Lead & Follow: A Student’s Perspective

PCA DECIDED THIS YEAR that lead and follow would be allowed for yellow run groups on track at Driver Education, since in-car instruction can’t be managed with physical distancing. Since my last on-track experience was September 2019 and I was eager to get out, I felt this would be a good possibility. And I was curious as to how it would work out.

When the assigned list of students and instructors was released, I eagerly scanned for not only who my instructor would be, but who else would be on track with me. It quickly became apparent that a great deal of thought had gone into matching instructors and cars with students, in order to match up the capability of the cars as well as possible. The yellow run group consisted of a couple of base Boxsters and a Cayman, some 718s, some GT4s, some 911s and a couple of GT3s. A wide variety of speed capability in the cars.

The routine at the track was for the students to find their instructors, and then get together with the instructor 15 minutes before each session to discuss what they wanted to accomplish, and then a debrief after the session. Not too different from the in-car instruction, except that the discussions happened outside the car instead of inside the car. First off was a review of signals between student and driver. The most critical was passing, with the instructors being responsible for calling the passes and the students echoing the signal to the cars behind. Passing ended up being a bit trickier than normal for a yellow session, since now two cars had to be allowed to pass rather than one. This was no problem on the back straight, but the front straight and between corners three and four could be a bit short if the following drivers were not anticipating the pass. There were a few times the cars being passed had to lift off to allow the passers to get by in time. We also made use of pit lane to get out of crowds, which worked very well.

Prior to the event I had some concerns about driving the track in a car without an instructor, but had been told I was a weekend or two away from being ready to progress out of yellow, so felt I should be capable. The other concern was rust, with me and not the Porsche, as it had been over a year and half since I had been out on track. I wasn’t sure what would scare the instructors more, being in the car with the student, or in front if the student forgets to brake. How would the speeds be? We took our first session fairly slow, feeling each other out, and making sure that the instructor was comfortable that I knew my line. I was told to read the track, and not just follow the instructor. The session went well apart from two cars parked on the side of the track on the back straight on the last lap, the result of a breakdown in one of the cars. Afterwards we reviewed the session and discussed braking and turning. It turned out his car, a BMW 318i, needed some brakes to encourage turn-in whereas my Boxster didn’t. This was both a good discussion of the dynamics of different vehicles as well as approach to the track, not necessarily something we would have picked up with in-car instruction.

After the review we decided to work on turn four as our main focus for the next session. My instructor, by now, had added to his hand-signal repertoire with a finger pointing down to key points such as an apex, and a thumbs-up for a well executed corner.

After the review we decided to work on turn four as our main focus for the next session. My instructor, by now, had added to his hand-signal repertoire with a finger pointing down to key points such as an apex, and a thumbs-up for a well executed corner. The speeds went up in the second session and I found myself falling into the old trap of following the car in front, instead of focusing on my line. The result was a bad entry into two, saved by recalling past instructions, “you have more grip,” not panicking and putting the advice to work, and a couple of wide turns. Generally, not a good run but we achieved our objective on turn four. We discussed things after and I realized what I was doing wrong.  

We changed our focus to mainly turns eight, nine and 10, as there was a fair bit of optimization possible for me there. Each session we would have a detailed list of what to work on and try, and a debrief to review what worked well, and where I felt either comfortable or not. Speeds continued to come up, I was now working the track and not following the car, and we started to swap the lead-follow roles during a run. This was starting to be fun, and I was, quite frankly, getting more out of it than I expected. My instructor’s car was slower than mine, but had more grip in the corners, so he told me not to worry if I got ahead, he would catch up. This worked pretty well, but I did find myself lifting on the back straight not to get too far away. If he couldn’t see me, he couldn’t critique me. The third session of the second day things really came together. I was leading for this session, and everything seemed to flow. Then coming out of turn one, I noticed the instructor’s car was farther back than usual. I continued to run, now for the most part alone on the track, through turn two, where I needed to focus on my line. I finally got a look back coming out of turn three and found two cars between the instructor and I. Something wasn’t right, and it wasn’t that I was that fast. I started to slow down, and past turn five cruised up the hill at about 90, finally seeing the instructor’s car when I reached the first hump. At this time, I decided that something was probably wrong with his car, and rather than continue, signalled I was going off into the pits. He followed me off and confirmed when he stopped that he had a mechanical issue with his car and couldn’t keep up the speed. It turns out this was a situation we had not discussed, but it worked out okay, except for his car.

Fortunately for my last run we were able to set up another instructor, this one in a 930 Porsche. I led and was told that I shouldn’t worry about running away from him in the corners, he would catch me on the straights. Again, an interesting comparison of capabilities and ways to get around the track.

Overall, the lead-follow instruction worked better than I expected, at least for yellow, with me personally making a lot of progress and feeling a lot more comfortable on the track. Some of the instructors commented it was tricky to watch their student in the rearview mirror while working on following their line. And one instructor commented that his student, who had a faster car, ran away from him. With more experience it should improve as the communication gaps are identified. I do feel it was a good experience, and would make a good stepping stone when graduating from the yellow to white run group, giving a student time on the track alone, but being monitored and evaluated. </>

Photography by Joanne Martin and Rob Martin

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