Why Hand Placement Makes You Faster

Posted on October 31, 2015

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Why Hand Placement Makes You Faster

By: Rob Oakman

Yep, this is about how to hold a steering wheel. Why? Because people do it wrong.

Racing is a matter of balancing forces. Power vs finesse. Speed vs reliability. Ego vs practicality. And the last one is the hardest. Let’s face it, when we are behind the wheel we want to look good. For some of us that means having the coolest helmet in the paddock, for others it means having the nicest line through turn three. And for others still, it means holding the wheel in one hand, or turning with their hands together like Mark Martin. These people are costing themselves a lot of time, energy, and some are putting their hands at risk.

Hinchcliffe with the red gloves at 10 and 2. NOLA in 2015 (Courtesy of indycar.com)

Hinchcliffe with the red gloves at 10 and 2. NOLA in 2015 (Courtesy of indycar.com)

10 and 2

When you are holding the wheel with your hands at 10 and 2 you are balanced. Both hands are doing the same work and you are not pulling the wheel to either side. You can literally let your arms drop and hang from your hands and the wheel won’t move. This is exactly what you want. The only input going into that steering system should be completely under your control. Any extra movement wastes the energy needed to make you go fast.

You also have the advantage that your hands are always countering each other. Because they are on opposite sides of the wheel they will always be on opposite sides even as you turn. This means you are always balanced, even when you are in full lock.

Lastly, the weight of your arms help hold the wheel steady. By having your arms at opposite sides their weight adds extra energy into the steering system you keep the wheels pointed straight. Small bumps and grooves in the track can try to pull the wheel in one direction or another. Having the weight of your arms pulling down equally on either side counters this.

9 and 3 (DTM, F1)

This is also a fine position. Some steering wheels are designed for this — butterfly wheels come to mind. Others match your hands better at 10 and 2 like the traditional three-spoke wheel. Basically pick which ever fits your hands and steering wheel.

One handed

Racing with one hand on the wheel is all kinds of stupid, but let’s keep it brief. No matter how many other people you have seen do it, no matter how many wins you or they may have, you will always be faster, safer and more consistent with your hands at 10 and 2.

When you have both hands on the wheel you can pull the wheel down with either hand to make your major steering inputs. Trying to push the wheel up is more difficult, takes more energy, and is less precise.

Gravity. When you pull in the same direction as gravity you get a bit of help from Newton’s buddy. Pushing the wheel up is more difficult because you have to fight against it. Doing all of it with one hand makes no sense.

You have to hold all of the energy being transferred through the steering system in one hand instead of splitting it between two. Everyone has had their hands get tired. They have to do a lot of work. Spreading it out between two hands is just smarter.

You are also slower in an emergency. Having the strength and precision of both hands on the wheel will get you out of trouble faster than you ever will with one hand.

And what happens if you have to go beyond half a turn into the wheel? If your hand goes to the bottom you are S.O.L. Same goes for if you have to turn past the middle of the opposite side you are holding. In a passenger car it is no big deal to switch hands. Racing doesn’t give you time to waste on such maneuvers.

Patrick Long getting a quick shift in driving a '75 Porsche 911 at Monterey (Courtesy of The Racer Channel on youtube)

Patrick Long getting a quick shift in driving a ’75 Porsche 911 at Monterey (Courtesy of The Racer Channel on youtube)

What about when shifting? You have to let go with one hand, right?

Someone is asking this in their head, I just know it. The answer is simple. Let go with one hand, get the shift done, and get your hand back on that wheel, fast. Don’t waste time.

One hand higher than the other

Like I said, when you are holding the wheel with your hands at 10 and 2 you are balanced. The moment you move one hand higher that the other you start to pull the wheel down in that direction. If your right hand is higher you pull the wheel to the right and vice versa. You have to either pull down harder with the opposite hand to stop it or push your higher hand upwards against the imbalance. Both take strength and tire you out over time.

Hands too low (8 and 4)

When you hold the bottom of the wheel you are not as balanced as when you have your hands in the middle. With your hands at 10 and 2 you can pull one hand down, and the wheel will turn in that direction because your hands have room to move down. If you have your hands at the bottom and you pull on the wheel, nothing happens because you are at the bottom already. You have to push your hands out to the side or pull them in to make the wheel turn. You are just not as precise with your movements this way because you don’t have the counterbalance of the opposite hand to work with.

You have no counter with the opposite hand because it crosses the top of the wheel faster, putting both of your hands on the same side.

This is also less balanced because you arms are lower and have less energy going into the steering system to keep things straight.

Hands too high (11 and 1)

Holding your hands high up is like the problem with being too low. If you pull down nothing really happens because you are holding a wheel. You have to move your hands to one side to get it turning.

You have no counter with the opposite hand because it crosses the top of the wheel faster, putting both of your hands on the same side.

This also leads to the problem that you will have to hold your arms up high all race long. This is a waste of energy and will tire you out faster.

Mark Martin moves his right hand to meet his left. Weird. (Courtesy of nascar.com)

Mark Martin moves his right hand to meet his left. Weird. (Courtesy of harvickfan767 on youtube)

Two hands together (The Mark Martin)

Moving one hand over to meet the other in a corner may seem like a good idea, but it isn’t. It creates an imbalance on the steering wheel that pulls it naturally in the direction of the turn. The problem is that you never just turn the wheel in the direction of the corner. You are always making small corrections. These corrections are more precise when you have a balanced system with your hands on opposite sides of the wheel. Instead of pulling one hand or the other, you are pushing and pulling at the same time.

I totally raced like this for a good year before a team owner came over and told me to stop. A few years later I was on his team and winning races. Thanks Lon.

Dynamic (Shuffling your hands)

If you are racing anything that is using a conventional steering box you will have to use a dynamic hand position. A racing box will go to full lock in around half a turn (when the very top of the wheel is at the bottom). A conventional one is slower and will make you turn beyond that in some corners. Some cars have more than two full rotations on the steering wheel to reach full lock. Once you have turned the wheel half way your arms cross each other and you have to let go with one or drive off the track. So as you are turning the wheel, and your upper hand reaches about 1 o’clock, let go with the upper hand and shift it down the wheel to about 4 to continue the turn. Once that hand has a firm grip you let go of the bottom hand and shift it up the wheel. Repeat this as necessary as fast as necessary. By moving your hand position you are able to turn the steering wheel past half way while keeping your hands opposite each other.

Locking your thumbs.

Locking your thumbs around the spokes of the steering wheel is a sin we are all guilty of at some point. Turn on any pro series and you will see the best of the best do it. In fact, all of the pictures I have used in this article show a racer locking their thumbs around the spokes. You should also know that many racers end up injuring or breaking their thumbs or wrists because of it. The steering system is designed to make a relatively small force on the steering wheel overcome the tremendous forces being put through the tires, but if you have a sudden sharp force from an impact, that wheel is going to be ripped out of your hands and it will happily take your thumbs with it. It may be uncomfortable at first, but the sooner you learn to keep your thumbs pointed up the steering wheel instead of wrapped around it, the better off you are going to be when that impact comes. And it will.

Holding the steering wheel sounds like a stupid subject. And it should be. But here is the thing–holding it wrong will tire you out, cost you time, and maybe risk your thumbs. Thumbs are important. So is doing everything you can to be precise. Remember, nothing makes you look better, or your ego happier, than winning.

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