Pit Stop – Racing Fundamentals: Go Manual

Pit Stop

Last time round in Racing Fundamentals: Advanced Braking I explained some of the basic physics behind the necessity to brake for a corner, and how much time you should give yourself to slow down. So in the previous two posts we’ve gone through the ideal line for a corner and how best to slow down to the correct speed for the corner.

If you’re a driver who relies heavily on assists then today’s topic should benefit you greatly. One of the most popular driving assists across all racing games is the automatic gearbox. While an automatic transmission is pretty good at guessing where you want to change gears, you’ll still find it changing gears at inconvenient places. Not only that but most automatic gearboxes don’t always take advantage of the full range of the engine.

First off, what are gears? And why do I need to change gear? Can’t I just use the MAX gear?… Well no. An engine spins at particular speeds, normally up to around 7000 RPM in a road car. Most cars will have five or six gears, though modern high performance cars can have more. The gear box sits between the engine and the wheels and will spin the wheels at a certain ratio per gear. As demonstrated in this screenshot below.


As each gear is a ratio of the engine speed, all you need to understand is that in first gear, you have the best acceleration available, but the lowest top speed, in second gear, acceleration is not as great, but the top speed is higher and in third the acceleration you can get is lower still, but top speed even higher. This continues throughout the gears. Essentially you need to make the most of each gear’s acceleration before going up to the next gear. Most automatic gearboxes will change up before you absolutely need too, so choosing a manual gearbox means you can push the car a little bit further in each gear.

Switching from auto to manual should be the very first assist you turn off …

So not only do you need to ensure you’re shifting up at the correct point, you need to shift down when decelerating as well, as the car engine speed decreases it also helps to decelerate the car smoothly. You’ll also want to make sure you have the correct gear selected for the corner before you start turning in, the reason for this is to maintain a smooth level of power through the duration of the turn. Imagine approaching a very sharp corner at high speed, you brake down through the gears, still in second you start turning in, you slow down only slightly, but enough for the auto gearbox to drop down to first gear, just in time for you to start accelerating out of the corner, prompting a quick back and forth of gears. Not only is this bad news for trying to get a good speed out of the corner, it also has a habit of unsettling the car. When in gear and travelling through a corner, power is being applied through the wheels, even if you’re not hard on the gas. Cutting that power and then re-applying while taking a sharp corner causes a quick deceleration as the engine speed needs to change for the new gear. It’s a lot like hitting the brakes or gas while in the middle of turning, in a sharp corner or powerful car this is not a great thing to do. If the car gets unsettled the tyres are likely to lose grip, resulting in precious lost time.

The final chicane at Suzuka, keep it in second!
The final chicane at Suzuka, keep it in second!

A manual gearbox can really help in this exact situation. Say for instance we’re in a high powered rear wheel drive car, such as a Corvette or other American muscle car, taking the final chicane at Suzuka raceway. The natural assumption is that you should go all the way down to first gear, if we do that we need to very carefully balance the power so we can accelerate through both corners without losing control. If we stay in second and don’t shift down, the car will be more stable and we can apply more power without spinning out. In this instance we also save time making needless gear changes as we wouldn’t remain in first gear for very long at all. Remaining in second also keeps the power level smooth throughout the corners, essential for a high powered rear wheel drive car. Using a gear higher than required can easily help to keep the car under control.

Switching from auto to manual should be the very first assist you turn off in a racing game, you’ll get a better understanding of how the car works and your technique will improve greatly. Not only that, the decrease in lap times should be very noticeable. Start off with an easy short circuit, such as Tsukuba Circuit and choose a moderately powered sports car and practice on an empty track, eventually it will become second nature; you’ll be shifting through gears like a pro after no time.



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2 responses to “Pit Stop – Racing Fundamentals: Go Manual”

  1. Julian Anderson avatar
    Julian Anderson

    Great piece, also using higher gears in tricky corners helps on loose or wet track, where as you mention, traction can be lost due to too much torque being put to the road. Also, using gears is helpful to save fuel, though I’m talking from my PC gaming experience here, with GTR Evolution, I used to save fuel on our longer races by hooking a higher gear and “creeping” off the power, the higher gear would give less resistance and hence go further.

    1. James Plant avatar

      Thanks for taking the time to read, some very useful extra tips. I didn’t even go into things fuel consumption, but definitely worth considering if in a race where fuel usage is simulated. I might cover fuel/tyre wear in another piece.
      Thanks again for taking the time to read/comment, very useful.

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