One Hundred and Fifty-Five Feet
From the 15th floor of a building you step into an Otis elevator and press L. The shiny doors kiss closed. The floor briefly lightens under your feet as sequentially the digital numbers start dropping. Fourteen. Thirteen. Twelve. You look at your phone to have something to do.
That’s one way to descend 155 feet.
A quicker way is to take off running—along with three muscular guys behind you—as fast as your legs can pump as you push a rattling four-man bobsled out of the starting house at the Lillehammer, Norway, bobsled course. At the last second, you leap over its sill, drop into a seat as you grab the steering ropes, and tuck down to minimize air drag. The clattery hiss of the runners intensifies, a gently banked left then a harder banked right. A finger snap and suddenly there’s another left where you fly so high on the banking’s wall that even with football-player neck muscles, a head’s that out of position can get pried sideways by the downward g’s—and you’ll be driving the corner blind. And then, a quarter mile from the start is Turn 4, a giant high-banked left where you’re now absolutely screaming. At this point, you’ve dropped that same Otis-elevator 155 feet. And accelerating toward 90 mph (145 km/h).
The drop and distance from the summit of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca’s famous Corkscrew to the Turn 10 (that’s also an interval of four corners) is very close to this. And I’m staring, a bit confused, at its digital representation in our Vbox data software. Or rather at two lines traced over it—one green, one red—that were data-logged within a few minutes of each other by Mazda’s newest Miata Cup Car. Although the Corkscrew and Lillehammer plunges are similar, if two bobsleds had followed paths as divergent as these two race car runs, one of them would have wound up hanging from a tree in the Norwegian forest. Unlike the laser-aim trajectory of a bobsled that corners due to banking (like an airplane), a relatively flat, 39-foot-wide track is open to a certain amount of automotive interpretation. And our driving veteran, Randy Pobst, and our shiny-faced 20-year-old intern, Ben Albano, have decided to play two decidedly different riffs through this, the trickiest and more iconic part of the track.
But let me take you back to Lillehammer for a moment because I’d like to draw another parallel. The bobsled starts I’d watched happened when the course was brand new, during a World Cup stop as a shakedown for the Winter Olympics in ’94. Outside the starting house, puffing steam into the icy air, were bobsled drivers mentally rehearsing the precise motions they’d soon need to re-enact: eyes closed, one of their arms would draw slightly closer to their chest as the other extended (steering is by ropes). Their bodies would swivel. Heads would tilt left, right, right, left. They were in a mental zone beyond our reach; you could have walked up and pushed them over. And they looked, bizarrely, like a bunch of football quarterbacks doing tai chi in skin suits—except it was a pantomime that if gotten wrong could mean a broken neck.
Turn 8 (The Corkscrew):
- Let the car flow out of 6, bring car over to left side of road, about half a car width off of the curbing on left
- Turn right, over the crest, have the car parallel to curbing on right side of road
- Braking just before car crests, bending it right—longer, lighter brake increasing pressure as car straightens out
- Turn-in just after the end of the blue and white striping
- Apex set of tires/middle of apex curbing
- Make sure the wheel is straight before descending and turning the car right
- Look out for cone in the fence across the track, don’t try to look down
Ben (see the trace) moves way to the right, but by the Corkscrew’s mid-drop twist, the two paths cross as Randy heads right, straight for the next apex. Technically, this right is called 8A, part two of the of a left-right combination that might be more accurately written as “left-!-right” due that famous topographical event between them.
- Stay left of middle of the road coming down the hill, do not track out all the way
- Bring the car over to just right of center for Turn 9
Ben stays left and then late-apexes 8B, but already, Randy is carving left toward the high lat-g Turn 9, so their paths cross again. Then cross once more approaching Turn 10.
Randy, after seeing these graphs, responded: “I have a new theory about Turn 9—carry a lot of speed in then take advantage of the camber change as the road levels out. It looks like I exit the Corkscrew faster and carry a lot more speed into Turn 9 but can’t go back to throttle as soon as Ben, who enters slower but gets the throttle sooner and exits faster.”
Ben, at Turn 9:
- Manage throttle/braking/lifting to carry as much speed as possible through the corner, use compression at apex
- I was early here and didn’t open up the radius enough so I had to lift and ended up missing the apex by a few inches and carrying less speed
- Turn-in starts after the car is set up for the corner
- There are many lines for this corner and it is important to keep trying new things especially as the car’s setup changes and rubber gets laid down.
- Use apex and track out curbing except for the red part
The speed trace shows Randy braking later and harder before the drop, traveling faster through Turn 9, while Ben is up to 4 mph (6 km/h) faster from there until Turn 10.
- Track out of 9 and start bringing the car over gradually for 10
- Light braking at the middle of the rumble strip
- Turn-in at the end of blue and white curbing
- Apex red curb, back on power after turn-in
- Use compression and add more steering if needed at apex
- Use rumble strip on track out
They’re driving a double helix pattern that would make Watson and Crick smile. Randy: “We enter Turn 10 on similar lines and similar speeds, but it appears we switch, with me accelerating sooner.” (Amusingly, when I first sent Randy these graphs, he responded to their red- and green-colored lines with befuddlement—ah, forgot. He’s colorblind.)
Why the big difference in lines?
Ben: “Early on in my lapping, I like to turn-in later, and then slowly, over the course of a session, I apex earlier and earlier until I’m either scrubbing speed or driving off of the track entirely.” Ben’s a smart young guy. If you’ve only got a couple of laps and no practice, then late-apexing will help avoid running wide and getting a grille full of dirt exiting. “This overlay demonstrates my modus operandi when adjusting to a new car.” (Which, um, some of our editors could learn from. …) “Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is pretty open to interpretation, and it changes depending on the situation. For example, I would take a much lower, tighter line for Turn 9 in the middle of a race to defend my position. But trying to gain position toward the end of a race, I would be more inclined to maximize exit speed out of Turn 10 in order to maybe have a chance at a pass into Turn 11.”
What you’re seeing here in this weave of green and red lines is the difference between an up-to-speed Randy and a laudably thoughtful yet unpracticed Ben. The lesson here: Mr. Albano’s series of late-apexed corners is a textbook example of how you (if you should ever have the chance) ought to approach your first laps at a track in a new car (and certainly with your bosses watching).
Coincidentally, that Lillehammer run has often been used for sliding/car-racing parallels. It’s the site of some of Top Gear’s antics; I was there to check out the then-new U.S.-built Bodine four-man sled. By my measure, there’s 5,179 miles (8334 km) separating the overcast Lillehammer Starting House from the usually sunny Corkscrew, but nevertheless they’re connected by featuring two of the world’s best ways to drop 155 feet. Something to think about next time you press L in an Otis elevator.