Scott Mansell is an expert racing driver and coach with 25 years’ experience in competitive motorsport and driver training. He is also the founder of Driver61, which provides in-depth training videos, circuit guides and practical training programmes to help aspiring racing drivers unlock their potential, drive fast on track and win races. We were lucky enough to sit down with Scott to get his insights on driving technique, racing psychology, and what it feels like to drive at the limit…
FM: Hi Scott, thanks so much for joining us today. I wondered if you could start off by telling me a bit about how you got into racing and what your formative experiences were?
SM: My pleasure. As far as my story goes, my father (Kevin, not Nigel!) was always into racing. He started with stock cars and then moved on to racing Lotus Cortinas. He used to run a business engineering customer racing cars too; when I was four years old he made me my own go-kart. My introduction to motorsport wasn’t very fancy – it was literally the trailing arm of a scooter with two wheels bolted on the front. However I took to it and before long I was driving a little four wheeled car. We used to go down to our local playing fields together to practice, and I think there’s some old footage of me sliding it around some cricket posts. My car control was pretty good when I was five – probably better than it is now…
FM: That first kart sounds madly dangerous – and very compelling. How did you move into professional racing?
SM: I karted competitively until I was 16, then got into racing cars. By the time I was 17, because I was pretty adept behind the wheel, I had a sponsor who helped me look at the options available. At that time the normal single seater options for someone like me were Formula Renault and Formula BMW. But my sponsor looked at the numbers and said that given the cost of running a season in either of those (about £150-200k), it would actually be cheaper to jump into a Formula 1 car and compete in the European BOSS GP Series.
It wasn’t as competitive as Formula 3 or anything but we went in, broke five outright lap records, and won the 2004 championship. This was in the early 2000s so, unlike now, doing all that as an 18-year-old in a Formula 1 car was pretty special! It set me apart a little bit because I’d taken a different route to other drivers. I was then nominated for the McLaren Autosport Young Driver Award and ended up testing with Christian Horner and his Arden International / Red Bull GP2 team. Sadly we then ran out of money…
FM: A familiar experience in motorsports!
SM: Yes, it can get madly expensive. If you’re not from a wealthy family it is a constant effort to find and maintain sponsorship. Off the back of my success we did however manage to raise some funds to go to America to race Indy lights; I also did some European F3000. While I had some good results I came to realise it wasn’t exactly my thing.
FM: And so Driver 61 came after that?
SM: In a way. I spent 3-4 years after that travelling around the world, racing, coaching, and testing cars for private owners. I would be spending 200 days a year abroad. By the end of it, I was exhausted and my mind was focussing on business, which I’ve always been interested in – trying things in the winter months completely unrelated to motorsport – but in the end I sat back and looked at what I was good at, and what I enjoyed, and thought I’d give it a go. That’s how Driver 61 came about; I made some whiteboard tutorials on racing technique which were very popular online and since then Driver 61 has grown and grown; today we’re in a strong position in what is quite a niche area of interest!
FM: That’s a great story. So turning to driving technique, something which many amateur racers always wonder is what it takes to really drive fast on the highest level – the skills and attributes which define a champion driver. Is there an element of that which is nature, or can you nurture the skills needed for speed?
SM: It’s an interesting question. The talent you’re looking out for depends on what kind of racing you’re dealing with. In a Formula 1 driver, I’d say you’re actually looking for intellect. The guys driving at that level have all been racing for a decade or more before getting the seat, so they have solid foundations of technique. The extra speed of a LeClerc or a Verstappen comes, I believe, not from some strange innate skill but from a lot of deep thinking and analysis – of yourself, and of the machine.
Getting the most out of a car is quite a complex thing; a lot of people think that driving quickly is just about pushing a car as hard as you can push it, but it’s far more detailed and subtle than that. At the highest levels of the sport it’s about being smart enough to be able to really understand the fine details of how the car is working on the track, and how to get the most out of it through the way you drive or how it is set up.
FM: And moving lower down the skill ladder, when you’re coaching beginners or amateurs who don’t have much experience of competitive driving, but who quite fancy going racing, what are the main shortcomings you encounter?
SM: When you’re at the lower levels, or dealing with people who haven’t been doing it for very long, the biggest problem (at least to start with) is that people don’t think the leap between regular road driving and race driving is that big! They often think “well, I can drive fast down a country lane in my Porsche and take a few corners, so I must be pretty handy…”. Then they turn up at a track day or a test day and you can see it on their faces after one or two laps – that look of “oh my God, this is on a completely different level to what I expected…”.
FM: Yes, I’ve certainly experienced that – the awkward shame of “…but I thought I was fast!” It’s humiliating.
SM: Hah! I see a lot of that kind of typical male bravado with some people; it gets in the way until they realise how much hard work they have to do. When they understand they are a whole 10 seconds off the pace, and what sort of a gap that is, they get a lot more humble. It’s like that Dunning-Kruger graph where your confidence initially rockets until you realise how little you know.
A lot of the people who come and work with us on our basic training programs at Bruntingthorpe have some sort of issue like that. Basically, it’s the environment in which they have learned to do track driving. A test day or a track day is frankly a terrible place to learn how to drive competitively. It’s like trying to learn karate by throwing yourself into a street fight. You don’t have the mental capacity or the muscle memory to handle yourself. That isn’t the way to learn. If you want to drive fast and be capable, you have to layer it up from the very basics of car control. So we start with the most fundamental techniques of driving, get those right, and then move on to the next level.
FM: That sense of being overwhelmed is familiar. A lot of racers who try to self-coach, including me, often themselves on track suddenly thinking – what should I be doing? Where on track should I be? You freeze up.
SM: Yes, I’ve seen it happen. The issue is that people don’t realise that when they go driving in a track or test environment, they are trying to do everything at once. For example, you go on track for the first time at a track day, there are 40 other cars there, you’re trying to think about vision or turning the car in your racing line and none of it gets done because you’re constantly being overtaken or avoiding danger. Before you know it, you haven’t thought about anything consciously for the previous 5 laps. You go into fight or flight mode and the brain is overwhelmed; you’re literally just driving on instinct.
But that’s not where the speed comes from; it actually comes from breaking down what you are doing and consciously focussing on a small part of your technique. You take actions in the right order which then allows you to bring speed and predictability to the car gradually, and with confidence.
FM: That seems to go against what most people perceive as the process of becoming a fast driver, namely just doing lots of laps and honing your instinct. It sounds like there is far more analysis and accuracy needed even at a low level to get good results. In that vein, I wanted to know what you’d say was the most critical skill for race driving, at the core of going fast around the track?
SM: I’d say it’s your vision. It’s such an unconscious thing and therefore so easy to forget about or get wrong. When you’re driving on the road, you’re only looking perhaps 30 meters in front of yourself. Some track day drivers have been told that therefore they need to forget normal driving and always look miles up the track. However, although looking a long way ahead is helpful, you lose the detail that is close to the car.
So a good race driver will be looking a long way ahead, but also scanning back and forth at different points on corner entry which enables you to triangulate your position and understand where the car is and your speed as you exit. That’s where I begin when I coach people. When a driver gets his or her vision right and does it well, you’ll be sitting next to them and within a few corners you’ll feel the car free up and begin to flow properly. It makes that much of a difference.
FM: So getting your vision right means that the car flows better; do you then have to work on understanding what is actually going on underneath you?
SM: Yes. You work on all of this in stages because it also depends on the behaviour of the car. In our training programmes we get the foundational techniques correct, and then get you to focus on giving yourself a more stable car. Not necessarily in terms of grip, but a car that is easier to drive, because if you are having to adjust your steering a lot going through a corner it means that you’re shifting the balance of weight around too much. That means you are getting poor feedback from the car; the constant adjustment means you’ll always be sitting below the limit.
So we work on the foundational stuff to get all of that smooth. Once you are getting good feedback from the car we work on a predictable approach to actually finding a limit. That involves understanding oversteer and understeer; beyond that you then ask yourself which end of the car is limiting you from going quicker, the front or the rear, and reverse engineering a solution to what the car is doing. It’s a question of how to actually change your style to give the car the grip where it needs it, whether that’s at the front at that particular point in the corner or the rear. And that’s basically it – you break it all down and refine it.
FM: That’s interesting. What you’re talking about needs planning; how does someone who wants to get better at all of this use their time on track properly?
SM: You’ve got to go out there with a plan. The number of drivers, especially amateur drivers, who just pound around the track and aren’t actively adapting their technique to the car or using their time well is pretty surprising. For example when it comes to driving a new car, a pro driver will go through a set of processes (consciously or unconsciously) which allows them to be on the pace within three or four laps. You work out how good the car is on the brakes, you work out how good it is in the corners, and the overall amount of traction. You gain an element of ‘full car’ understanding. After that, you get it on the right racing line and begin to push, refining it from there.
Time on track is also important. On our pure pace course the difference even on day 1 for most drivers is significant because the time you spend on the limit on the track is many, many more times than you would ever get on a test day or a track day. And we are often just focusing on one or two corners at a time. After the corner we analyse it, talk about what we’re going to do on the next lap in the same place, and repeat. That opportunity to experience the difference caused by small changes in technique really ramps up the speed of learning.
FM: I now understand why analysis and conscious planning is so important. But you also mentioned driving on the limit. It’s a bit of a misunderstood concept I think, so how would you describe the limit to someone who’s not a seasoned track driver? How do you know you’re driving on the limit?
SM: Technically, when you’re on the limit you’re utilising the grip of all four tires at their maximum potential – and you won’t see that very often! What you’ll see quite commonly on track is someone 10% below the actual limit, and every couple of laps they might peek over it. When you see more experienced drivers you’ll see them driving on a higher limit than beginners, but it’s still actually quite a long way from the full potential of the car because the platform won’t be that stable, and they’ll be oscillating around the limit with the balance of the car changing very quickly from front to rear.
That’s when you see a lot of steering action going on and it looks fast, but it’s not, because you’re jumping up and down over the limit. You’ll be 5% over it in a slide, catching it and then driving 5% under it, all over the place. That’s not fast.
FM: It’s almost like staying there, at the limit of the car’s performance, is the real difficulty and what the pros do well.
SM: Like anything else it’s quite easy to find some sort of balance statically, but when you’re being shaken around a lot on track, it’s very difficult at that point to keep your inputs refined and subtle. It’s that subtlety, when you’re driving at the limit of the car’s grip, which is an important part of it.
FM: We’ve been talking about all of this as it applies to the real world. However many people reading this for tips will be sim racers. What in your opinion do simulators teach people well, and what are their limitations?
SM: If we’re talking about a proper simulator, namely one which models rotation, oversteer, understeer, and a decent force feedback steering wheel with accurate visuals from three monitors or virtual reality, the thing they teach you in terms of technique is that process of assessment. If I go on a sim the way I make myself drive fast is exactly the same, with the same kind of timing, as it is in the real world. You go into a corner and you think, “I had a bit too much oversteer there, on the next lap I’m going to try and change that and come off the brakes a little bit earlier, with a softer pedal, so that I can add some more grip to the rear and get that balance absolutely perfect…”. Doing that live, corner by corner, is what sim racing is very good for.
In terms of what it’s not good for is teaching you about the kind of constant variability you have on a normal race circuit, whether that’s a gust of wind, or the fact that it’s early March and it’s only 5 degrees out on the track, and it’s damp and the track is patchy; all of that constantly changing stuff you obviously can’t model as accurately. There’s also the ease of restarting. I don’t usually like it when people make this point about simulators but it’s obvious that the consequences of really messing up at high speed are a lot more serious in the real world; your driving is therefore affected by that in some respects.
FM: Do you think sims give you a good sense of reading the flow of a race, a taste for how others might behave? I find my ability to tell when you shouldn’t go for a gap because a dangerous situation might develop has improved a lot since I started sim racing.
SM: I would say it’s easier to judge this sort of thing in the real world than it is in a sim. In the racing that I’ve done online, for example in iRacing, I have found you’re definitely better off driving a bit more conservatively. I’m actually less aggressive in the sim than I would be in the real world; I give myself more of a safety margin.
It’s quite odd but in the real world you seem to get more of a sense of what the cars around you are doing. It’s probably because you’re physically connected to what is going on. In a sim you have to give people a bit more space. I learned the hard way; in my first few sim races I was rammed in the back quite a lot and ended up in the gravel because some sim drivers just don’t give enough room to other players.
FM: I believe the industry term for that is “sending someone to the shadow realm”…
SM: It’s not a nice place to be! At the higher levels online the racing is definitely more refined but for the average player I think being punted off is a fairly common and frustrating experience. I mean it happens sometimes in real life, but usually not straight away…!
FM: The other thing sims give you is the ability to endlessly tinker with your car setup. I find it pretty intimidating and complex. Is it worth putting in the time to learn?
SM: It does have its benefits. In some ways a sim is actually better than the real world because you can have constant conditions in which to test various setup approaches. In the real world the conditions change from session to session; new tires are going on, the fuel is coming out of the car, all of that stuff. In general I’ve found the car in the simulator more or less reacts like it would do in the real world; that is until you talk to the guys who spend months and months playing with car setups until they find some sort of hole in the code. Then weird, unrealistic things happen and you have to be careful with that.
It is generally useful to learn however; I’ve had drivers work on setups in their simulators and then come and test them on a real track. In the real world you also have to remember that you can feel how the car is responding, diving, and rolling a lot better than on a simulator. So that physical connection is ultimately quite important when it comes to tuning for performance.
FM: We’ve spoken a lot about the physical sensations of driving here. Does physical fitness play a role in becoming a good track driver? I’ve seen people taken by surprise by the physicality even of things like karting.
SM: I think it depends what you’re aiming for. If you’re going to be driving a touring car I don’t think it matters that much. If you’re going into an open wheeled, single seater Formula series, then those guys are proper athletes. I drove a GP3 car at the end of last year and I could really feel it afterwards – I think even if you’re relatively fit you’d be fine for 10 laps but your neck would start to hurt without preparation. However the majority of drivers don’t have to worry about it that much.
FM: So let’s say your driving technique is now at a good level; what kind of mental preparations do successful drivers do before competition? How do they get that focus?
SM: I think race drivers who have been doing it for a very long time naturally go through certain mental routines to prepare. In the coaching that I’ve done, I find that people who come to competitive driving fairly late can sometimes struggle to “turn it on” at the right level. I can put my lid on, and I’m focussed – that’s it. Other people seem to have more trouble with that.
It also really depends on the person. In my training programs we simulate qualifying and for the first four or five starts I let the drivers get on with it, to observe what they do. It’s interesting – often people will either go way too hard at the beginning of the session, or take far too long to get up to speed. The solution is really to work with the individual and understand what internal belief system is at play.
For example, there is one driver I work with who has a tendency to think that to be fast, the car has to be working incredibly hard. He always tries to force the speed out of the car. So we could be training or testing, and things are pretty calm, and the laps are super fast – within a percentage of my time. Then we’ll go and simulate qualifying and it all goes out of the window!
When the adrenaline comes, and you’re in a qualifying situation, instincts can take over. You can get caught in the belief that you have to be braking super hard and accelerating super hard to do the best you can. So you lose the fluidity. Now with this driver we go through routines, even on a preparation lap when he’s warming the tyres up, that help him with maintaining his speed. I’ve seen the full spectrum of approaches however; your own psychology is an individual thing that you have to work out for yourself.
FM: So I feel I’ve got all the tools now to start improving my times, but there’s one thing I just don’t know. What does it feel like to drive fast? Really fast? What does it actually feel like to bang away a lap record?
SM: One word – fluidity. It won’t feel as fast as when you’re trying to push it through with brute force. That’s the difficulty. Again it depends on what the driver is expecting. Most amateur drivers I work with, when they do a personal best, say it feels a lot calmer than they thought it would. It can work against you though; I’ll be looking at the time delta in the car and getting the driver to stay calm, and they’ll be flying along. But it’s incredible how easy it is to drop grip and speed as soon as you become a bit ‘hacky’ with the steering wheel and the pedals.
FM: It seems so counterintuitive to expect the fastest laps to feel fluid rather than a fight with the machine; then again I guess that is why so many people get it wrong. I’m aware that we’re running out of time, so I just wanted to end with a few quickfire questions…
SM: Go for it!
FM: Righto. Favourite car, on track or road?
SM: Hmm… well I don’t really care about road cars! (Laughs). I really like the early to mid 1990s F1 cars. I’ll say maybe the Schumacher B-19x Benettons. I like those cars because they are raw, with 700-and-something brake horse power, and they still feel a bit dangerous. After that point and in the mid 2000s, Formula 1 cars became a little bit sanitised. I think a race car should scare you. So I say a 1992 Benetton!
FM: Your favourite racetrack?
SM: It depends on the car. Ah, there’s so many to choose from… I’ll say Dijon. It flows, it quick, it’s got elevation. Also Watkins Glen, because it’s an exciting, old school spot.
FM: Your racing hero?
SM: I don’t have any. My old man I suppose. He got me into racing!
FM: Great answer. And finally – If you could race in any era which would it be, and why?
SM: Oh God. I think I’d want to do a stint in the 60s and 70s… and the 90s?
FM: So a very long and illustrious career, finished off in one of those Benettons!
SM: (Laughs) Exactly!