Bay Area Miata Drivers
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Safety Fast!

That was the motto of the old M.G. Owners Club, and the name of its monthly newsletter—Safety Fast! It dates back to the earliest days of sports cars. Speed, it’s been said, is the essence of transportation, and the ability to drive efficiently while maximizing safety is one of the reasons we own Miatas.

What makes one driver safer than another? The single biggest factor is attention. A driver who pays attention to the road will always be safer than a driver who's not focused. Efficient driving techniques and an enjoyable experience behind the wheel help you maintain that focus. Another big contributor is being consistent and predictable. Other drivers should not have to guess what you're about to do. This requires a certain amount of planning ahead, so you can signal turns and lane changes, and avoid sudden unexpected moves.

Driving skill plays a role in safety, too. Being prepared to react to specific situations, and allowing a proper safety margin is key. Obviously the margin of safety for a driver with good car-control skills is larger than it is for a point-and-shoot pilot. A skilled driver employs some of the techniques of a race driver, but not all, and the techniques for going quickly on the road, where safety is paramount, are not the same as those on a race track.

Cornering

On the race track, each turn can be learned and mastered until the car is going as fast as it can. On the road, each turn has to be judged in advance, and you only get one shot at it. On back roads there are two types of turns—those that afford a complete view of the turn from the entrance, and those that don't. If you have a full view of the turn (and no other cars are coming), your safety margin needs to consider only road conditions and your car-handling skills, plus a healthy safety margin. If the turn is even the least bit blind, your safety margin has to consider the possibility of an evasive maneuver. Many obstacles besides other cars could force you to swerve, and unless you really know how your Miata reacts to sudden steering inputs, the safety margin needs to be large.

Even in a wide-open turn, you can seldom use full race cornering techniques on the road. A track turn has a distinct entrance, apex, and exit, with transitions at both the entrance and exit. Except on very sharp turns, back roads have only enough room for the transitions. Just like on a track, you start and end the turn on the outside of the road (edge of the road in a left-hander, center-line in a right-hander), but you need almost the entire width of the lane to transition into the turn. You then hold your line along the inside, with no real apex, until it's time to transition back. Of course you could make extra room by crossing the center stripe and using the whole road, but that's a bad habit to get into.

Just like on a track, banking and elevation changes on the road influence your Miata's handling. It's sometimes difficult to judge the bank of a turn, but elevation changes are more obvious. Uphill, the car sticks much better and doesn't wobble as much when it gets loose. Downhill you have less traction, and if you lose what little you have, it's likely to stay lost for a long time—well after the road has disappeared beneath you. The skilled driver stays much further from the limit of adhesion while going downhill, particularly if the turns are blind and an evasive maneuver will put her into a guardrail or worse.

Braking

Slowing for turns is the one area where track and street driving diverge the most—where the skilled street driver gives up a little speed to maximize safety. At the track you fly into a turn and stomp on the brakes at the last instant. On the road—downhill especially—you apply the brakes lightly, smoothly, and early. By doing this you lose very little time to the late-braker, the car is planted for acceleration sooner, the ride is smoother, and if you suddenly find yourself in need of a little more deceleration, your foot's already on the brake. Of course you'll show your brake lights to the car behind, but if he sees you motoring smartly through the turns, he shouldn't question your technique.

Be good to your brakes. Brakes convert the car's kinetic energy into heat. Brakes are designed to run hot, but too much heat can cause problems. Hot brake rotors can fade, and hot brake fluid can take on contaminants in the air, or even boil. The best way to cool your brakes is to get off them. The longer you hold the brake pedal down, the hotter they get. A brief release, even for half a second, drops the temperatures dramatically. Ideally, holding your brakes down for more than 4-5 seconds at a time should start to make you nervous.

You don't need to brake for every turn. Lifting off the gas (less so with an automatic), especially on an uphill stretch, often slows the car all you need. That said, a light touch on the brake pedal, even one that doesn't slow the car much, will settle the front end, giving the front tires more bite when the turn starts. This can make the car feel as if it's riding on rails. You may even hold that light pedal into the turn, a technique called trail-braking. If the turn radius decreases, you can hold the brakes a little longer. If the radius increases, you can get off the brakes and on the gas. Just like on the track, you want to be accelerating at the exit of the turn. That's where most of the time is made, and that's the safest place to do it.

Trail-braking is an advanced skill that's best learned on the track or autocross circuit. A Miata can't turn as much when the brakes are applied. If you try to turn more, the tires lose their grip. If you find yourself in a turn and need to slow down, too much braking can lead to disaster. On some cars, a computerized stability-control system can adjust the brake pressure at each wheel while you're turning so you don't lose traction. Of course the computer can't keep you from hitting a tree if you're going too fast for the turn, but if you get into trouble with a stability-control equipped car and you want to slow down, you can hit the brakes without worrying about skidding.

In a Miata without stability control, you are the computer. You have to be able to modulate the brakes while you're turning so that the tires maintain their grip. It takes practice to develop this skill, and you can't safely get that practice on the road. In this one area, the racer or autocrosser has an advantage over the street-only driver. Without that experience, you have to maintain a larger margin for error in any situation where the road isn't clearly visible ahead.

All of these braking techniques are based on a clear road. Obstacles may require additional braking and/or maneuvering. On the road, just like on the track, good braking techniques are important. On the road, braking light and early without losing much time is the mark of a skilled driver.

Shifting

The mark of a good gear change is smoothness, whether on the road or track. On the road we tend to keep the RPMs lower because it's quieter, easier on the car, and saves gas. But sometimes we need to keep the RPMs up. Higher RPMs, up to around 4000, provide more torque for accelerating out of turns. Still higher RPMS, up to around 6500, provide more power for climbing hills. It's not unreasonable, therefore, to keep your Miata between 4000 and 6500 RPMs when quickly negotiating an uphill section. If you're not in quite such a hurry, 3000-5000 RPMs is a useful range for a 1.8-2.0 liter engine (add 500 for a 1.6), but in no case should RPMs fall below 3000. If they do, either downshift or use a light throttle until proper RPMs are restored. Downhill, 2500-3000 RPMs (1.8-2.0 liter) provide all the torque you need for brisk acceleration, and full power is needed only beyond the posted speed limit. 2500-4500 RPMs in the downhills will provide a quiet, comfortable, and speedy pace. On the flat stretches, try to stay in that relaxed but torquey 3000-5000 RPM range.

Just about anyone can look like a pro shifting from second to third in a Miata. What distinguishes the above-average driver from the rest is the downshift. On the track, downshifts are key to maximizing acceleration out of turns. On the road, it's less important. Enough speed can often be maintained without resorting to a downshift. As with RPMs, the decision to downshift depends more on how much effort you want to expend and how much comfort you want to give up for that little extra speed. Keep in mind, though, that avoiding a downshift may put you below 3000 RPMs at the exit of the turn, which will preclude you from booting the throttle (unless you really don't care about your engine) until the revs recover.

The smoothest downshifts occur when the engine RPMs match the gearbox RPMs as the clutch is engaged. Rev-matching is an art form among race drivers, and on the road it's one of the better ways to showcase your driving skills. Without getting into too much detail (for that, see any Porsche website), rev-matching is accomplished by "blipping" the throttle mid-shift, during that brief instant when the shift lever is in neutral. As the downshift raises the gearbox input shaft RPMs, the blip—if done properly—raises engine RPMs by the same amount. In practice it always works better to blip too much than too little.

Rev-matching is complicated by the fact that most downshifts occur during braking. With one foot on the brake and the other on the clutch, nothing is left to blip the throttle. Two options are available. The first, which is perfectly okay on the street, is to release the brakes for an instant. You're maintaining a light brake pedal anyway, and lifting for half a second actually helps keep the brakes cool. The second option, preferred by racers and would-be racers alike, is the so-called heel-and-toe technique.

There may have been a time in the golden age of racing when drivers actually used their toe on the brake and heel on the gas for a downshift. In most cars today, this is likely to leave you with multiple contusions or a possible ACL tear. While there isn’t any "correct" method for operating both the brake and gas pedals with one foot, the practical and best-accepted method is to brake with the ball of your foot, and roll your foot to the right to blip the throttle. As you might expect, this takes considerable practice, much of which can be embarrassing early on, but it’s a great skill to have. Beyond smooth driving, heel-and-toe is the perfect technique for starting out from a stop on a steep hill.

Putting it All Together

Safe driving techniques are generally taught with an emphasis on driving defensively and slowing down. Defensive driving is important. It derives from experience and paying attention at the wheel. Slowing down however, while often the best decision when faced with an unsafe situation, doesn’t necessarily make a driver safer. Good driving skills, practiced regularly, will do that. The smoothness and control that results will make your passengers happier as well.