left with any sort of ice, but as soon as I hit those corners I realized how useless anything but a winter tire is on ice. I nearly spun out a couple times, and on one high-speed corner I almost understeered completely off the track. According to the data I was nearly 20 seconds slower than I was on the snow tires - I ran a 2:29. Interestingly my speed through the gravel sections was about the same on both tires, but on ice my speed with the snow tires was 20 - 30% higher than on the gravels, which is huge.

Thinking about it in hindsight - gravel inherently provides a lot of grip to any tire. Yes, specialized gravel tires work better than others, but the difference in grip isn't that huge. Meanwhile on ice there is so little grip that you absolutely need specialized winter tires - a soft compound, with proper sipes. Using anything but on ice will result in a dramatic loss of traction. So, lesson learned - if possible, use a tire for the most slippery surface on the track. If it's a mix of ice and gravel, ice tires are optimal regardless of how little ice there is.

Our poor snow tires, after a day at Race Lab

In short, we had an absolute blast at Race Lab. Got so much seat time, we didn't have the energy to do any more runs even if we could. Learned a lot of technique and rally wisdom from Leo. Even got to experiment with different tires, which would be unheard of at the 5 - 6 runs we typically get at rallycross. Race Lab, we'll definitely be back!

Race Lab arrive and drive WRX

Race Lab arrive and drive Legacy

Race Lab experience rally car


  1. Great blog, I enjoyed reading it! Would you mind sharing what datalogging equipment/app you are using?

    1. Thank you! We'll probably do a more detailed post on datalogging sometime in the future.
      Briefly - we currently use an app called Harry's LapTimer GP with an external bluetooth GPS called SkyPro XGPS160. It's a good option on a budget, but we have been having some reliability issues with it - not sure if they're caused by the app or the phone or the GPS. That said Harry's support is second to none, so if an issue comes up it gets resolved very quickly. A proper hardware logging solution would probably be more reliable, but it would be many times more expensive and more difficult to move from car to car.