Are You A Leader Or A Follower

Posted on June 16, 2015

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Are You A Leader Or A Follower?

 

By: Rob Oakman

From the beginning of the race to the closing laps, you have to choose if you want to take and hold a lead, or if you should follow the racer ahead and plan for a late race pass. To decide what your best move is you need to know five things: 1) your chassis, 2) your competitors, 3) your track, 4) your situation and 5) yourself.

Start of the 2015 race at Le Mans (Courtesy of Road & Track)

Start of the 2015 race at Le Mans (Courtesy of Road and Track)

1. Your Chassis – How well is it working?

Speed

In order to make a late race pass, you need to have the speed at some point on the circuit to make it work. If you are quicker than the racer ahead, then you can choose either to lead or follow based on what you are comfortable with.

Equals

If you’re machine is about equal with the other racer, then you need to know where you are strong and where they are weak so you can plan your move. If you are stronger in the passing zones and exiting the corners, then you can follow comfortably and make a last second pass. If you are weak at the end of straights or in passing zones, then you will want to lead and hold the other racer back with a defensive line.

Hanging On

If you’re machine is just barely holding on to the racer ahead, then making a pass is entirely dependent on them making a mistake. In this case it is best to get the lead as soon as you can and do everything possible to hold it without risking your race. You need to be aggressive. When someone passes you, you need to pass them back as soon as possible. What you are doing is convincing them that you are not as slow as they thought, while slowing their pace to yours. I used this tactic to win my Canadian National Championship.

Aerodynamics

The ability to pass is often dependent entirely on how affected your machine is by aerodynamic forces. In F1 a car that is several seconds a lap slower can stay ahead almost indefinitely because the car following has its aerodynamics fouled by the leading car. Sports cars, bikes, and karts don’t have this issue to the same extent.

If your car is aero sensitive then you need to lead. If it is not, or is less so than an F1 car, then you have more options.

2. Your Competitors – How good (or bad) are they?

Everyone you race with is a bit different in how they make decisions on-track. You need to know as much as you can about what they are likely to do. Experience is the only real teacher here, but you can make judgements as you go based on behaviour.

Nervous Racers

If they are looking in their mirror/over their shoulder a lot, then they are probably nervous. A nervous driver is prone to making mistakes. You can follow a racer like this and worry them to death by making them wonder when the passing move is coming. The longer you wait the more nervous they get. You still have to plan your move but, as long as you keep them guessing, they are likely to make a mistake.

You can also lead a nervous racer, even if they are faster than you, by taking the lead and constantly (and consistently), defending your position. Take it back anytime they pass you. A nervous racer is likely to settle into following, if you make it seem like you are actually strong when you are weaker.

Dave Anderson leads the Briggs Sr pack at ECKC at ICAR (Courtesy of Canadian Karting News)

Dave Anderson leads the Briggs Sr pack at ECKC at ICAR (Courtesy of Canadian Karting News)

Veterans

Racing against a veteran that won’t get rattled is a different situation. This becomes a decision based entirely on practicality. Are the two of you faster with you in the lead or with them? The idea here is that you want to get the two of you clear of other racers, so that the two of you can race it out for the win without others interfering. As long as you can stay with them, if you are faster following, then follow. If you are faster with you in the lead, then lead. In either case you still need to read the other racer’s strengths and weaknesses so you know what to do when the laps wind down.

Over-Aggressive

Are they over-aggressive? Are they making desperate passes and blocking early in the race, putting themselves and others at risk? This is a tough call. If you have the speed to get past and clear a driver like this, then you definitely want to get by and gain a wide lead. But, if you don’t have the speed to get clear, then you will want to follow and plan your move carefully. Drivers like this are highly likely to crash both of you. So to minimize your risk, wait until you are certain that you can make a pass and — here is the key — be agressive about it! Make it clear to them that you are taking the position no matter what, and then keep them behind you with decisive defensive moves. Don’t run them off-track, or use them as your brakes and risk a black flag. Or worse, create an enemy that will seek revenge in the future. Run them strong but clean and they will respect you. If these drivers sense a weakness in you they will try to exploit it at all costs. Let them know that you are not a push over.

3. Your Track – What is the lay of the land?

Some tracks lend themselves to a late race pass. Some do not. Knowing your track is as important as knowing your competition.

Draft

If the track you are on allows you to draft past the leader before you cross the start/finish line, then you want to sit in second, or even third to get a good run. If it is close, where you may not be able to draft all the way past by the the time you reach the line, then you will have to make a judgement call based on whether or not you can get a better run out of the last corner than your competitor. If you can’t get a run, then you will want to lead and hold the other racer up exiting the last corner by delaying when you get on the throttle. If you can get a good run then following is a good option.

Passability

Some tracks are very wide, some are narrow and difficult to pass on. Some tracks have many passing zones while others have few, if any. This is pretty straight forward. A track that makes it easy to pass, is a track you can follow a racer on and pull off a late race pass. A track that is tough to pass on, is a track you want to lead.

Final Corners

What do the last corners look like? If the last corners make it very difficult to defend your position, then  If the final corners make it almost impossible for the leader to defend effectively, then you will want to follow. You may even want to be at the back of a three or four car train to pull off a win.

If there is no passing zone, or no safe one, then leading and defending is the right choice.

Old Mosport DDT final corner. Down hill into the off-camber right.

Old Mosport DDT final corner. Down hill into the off-camber right.

The old DDT track at Mosport (Canadian Tire Motorsports Park) had a wide, off-camber (The corner banks the wrong way), 90-degree dog-leg final corner, with enough of a breaking zone for a late braking move to work. However, any racer that tries to run a defensive line will wash out wide on exit because of the off-camber banking, opening themselves up for a simple crossover pass.  I won many races from second and third there, and even won a Sunoco Ron Fellows Karting Championship race from fourth in that last corner.

4. Your Situation – Where are you in relation to the others?

Sprint races are often seen as a fight for the lead from the drop of the green flag. But few races end after the first lap. Whether you are running a 20 minute sprint or a 24 hour enduro, the ideal situation when choosing to lead or follow, is when only you and one other racer are deciding who takes the checkered flag. But if you are in a pack of racers, then your strategy may have to change.

A Loose Pack

If you and the other racer are not quite able to break away from the other racers behind you, but they are not strong enough to challenge you for position yet, then you need to decide whether to lead or follow based on who is fastest in the lead. Just like racing with a veteran, if the two of you are fastest with you leading, then you lead; if you need to follow, then follow. Whatever decision you do make, stick with it and wait to fight it out in the final laps. Don’t keep swapping positions. Every time you do, you allow the other racers to catch up. Remember that finishing second is better than third.

If you are having trouble staying with the pack, team up with another racer and stick with them. Push them and let them know with hand signals that you intend to stay where you are to work together and try and get the lead. In most series, two machines are faster than one.

A Tight Pack

This requires a lot more thought, but it can be broken down.

If you are struggling a bit to stay with the others, get the lead early! In a tight pack it is easy to get squeezed to the back. This also will keep faster racers from working together and breaking away. If you can’t get the lead early or without being trained (passed by several machines at once), then try to stay as close to the front as you can and settle in. Remember that you need to be in a position to win a race in order to make it happen. Everyone will likely hold their positions after a few laps and wait. Only make passes if others make a mistake and open the door, if a group is breaking away and you think you are faster leading your group, or if you are being shuffled back. As the laps wind down read the racers ahead and plan to make your moves a bit earlier than you would if it were just two of you fighting for the lead. The first person to make a move will have the people behind them follow. But the first move also starts the circus of pass attempts before the checkered so be prepared to defend your position.

If you have the speed to lead the pack but not break away on your own, and no one seems to be in the mood to team up, then you can pick your position. But be aware that if you let everyone know you are the fastest, they will focus on staying ahead of you. This is a situation where you will need to decide how confident you are in defending your lead. It may be wise to hold second or third until people settle into their positions, then read your competitors strengths and weaknesses, and make your move with only a few laps to go. From there you will have to defend, but at least you have a chance that your extra speed will give you the edge.

With Amateurs and Veterans

When there is a mix of experience levels around you, you can usually pick out who is going to be smart, and who is going to get desperate by how they settle into the race. Amateurs, rookies and Wallys tend to want to lead desperately. They make passes at random, they don’t seem to have a plan, and their moves are last-second. Veterans tend to settle in for the long race. Their moves are planned and controlled. In a mixed pack situation, you will want to focus more on teaming up with the veterans who have speed, shuting out anyone else from getting into your pack, than to worry about leading. This is especially important if you are a rookie yourself. The rookies, amateurs and wallys will be so focused on the short game, that they end up losing ground as the race goes on. The veterans will break away from the others and take you with them. By the end of the race you will find yourself in a position to win while the others will still be fighting for mid-pack.

Mental Prep at the SKUSA SuperNationals 2013 (Courtesy of Canadian Karting News)

Mental Prep at the SKUSA SuperNationals 2013 (Courtesy of Canadian Karting News)

5. Know Yourself

Do you like to lead or follow? This is not a question to be answered by ego or pride. It is something inside you that will determine a lot of your success.

Lead

If you like being ahead of everyone, and are not comfortable following, then getting to the front is a priority for you. You need to get comfortable with running defensively, and with running hot into corners to out brake your opponents when they make a move on you. And most of all, you cannot allow your nerves to take your focus away from what is ahead of you.

Being in the lead as the laps wind down with the competition on your bumper is extremely stressful. Even the best racers in the world make mistakes because they lost focus while worrying about the racers behind them. If you can deal with the stress and pressure of leading, then get out front.

Follow

If you are comfortable making a pass under pressure, and leading is not as big a deal to you, then following the leader until late in the race is for you. But don’t fool yourself into thinking this is a relaxed place to be for long. You have to worry about the racer ahead as well as anyone behind. Reading the leader while tracking your fellow competitors takes skill. Remember, if you are sticking with the leader and the laps are winding down, the only person stopping you from pulling off a win is you.

Following allows you to analyze your opponent, and to plan a pass at a time and place of your choosing, but you need to be committed to go as planned while also being ready to jump on any mistakes you see the leader make. If you wait too long you have wasted your chance. Try too soon or make a mistake, and you have thrown it all away.

Remember to have fun out there and thanks for reading.
Subscribe for new articles and follow on twitter at @oakmanonracing. If you have any questions or comments about this topic, or anything else, feel free to ask.

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Posted in: How to Race