Track Masters Feature: Ray Grimes

Track Masters Feature: Ray Grimes

Author: Kevin Haggarthy

Track driving is great fun. That’s why we all do it. Yet the challenge – and what makes track days ultimately rewarding – is to get the best both out of ourselves, and the car. In our Track Masters Series we speak to some of the Country’s top instructors on how to do both to ultimately get the most out of your track day.

Top man

First up is Ray Grimes. Ray has been a professional race instructor for over 25 years, and racing competitively for even more. He started his racing career in karting as a young man ‘many years ago’ winning his first season Championship in the very first year.  In his first year of long circuit karting he was sponsored by Formula 1 ace David Coulthard’s father Duncan, who thought Ray ‘deserved a break!’ He also got support to move to cars that year, winning five out of six of the races. Whilst racing in the TVR Tuscan Challenge in 1989, Ray started instructing for the Nigel Mansell Racing School, as well as instructing for many manufacturers.

Fiorano Ferrari put the word out that they were looking for top instructors. Ray competed with some 180 candidates to be selected in the final ten, and within three months became Chief instructor for Ferrari UK, remaining with them for some 10 years, and instructing for Ferrari across Europe whilst still remaining active in competitive racing. Ray has taught eleven champions in the last seven years and raced everything from Fiesta’s to British GT as a works driver, in Britcar, and for Mclaren in Dubai. So what’s Ray’s take on track day driving? 

The driver

“The first and most important thing” Ray tells us, “… is to get yourself set up properly behind the wheel. The classic Italian racing driver position with long outstretched arms and head in the air is no good. You should sit with the seat upright, place your wrist on the steering wheel so you have a slight bend in the arm when at the quarter-to-three or ten-to-two position, allowing you flexibility to correct the car without having to stretch. The proof is if you hold your arms out straight for 20 seconds and after a while they feel like lead; your arms get very heavy and you can’t concentrate because your arms ache. Try that with a bend in your arms and you won’t get the same effect. It detracts from concentration. Relaxed arms also allows you to be light on the steering wheel. Also make sure your mirrors are set up properly so you have a clear view behind and on both sides”

On track – slowly does it

“If the circuit has an instructor then 20-30 mins with the instructor is the best value you can ever have. You’ll learn a lot more in that time than by yourself; you could do 5 or 6 track days and not learn as much as you would from an instructor in 20mins!’ The instructor will teach you techniques, such as how to look through corners and pick up the racing line. If you don’t want to spend the money then the key is to pay attention on the sighting laps, get as close to the lead instructor as possible, because then you can see what lines he is taking, whereas at the back you cant.”

Learn the circuit

Ray argues against rushing into it all straight away.  “The first thing to do is learn the circuit. Learn where the bends go so you know what’s coming next. If it’s a new circuit you should learn every corner. Work on each quarter of the circuit at a time in the morning session, then piece it all together one section at time so that by the afternoon so you are going faster all round”

“People sometimes get overenthusiastic and want to go very quickly before they know where they are going. If you do this early you’ll never learn your racing lines; you’ll make lots of mistakes and possibly crash your car. If you go faster than you are capable of going, then you will produce the same mistakes throughout the day. If you see a faster car coming just get out the way and let them go, and then make a space for yourself and allow yourself to concentrate. If you go fast too early you’ll end up frustrated and learn very little. Work on improving on each corner and correct/amend mistakes as you go along.

Look ahead

“When you’re on track the key thing is to look well ahead. Motorcyclists tend to look further ahead than the average driver because they expect someone to pull out on them, so they look for potential accident situations. On track, where everyone is going fast in the same direction, it is important to look further ahead and take the information in before you get to the next corner. You need to be looking well ahead to spot your next turning in point, apex, and exit point. If you only look just in front of the bonnet you have no information, so when you get to the corner everything is happening very quickly, whereas if you look further down the road you can pre-empt what you are going to face. I.e. is it a hairpin, a cambered corner, a fast corner?   – you are already prepared for what is up ahead”

Ray emphasises the importance of looking into the corners ..”don’t just look through the windscreen” he says….” If you are approaching a hairpin look through your side window and into the corner you are going into next. A Shire horse has blinkers on and cannot see left to right; the same happens to you as the driver if you only look through the windscreen without using the side windows. [It is important to] “…move your head earlier so you can prejudge our apexes in advance”

Be smooth

Ray is a strong advocate for smoothness; “It is very important to be smooth on the circuit first time out and not too aggressive. If you re aggressive the car will be bouncing and jerking all over the place, the smoother you are the more the car will enjoy the experience with you” But how do you achieve smoothness? “On a fast corner you brake lighter in a longer area so the car is more balanced, and when you come off the brake it should be a nice smooth transition and not an aggressive one, allowing you to carry more speed through the corner. If it’s a tight hairpin corner you can go into it quicker and brake heavier because you are loading up the front end which is producing more grip, but stay on the brake longer for there is a thing called ‘trail braking’ that every racing driver uses to set up the car for the bend; trail-braking means that you brake as you are applying steering into a bend; it puts weight on the nose giving you more grip. You stay on the brake until the car is facing the direction you want to go, and that’s when you come off the brake as the car is facing the right way. There’s no point in coming off the brake too early because you’ll end up pointing the … (front of the car)…the  wrong way and it produces understeer, if that happens you’ll need to apply more steering lock into the bend which in turn produces more roll in the car resulting in greater imbalance. When you come off the brakes your front wheel must be facing the direction you want to go. If the car is facing the direction you want to go whilst still on the brakes, you can apply the throttle when the car is in a straight line meaning it is more balanced.”

“Road cars on track days are softer sprung than race cars and the chassis is not so stiff. Trail braking rotates the nose; aim to be a ‘dimmer switch’ with smooth application rather than a ‘light switch’ to keep the car in balance! The principle applies equally to front or rear wheel drive cars – it makes no difference”

“It’s also important to try and stay calm and relaxed. Steering input into a bend with trail braking is relatively minimal, as the technique reduces the amount of steering you need. If the car is oversteering into the bend, simply lift off [the throttle] to pull the nose back into place. Sideways might look sexy but it is slow as you are going in the wrong direction, and you’ll find you are being overtaken by everyone. Slower cars can even beat really high performance cars with ‘smoothness’”.

SETTING UP YOUR CAR

BRAKES

Ray reckons brakes are crucial; “Pick on any average car and the most important thing is brakes. On track days brakes are put through pressures beyond what they were originally built for. Normal brake fluid will often overheat and your pads will get too hot too early, so you’ll start to get a spongy pedal. Never do more than 20 minute sessions on track at a time – if you go beyond that then concentration lapses, so allow yourself up to 15 mins on track and then do a final slow lap afterwards to allow the brakes to cool down. Park your car up in the paddock, put it in gear with the handbrake down, switch it off, and leave it in gear. Do not put the handbrake on because if you do the pads cool down on the disc, and where the contact is made it will stay hotter than the rest of the disc meaning you could end up with a warped disc. Best to leave the car to cool and go and have a coffee.  It is better to invest money on track day brakes than to smash the car into a barrier due to brake fade. – It’ll cost you more in the end!”

“So change your fluid and brake pads. A good after-market specialist will advise you on the best high performance brake fluid for your particular type of car. Re brakes, you’ll only need a track day pad not racing ones. A race pad will squeal in normal road driving. Track day pads are just a slightly harder compound that can take higher temperatures. You can still use track day pads for normal road driving.” Ray reckons this rule of thumb on brakes applies to all makes of car – even high performance cars, as road cars are not designed for regular lap after lap driving.

SUSPENSION

You get more body roll on the track due to greater stresses being put on the car so Ray advises the fitting of adjustable dampers. “A cheaper option is to put stiffer anti roll bars on the front of the car to reduce the amount of body roll. You don’t want it front and rear, it’s best to have the front stiffer than the rear so that the platform on the front doesn’t pitch as much, keeping the front wheels on the tarmac for a longer period”.

“Fitting Poly bushes is also a cheaper way of improving handling – if you look at the mounts on your suspension, at the end of each component is a rubber mount; the rubber wears causing more flexibility so Poly bushes are like a hard plastic that doesn’t wear out – it’s a good way to stiffen your car up without spending a lot of money. A mechanic can do it really easily and it is the cheapest way to make your car handle better.”

tyres

“Tyres are very important” says Ray.” …a lot of people don’t take note of the tyre pressures when out on track. Each car has a manufacturer set ‘working’ pressure; say its 30 lbs, if you go out on a hot day and start at 30 lbs the pressure will go up and reduce the total grip of the tyre. Check tyre pressures immediately when you come into the pits and if you find them higher then reduce the pressure to the recommended level. Let it cool down naturally and that will be your starting tyre pressure for your next session.” Ray advises spending money on a good tyre gauge to make sure pressure readings are accurate

General advice

Track-day goers sometimes query recommended fuel levels but Ray reckons that the amount of fuel you put in the car doesn’t really matter as you are on a track day, not racing. He recommends you take a spare can of fuel though, make sure nothing is loose in the car and secure everything that is in the boot.  Oh, and don’t forget your toe hook as these must be fitted whilst on track.

Two final tips! Make sure yours is not a noisy car -98db is the current maximum; Ray recommends taking some packing or a baffle to fit on the exhaust to quieten the engine down if necessary. Finally, you should invest in a good seat “A really good seat is advisable as your standard seat has no lateral support, so it’s worth getting some good seats and a good bolt in roll cage is recommended for added safety”.

Cheers Ray. Next issue we’ll be getting some tips from the highly experienced Chief track day instructor and racer Peter Alexander on his greatest highs and lows of track day driving. See you next time….

Ends.