In my article What is Rhythm? I highlight that one of the most important skills for finding good racing performance is being able to read the race circuit effectively. In that article, I describe the race circuit as sheet of music a racer must read to find their rhythm. The racing lines and the way the bike is ridden is an expression of how the circuit has been read by the racer. This depends on perception - how we get to know our world through our senses.
I think that not reading the circuit well is one of the biggest limiting factors to a racer's performance, both in lap times and in their available mental capacity. On the other hand, the best and most successful racers develop very good patterns of circuit reading and they know that this is the foundation of their performance.
The Psychology of Perception
There are different theories about how we get to know our world. They can get quite confusing...and boring. So for the sake of simplicity, I'm just going to separate this into two general camps and then explain how they work in motorcycle racing.
In Camp 1 is the idea that says we make up our world inside our heads. For example, visually it says that light hits our eyes as meaningless bits of light that stimulate our various nerves. This gets translated into brain signals, which are sent to various parts of the brain that deal with this kind of signal, they sort it all out so it means something to us. Think of the bits of light as random pieces of Lego, when they hit your eyes, your brain takes them in and builds a model from them. Individually the blocks don't mean or do anything, only when they're constructed into the right model do they make proper sense. In this case, our view of the world and accuracy of it is based on how our brains put the information together - basically it is down to good guesswork. Scary, huh?
In Camp 2 is a theory of direct perception. In this school of thought all the information we need about our environment is out there in the world around us, we just need to look for it. As we get better at seeing our environment, knowing it more, the more detail we see and the more refined our sense becomes (if we seek to learn more about it, that is). In this case, the Lego pieces all arrive with the instructions included so we can see the part that each piece plays in the whole Lego model.
If you're interested in knowing more I have found a good introductory article on Visual Perception Theory.
So what is most relevant to the motorbike racer?
The racers' experience of perception
In my research, I listened to how elite racers described their experience. When learning a new circuit or on returning to a circuit, they almost always used the word 'find' in the context of their lines, their pace, their feeling, the setup and their rhythm. Accepting this as their reality and combining it with their reports about getting outside themselves, or reaching out for the circuit, it puts it much more in Camp 2. The information is out there for the taking as long as they can learn to see (and feel) what they need and use it in the right way. For me this is great news for any rider wanting to improve their performance because it means it isn't magic. It isn't simply down to some talent they're born with. This can be learned - by anyone who wants to learn it.
However, when it then came to exploring racers' visual experience of the circuit once they'd ridden it and they were looking to refine their riding, I found that they would say things like 'this circuit flows,' and 'this one doesn't.' Sometimes, they would say this about certain sections of a particular circuit. This meant that inside their minds, their memory of the circuit would flow like our normal visual flow while riding or it didn't flow. If it didn't flow it was more like watching a series of still pictures in their mind's eye and they would be slower. When their internal and external images matched they tended to ride their fastest. This description of their experience puts them more in Camp 1.
This basically tells us we visit both camps but it depends on what we're doing and what we're looking to achieve.
So, if we're going to listen to the best racers out there, which I think we should, the best performance appears to come when we:
- learn how to take in the most relevant information that lies all around us, and:
- digest it so it becomes an accurate reflection of the real experience.
Sounds really simple doesn't it? It is, but don't confuse it with easy!
Learning about our environment is a natural human thing, and it's worth keeping in mind that most, if not all, the regular contenders in any of the World championship series have been on bikes since year dot. They have also mostly been brought up through very specialised racing environments that will help them to soak up the characteristics of race circuits very well - and they still spend time walking, cycling and riding their scooters around the circuits.
How do you go about reading the circuit?
What I'm going to tell you to do will probably go against the grain of most advice you'll read about or hear. I'm going to suggest you do it in stages that will help you to reset how you see the circuit.
Stage 1 - preparation and your first circuit walk
- put away any circuit guide or map that you've got. Stuff them away, hide them, forget that you bought them, at least for now
- forget what you already think you know about the circuit
- set any thoughts you have about your lines, braking zones, reference points, apexs etc. to one side for a while
- look at the wider field of the circuit - forwards, backwards, sideways, upwards and downwards and any other angle you can possible imagine.
- Basically, go and walk the circuit with a clear head and open mind!
You are looking to see the circuit with a new perspective so this means making yourself look at the circuit and corners from different positions just to see what it looks like. For example, as you walk towards a corner look at the whole picture, including the run off areas, barriers, all the way to the landscape around it and the horizon. Approach it from different positions and angles and notice how you feel about the images you're seeing. Does it feel better or worse at any point? Is there anything you notice that gives you a feeling that helps draw you through the corner?
As you walk around the circuit also stop at intervals throughout the corner. Look forwards and backwards too. And do this at the exit. I also suggest that you look from a crouched down position because when you are leaned over on your bike, you're looking at the circuit from a lower position. See the pictures below.
Also try, if you can, to look at the circuit at different times of day and different conditions.
Brands Hatch GP Circuit - Surtees Surtees, Brands Hatch GP circuit - Forwards. Photo by Simon Darnton
Surtees from low position - Forwards. Photo by Simon Darnton
Surtees, Brands Hatch GP Circuit - Backwards. Photo by Simon Darnton
Even if the value of doing this is not immediately obvious, bear with it, you can and will gain a valuable amount of information from this exercise. But what we're doing here is what little children do when they find a new object they've never seen before. They pick it up and have a good look at it from lots of different angles, they touch, throw it around a bit, bite it, whatever helps them to work it out. Now obviously, I don't recommend you taste the tarmac and dribble on the rumble strips, just spend your time on this one without rushing and you will reap your rewards.
In the next stage we will start to get a bit more analytical and look at how what you've just done has a direct impact on both your lap times and your available mental capacity.