How to Break Bad Driving Habits

Written by Wes McDougall

“How do I stop a driver repeating the same driving mistakes?”

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with an old friend and ex colleague - an ex race driver of considerable talent - who has turned his hand to helping fellow drivers as a Driver Coach. He asked me the question "So, Wes.......How do I stop a driver from repeating the same driving mistakes?"

It's a seemingly simple question on the surface, but underneath it can be filled with mystery, confusion and complications. You see, my friend was frustrated - the driver he was working with couldn't quite make 'the leap' from driving around 2 seconds off the pace to a front-running laptime. They were stuck in a rut of running the same laptimes no matter what.

But it should be simple right? Right? As a driver coach you explain with the tools you have, such as data, video, diagrams and words, to convey what the driver in question should do. Simple! Except that humans are anything but simple! What is intuitively obvious for some, is downright complicated for others. You see, no two race drivers are alike, and everyone processes information in a different way. That is even before your begin to understand that everyone has differing methods of how they best learn new skills. 

In this particular case that my friend was outlining, the driver in question just simply couldn't brake as deep as their team-mate, who was on pace with the quickest times. He had shown the driver the data and the video, but throughout practice and qualifying, they remained steadfast at their 'comfortable' brake marker at most heavy braking corners. 

So, how should we approach trying to break bad driving habits, and improve our driving?


1. Establish whether it is an understanding or skill based problem

First off, it is important as a driver to make sure you fully understand what the Driver Coach or Engineer is explaining to you. As I have already mentioned, everyone processes information differently, and everyone's brains are divided into different percentages of which method they favour; be it visual, aural or kinaesthetic.

In other words are you fully grasping the explanation they are providing? There is much to be said for being 'coachable' and letting ego fall to the side, to ensure you do appreciate the instructions. There is no shame in asking a coach to emphasize or re-explain what you need to do, so you are clear.

Once its established that the understanding is not the issue, then it comes down to it being a skill based kinaesthetic problem - in other words physically putting the teachings into the physical driving. 

In the example given with my driver coach friend struggling to get his young charger to brake later; he was confident that his explanations were clear and concise, and that the driver was acutely aware of the need to brake later. So what is next ?


2. Are you hitting a mental wall?

The mind is a complicated and often humorous part of us. The subconscious works away in the background at a furious rate of knots, calculating and worrying about things that aren't immediately apparent to us. That is why sometimes, it can be a mental 'wall' that is put in place by the subconscious, stopping us from taking the leap to trying out a new skill. 

You might not realise it, but sometimes your brain can almost work against you. Want to brake 10 metres later? Sure! But as you physically approach the corner, your subconscious is weighing up your options and sometimes telling you 'hey, just brake where we usually brake - as we know we won't lock up!' This is where mental imagery practice can help - to program the brain, or to trick the brain into giving itself confidence. 

In chapter 7.6 of The Complete Race Driver I talk about Meditation and Visualisation. F1 driver Charles Leclerc has this to say on the topic

  • There are many techniques that can be used; I personally like the one of picturing the perfect lap in my head, especially before qualifying. I do this often because it really helps."
  • “When I’m not in the car this imagery helps me hugely to be fully concentrated and readapt to the car quicker."

These techniques are not just for pro-athletes - they are simple, easy steps to take for drivers racing in any series. Want to brake 10m later? Visualise it, by picturing that perfect lap in your head. By practicing this mental imagery approach, it fuses both the knowledge you have been told (i.e. by your coach / engineer / data / video telling you it is possible) with your subconscious belief system.


3. Is poor technique letting you down?

Once the mental hurdle or wall has been overcome, then it is time to ensure that your technique is correct. This is where a Driver Coach or engineer can have a large impact.

Using our example of the driver braking too early, we need to ensure that we are physically and literally pressing the brake pedal and downshifting in the same manner as the comparison lap. The same goes for the car placement on track. I can't begin to tell you how many times I have seen a driver try and replicate a team-mates braking marker and declare 'It's not possible!'  before watching the video and identifying that they are infact on a different trajectory into the corner. This of course can be exacerbated by this particular line having less grip, more bumps, a tighter radius into the turn etc, etc. 

Take the time to ensure that your outputs are correct - your hands and your feet - make sure they are doing what is being asked of them by your driver coach / engineer. 


4. The Big One - Implementation

So, you understand what needs to be done. You've visualised it in your head. You've double checked that your technique and line is OK. Now its time to head out on track and do it for real!

I've used the following image before, but that doesn't make it any less relevant! Implementing something like 'brake 10m later' isn't a singular, one-off process. Rather it is a constant loop whereby you will try multiple times. Here's what implementing a new technique looks like. 

This is how the best get to be the best, and stay the best! They are constantly learning.

Very few except the exceptional drivers can go out and perfect changing their habits the very first time out. It take practice. It takes time. And with motor racing - it takes money!

If 10 metres seems like a big hurdle to overcome., try 5 metres and build your confidence up. Bit by bit, metre by metre, your mental and physical process will change accordingly, once it processes these new 'norms'. 

If it is because you are not braking with enough pressure at the right part of the braking stop (and it usually is!) then make sure that you have the technique correct - and begin by braking at the same point you usually do. You will quickly arrive at the conclusion that you have over-slowed the car way before the corner, and realise that the car can indeed stop in that distance. So next it will be about trying to combine that technique and brake at the right marker. 


5. Finding the Limit

In chapter 8.2 of The Complete Race Driver I talk about 'What Does It Mean to Drive The Car At The Limit?'  Essentially, driving the car at the limit is maximizing the cars speed through each phase of the track, be it braking, accelerating or cornering.

When it comes to braking for a corner it can be tricky to find out where the optimal braking point is. After all, no-one wants to end up in the gravel.....

To improve your braking, or indeed stop any bad driving habit you have, you must become adept at timing and visually processing information. This is where simulation training is extremely helpful. Braking at say, 200km/h means you are travelling at around 55 metres per second. So if you need to brake 10 metres deeper, then you have to be prepared to brake 0.18 seconds later. Can you time this correctly? It's not much time to adjust your natural habits! But with the combination of mental imagery, simulation and at track practice, this is the tightrope that you must walk, to find the limit. 

As I have already highlighted, take the approach of creeping up on that brake marker into achievable steps. Braking 10metres too early? Try 5m later this lap, then another 2 metres the next lap and so on, bit by bit. By learning how to make these small bite sized changes, then you can continue to find the limit. And if you overshoot by say just 1 metre - then you are not going to end up in the gravel trap, you are simply going to miss the apex, stay on track, and try again next lap.


6. The Comfort Zone is a no-go zone

Practice makes perfect, but practice can also make permanent! By doing the same things again and again it can make both a positive and negative impact.

If the car feels a little 'on edge' when braking where your driver coach tells you your team-mate is braking - perhaps you need to re-frame how you think about being comfortable in the car. 

The more you practice with this 'on edge' feeling, the more your confidence will grow with driving the car outside of your comfort zone, and the more this will become the 'new normal'.

Sure, in a race situation, if you have a healthy lead and you can control your pace, you want to do all you can to minimize risk. But by gently pushing the limit as many times as possible, you constantly reset your framework of what is 'comfortable' and what is 'too close to the edge'.

“So what have we learnt? Well, for one's not easy!”

That's often the first conclusion drivers, driver coaches, and engineers alike will come to! But doing something worthwhile is often not easy.

Racing, driving and winning are fun - after all - that's why we all do it! As a result, it can be an emotive experience, and frustration can certainly creep in, along with a dusting of anger at times! But the key in improving and braking bad habits lies in something that is a lot less emotive, but someone more boring - Trusting The Process. 

Follow the steps above and this foundation will put you in good stead to both enjoy your racing, and to keep improving each time you hit the track.

The Complete Race Driver eCourse

The Complete Race Driver Coaching