Differences Between Time Attack and Wheel-to-Wheel Racing
Each type of racing poses its own challenges and nuances. How does wheel-to-wheel competition benefit developing drivers in comparison to other types of racing?
Speaking from Experience
As a karter, autocrosser, racing instructor, and endurance driver, I’ve been able to experience almost every format of competition there is. Part of my job is to distill these lessons down for students so they can understand what to extract out of their time behind the wheel. While the racing world can be complicated, it’s certainly manageable if you go in with realistic goals that are defined clearly. After 15 years in the sport, here are my thoughts on time attack and wheel to wheel racing.
Will Wheel-to-Wheel Make me a Better Driver?
Absolutely. There is no replacement for the challenge of racing with other competition on the track. It is the highest form of 'high-speed' chess, requiring the kind of thinking that simply isn’t a factor in racing where lap times alone determine the winner (like time attack). The main reason is that wheel-to-wheel competition forces you to learn how to drive fast off of the ideal racing line. In time attack, this simply isn’t the case because you don’t have to deal with any substantial traffic. Driving fast while you navigate around corners is about a lot more than knowing how to stop someone from getting around you. Knowing how to fake a pass or confuse your opponent all comes into the game in the pro ranks.
Levels of Competition
From a numbers standpoint, the competition at the top of time attack is certainly interesting, so let’s look at the data. Last year in the World Time Attack Finals at Sydney Motorsport Park the Pro Class saw three entries that were separated by 7.73 seconds. The largest class (the Club Sprint Class) saw thirty-six entries separated by 34.927 seconds. Jump over to a standard karting class at the SKUSA Super Nationals in Las Vegas and you’ll find a field of forty-four racers who qualified within 1.912 seconds of each other. If these were the results at Sydney Motorsports Park, they would be the most competitive class in the world. Many wheel-to-wheel racing series serve as feeders into the pro ranks for a reason. Competition here is cutthroat and incredibly hard to dominate. You won’t see many 7.7 second gaps in qualifying at high-level wheel-to-wheel competition.
Learn to Charge
Wheel-to-wheel racing also forces great drivers to learn how to manage their brains in the car. The fastest qualifying time in both sports would be referred to as “the pace,” and this pace ultimately determines how far out of the competition you are, but it’s not that simple in wheel-to-wheel. Penalties occur, life happens, and other obstacles come up that force you to start from the middle of the grid or even the back. If you were the fastest guy, you now have the challenge of having to work through all of your competition to get back in front. No one cares that you were the fastest person anymore and it does you no good if you can’t work through traffic. This is the ultimate skill that a driver can possess and is a quality we marvel at when witnessed. Hard charging can only be mastered after years of experience in this arena.
Master Class Time Attack
Time attack drivers excel at setting a car up for one flying lap and then capitalizing on it without any error. In the previous world finals at Sydney, there have been some tremendously close battles. From a driving standpoint, car setup skill might as well be bars of gold when it comes to qualifying for a race weekend. Masters of time attack are masters of pressure and perfection when results are on the line. If you can overcome this challenge, it will give you a clear advantage, but it should be noted, when it comes to wheel-to-wheel racing, this is just one piece of the puzzle. The two compliment each other with wheel-to-wheel ultimately requiring a broader pallet of skills to be successful at.
Tire Degradation—The Black Art of Driving
One of the final ways that wheel-to-wheel racers really stretch their legs is in their ability to manage tire temperatures. This is something I got to experience first hand as an endurance racer when sharing a car with Steve Nichols—Ayrton Senna’s race engineer on the McLaren Honda team that became the stuff of legends. A truly great driver is one that can stay fast while tires are degrading. They can manage tire temperature so finely that they control when the grip is available during a race. It’s one thing to do a few laps on an old set per the rules, it’s a completely different ball game to do it for 2 hours after rain is pouring down and your team has been racing for 9 hours straight. All of your skills as a driver will be tested in endurance-style racing.
Final Thought—Never Daily a Track Car
Wheel-to-wheel is the most complete version of racing because it requires other styles of driving to be built thoroughly before success is tangible. If you choose to go down this path, your vehicle should serve as a dedicated track car as the risk of contact goes up tenfold compared to time attack. By perfecting a one-lap approach, you just might become an expert in qualifying which makes cross training with these two disciplines a must. So don’t hesitate, get out there and try to out-brake your competition. Just make sure you can get home safely should anything go wrong. Never compete in your street car in a wheel to wheel race, opt only for a vehicle that has been prepared with a full roll cage, safety harnesses, and a fuel cell to ensure you are as safe as can be. Smooth is fast, but safe is always faster.