The only way to optimize any lap on a race track or an autocross course is to be “ahead” of the course (instead of reacting to what’s right in front of you). The only way to do this is to Memorize the Course.
Photograph by Greg Phillips
When approaching a new race track or autocross course, I have found that although many good drivers are able to “rally” their way around a course by reacting to the corners and controlling the resulting slides and/or instability, taking the quickest line and picking up the appropriate apex, gas and braking points are always the fastest way around. The only way to do this is to know where you’re going well before you get there.
I instruct students to focus their first practice sessions on really looking at and learning the course, to the point where they should be able to sit in the pits, close their eyes, and tell me corner for corner, rise and fall, and bump for bump exactly what the track looks like. This is way more important than trying to drive at the limit right out of the box.
At an autocross, really try to start memorizing the course during the course walk. One way to get a leg up when going to an established race track is to gain familiarity with the track by reviewing the track map, and by reviewing videos posted by other drivers on the internet, not necessarily to copy their lines, speeds, and braking points, but to see what the track looks like as much as possible before attending. While at the track, riding in an instructor’s car is also a good way to look at the terrain while someone else is worrying about the details of driving. (The reason that you might not want to copy other people’s lines, speeds, and braking points is that they will most likely be different for different cars and, um, “different” driving techniques.)
A racing simulator can also be a great track learning tool, provided your track is one of the ones available on the sim. As a side benefit, you will be surprised how much easier (and fun) it is to follow a car race on TV when you’ve driven 20 laps of the track on your computer.