A driving lesson with one of racing's greats
Lime Rock, Conn. — `IT'S the same technique whether you're driving a road car or a race car,'' insists race-car driver Jackie Stewart. Drive as if you had an egg attached to the bottom of your right foot. The message: Be smooth!
Sitting behind the wheel of a specially prepared Mercury Merkur XR4ti, I went for a spin with auto racing's three-time world champion and statistically the most successful Grand Prix driver of all time. Not the Scotsman from Dumbarton, but I was at the wheel. Mr. Stewart was teacher, I the pupil. The day was bright, the track dry.
The idea, said Stewart, was to ``teach me how to really drive a car - not on the racetrack, but on the road.''
With a race-driver's harness holding both of us snugly in the seats, I turn the ignition key and the engine springs to life.
``OK, we're off,'' says Stewart in his familiar high-pitched voice, as I, a 40-year veteran of the highways, hit the gas. (``Whew! It's fast,'' I say as I round the first bend and head for the S-curves up ahead.)
``Stay in third gear,'' demands Stewart, who stoically sits in the passenger seat, his eyes on the road. ``No, no, no - that's fifth. Now you're in third,'' gently chastizing me as I make the requested correction. The car's needle moves up through 50 mph, 55 mph, 60 mph. This is not a speed test, I'm reminded, but a lesson in how to control the car for optimum - yes, safe - performance at legal highway speeds.
``You just drive yourself for a minute or two and then I'll pick it up when I feel it's right,'' says Stewart. ``Put it in fourth now. Good, I'll tell you when to decelerate. Keep it in fourth. Now lift off slightly, then go back into power. Full power! Good.''
What Jackie Stewart was trying to teach me, again, was the the essential importance of being smooth. Repeatedly, he'd say: ``Now back off the throttle gently. Brush the brakes - gently. That's good. Very nice. Now gently off the power and brush the brakes. Off the brake. Back on the power. Try to press the power on gently. No jerking. Full power. Keep it on the floor. Good!''
When a designer starts off with a new car, be it in Detroit, Toyota City, Stuttgart - anywhere - he designs it to accommodate the depressions in the road. Wheel movement, suspension movement - a car has to respond to all the bumps and depressions comfortably.
``It is important for a driver, whenever possible, to have a car in a stable position with respect to the road surface, either on the road or the racetrack,'' hammers Stewart. In order to do so, a driver has to be a very ``smoo-o-oth driver.'' You want to keep the full footprint of the tires on the road.
The great race drivers - the Fangios, the Mosses, the Clarks - were always the most even drivers. They were the least spectacular drivers, says Stewart. They were not, for example, all arms and elbows when they drove. An Australian race driver and philosopher once said that if a race driver was exciting to watch, it was because he behaved as if he had two open windows and was trying to hang wallpaper in a thunderstorm. The point was, no one could do it all.
That kind of driver is giving the transmission a hard time, the wheels are spinning, the tires are rubbing across the road surface, and tire temperatures are going up. ``While those drivers win from time to time,'' notes Stewart, who had 99 Grand Prix starts, 17 pole positions, and 27 victories to his credit, ``they don't win on a consistent basis. [Jim] Clark was the smoothest, most unspectacular driver you ever saw and he looked the slowest, but clearly he was the fastest.''
While cars are becoming more forgiving, especially with antilock braking, avoid the temptation to dive onto the brake. Stewart likens it to ``cracking an egg.'' After the initial braking, the energy is taken out and you've already begun to decelerate. Then you can brake quite heavily without feeling it badly. Any back-seat riders will appreciate it.
Even when the braking is done over a few short yards on the racetrack, it still happens progressively,'' says Stewart.
The world-famous Scottish racer, who began working in his father's garage in his mid-teens, adds, ``Nobody has ever said to me that there is an art in taking your foot off the brake, but believe me, there is. The most important thing I've ever learned is how to take the brakes off a car. Anybody can put on the brakes, but very few people can take them off.''
Grinding around the bumpy racetrack here at Lime Rock, Stewart intones, ``full throttle, off the throttle, brush the brakes, off the brakes, full power up the hill. You don't feel the end of the corner. Full power. Off the power, on the brakes, off the brakes, back on the power. You don't feel the end of the corner.''
After a few spins around the mile-and-a-half track, we head onto the pit lane. ``Not bad,'' says the three-time world champion. Before we started out, Stewart had told me: ``I guarantee that when you leave this track today, you will be a better driver than when you arrived.''
You know something? He was right.