Advanced Riding

Motorcycle Trackday: Learn Your Lines

If you want to master the art of riding fast on track you'll need to get your lines sorted. Easy to say, but much harder to get right. So how's it done? We ask those that know

In an ideal world, we're all looking for an effortless flow from white line to apex to white line, gracefully scribing smooth arcs lap after consistent lap. What many of us end up doing is often quite different. We need professional help.

"A guy at a briefing for a car day once described it to me quite well," says Niall Mackenzie. "He said if men are in Tesco's they'll go down the vegetable aisle and make a nice swoop with the trolley to get a good exit into the fruit aisle, then drift across nicely to peel in for the biscuits. But on track you've got gears to change, wind noise, other people around you, braking, all that. The geometry is pretty straightforward - the shortest distance between two points - but executing it is hard because so much else is involved."What we can't do is talk you through every corner on every track in Britain. Instead we're going to look at what we're trying to achieve overall and how best to approach it, from learning a new circuit, be it on a track day or a club race, to finding the fastest, smoothest line.

1. First steps

Learning a new track is nothing to be scared of. Turning up for a track day at a circuit you've only ever seen on TV or through trackside fencing is one of the biggest buzzes in motorcycling.

Certain sections of some tracks may have reputations that precede them - Cadwell Park's Mountain, Paddock Bend at Brands Hatch and Laguna Seca's Corkscrew spring to mind - but all that should do is illicit a healthy caution. If you're actually racing things might be a bit different. Nerves can be bad enough even on a club race grid, so throw the stress of learning a new track into the mix, combine it with the pressure of setting up a bike in preciously short practice time and it's enough to set the butterflies off in anyone's stomach.

Forewarned is forearmed. Anything you can do familiarise yourself with the track before you ride it should help, so watching race DVDs - ideally with on-bike footage - and lapping virtually via a Playstation can help. A bit.

All the racers we spoke to recommended walking, cycling or scootering round the track first. Niall saw his Thursday track walks as "an extra practice day. I would walk or cycle round, looking for lines, braking markers, peeling off points and exit points." But Colin Edwards doesn't place so much importance on it. "I don't like to walk the track," he says, "it's too slow and I can't get a visualisation. I go out on a scooter to get an understanding of the bumps and cambers, get a hypothetical line and mark some points for braking and so on, then when I actually get on the bike all that kinda goes out the window. Sometimes it's about right, sometimes I'm a foot or two out, but it gives me something to work from."

Walking the track first is fine for racers, but you rarely get the chance on track days. If you're new to a circuit, try and get yourself to the front of the queue for the first session so you're right behind the instructor for the sighting lap(s). They should have as good an idea of which way the track goes as anyone. Once they peel in or clear off though, you're on your own. Don't panic, take it easy and keep things nice and smooth. Following someone else at this point may be an option, but are you sure they know exactly where they're going? If their pace is a bit hot you could end up riding out of your skin just to hang on to the back of them. It's your choice - if you've got a mate who knows what they're doing and is up for holding back and showing you round, it can save time. Or ask an instructor to show you round. It's not for everyone though. "I specifically don't follow anyone when I'm learning a track," says Niall. "If I was struggling somewhere or had a section time that was down I might look at someone else, but I always try and work it out for myself first."

Whether you're following someone or not at this point, the most important thing to do is try and get into a rhythm of braking, turning, apexing and accelerating, rather than letting the bike get ahead of you and your brain constantly playing catch-up with what's going on around you. See where you want to put the bike and how that equates to where the bike wants to go, and somewhere along the way the two of you should reach a compromise.

"It's very important to build up slowly on a new track," says Rizla Suzuki's James Haydon. "Once I'm on the bike I try and link my apexes up. I might be a bit slow but I'm hitting the apexes and getting the line right, then I try and put speed into it. After the first session I like to find somewhere quiet, visualise the track and do laps in my head. Doing that, getting the apexes right, coming in nice here, sliding it there, all seems to help."

The right gear for each corner is key to fast laps, but don't worry too much for the first couple of sessions.

"Keep gear changes to a minimum for the first session," says Niall. "It's something less to think about. As you build up speed the gears you're using are going to change anyway. On, say, a 1000cc bike, you can pretty much learn any track in three gears - second to fourth would be fine."

2. Joining the dots

Key to getting yourself round a track, both in the early stages of learning and later when cracking on a bit, is to have reference or marker points to help you brake, turn and apex.

Your line can be seen as nothing more than a series of fixed braking and turning points, apexes and exit markers linked together - "just joining the dots," as Colin Edwards calls it - but it needs to be done smoothly and with rhythm if your riding is to flow at any speed. A staccato series of straight lines jerking from one marker to the next won't get you anywhere, fast.

This is where a race school can come in handy for learning a track. Most position cones around the track for braking, turning-in and apexing. While actual markers can vary from person to person depending on how fast they're going, easily-spotted cones give a handy baseline to work from. Don't get too used to them, as they probably won't be there later if you turn up at the circuit for a track day. And they won't be there on race day.

All sorts of things can be used as braking, turning and exit markers: trackside marker boards in the braking areas (obviously), tyre marks on the track, tufts of grass and patches of new or different coloured Tarmac for example, but don't use shadows - they move through the day.

The late Steve Hislop was renowned for his super-smooth style and super-precise lines, hitting his apexes to the millimetre lap after lap, but he claimed never to use any kind of markers, relying instead on feel and depth perception. "Freddie Spencer was another rider who said that," says Niall, a former team-mate to both men, "but most have reference points. Some might not like to admit to it but I think generally most riders use them."

James Haydon is one not admitting to it. "The only times I've ever used braking markers are at places like the old Hockenheim," he says, "just because it's so bloody fast. Generally I just brake when it feels right. I think that helps me. I do most of my passing on the brakes, and it helps not being so regimented. If the 100-metre board is the latest you think you can brake and he's braking at the 100-metre board, you're not going to get past."

If your lines are going to flow your vision has to flow too, so don't fixate on your markers. Look for them, aim for them and register where they are but don't continue staring at them once that's done. Where you are very quickly becomes where you were, and you need to be thinking about what's coming up next. What you're dealing with should be a conveyor belt of information, each piece immediately discarded once it has been used.

Be flexible and use your markers as references rather than fixed points. As your speed increases you may need to move your braking or turn-in markers back, away from the corner. For example, if you suss a faster exit from a corner preceding a straight and have been braking at the 150-metre board at the end of that straight, you may need to brake earlier as you'll now be carrying more speed at the far end. Your markers will change from bike to bike and year to year; as engines get faster, tyres grippier and brakes better, your reference points and lines themselves will need to evolve too."I have markers all the way round Donington, for example," says Niall, "but I always tell myself not to get them too hooked into my head. If you're doing lots of track days and you've got regular, fixed markers, you should be looking to push past them as things move on."

3. Using all the track

For outright speed round a track you should look to make it was wide as possible, and for racers this means stealing every spare centimetre.

The wider the circuit the less critical it is to use every last piece of it - Brno and Silverstone, for example, are very different to Cadwell Park - but generally racers will try to make use of all the track available. Watch MotoGP or a British or World Superbike race and you'll see riders positioning themselves right on the white line at the edge of the track before turning in to corners, and running up the painted kerbs and kicking up dust on the exit.

And have a close look at them at the apexes; where possible, knees, legs and most of the bike itself will hang over the kerb, with the tyres as close to the inside of the track as possible. If you apex with your knee skimming the white line on the inside of the turn then your tyres are a good two feet away from the edge of the track, effectively making it that much narrower. The tighter the bike is to the edge of the track at the apex, the earlier and harder it will be possible to accelerate out without running off the edge of the track on the exit. This isn't always possible of course, as some tracks have high, steep or serrated kerbs that can't be used in this way.

Many track day riders find that once they build up some speed their previously smooth and accurate lines start to slip away from them. As speed increases it can be more difficult to remain pinpoint accurate, and hitting your marks inches from the track edge on the way into corners becomes harder. The temptation is to move towards a more middle-of-the-road position, leaving a comfort zone between you and the track's edge. This may give a feeling of security, but all you're doing is making the track that much narrower on the exit - give yourself a metre's safety margin on the way in and you're sacrificing a metre of track width on the exit; to compensate you'll have to tighten your line while trying to accelerate out. At lower speeds this isn't a problem, but it's asking more of the back tyre and is ultimately a recipe for a highside.

Of course it's possible to lap at a fair old rate without running from white line to apex to white line everywhere, but ultimately it will put a cap on lap times. If, as your speed increases, you find yourself missing apexes and running wide on the exits, go back to basics for a session at a slightly reduced speed and concentrate on hitting your marks again.

Don't be afraid to experiment and try different lines. Corner complexes flowing from one to another can be tricky; what works for the guy who's easing away from you may not be right for your bike, riding style, or pace."I think most tracks have one line that's pretty much the fast line," says James Haydon, "and everyone wants that line. You might find it's not quite working right, but it really comes down to what laptimes you're doing, or if there's somewhere you're particularly uncomfortable or there's a section that isn't flowing right. Maybe there's an awkward bump, or it's spinning in a dip or trying to wheelie, things that become obvious the faster you go, then you do experiment and play around a bit with different lines."

4. Set-up and style

For any combination of bike, set-up and riding style there's going to be a perfect line for ultimate, outright speed through any corner, but perhaps the main factor determining lines is the type of bike you're riding. The rule of thumb is to make best use of your bike's biggest performance advantage. Lightweight bikes with relatively low horsepower need to keep their momentum up with high corner speed and smooth, flowing lines; an excess of horsepower means you should be looking to get on the gas as early as you can and make use of that bhp on the straights, which means squaring the corner off at a reduced speed and powering out early.

"The bigger the bike, the more horsepower you've got and the slower your entry and mid-corner speed will be," says Niall. "On a superbike I would tend to brake deeper into the corner while keeping it in a straight line, go past the point I would normally turn in but get it slowed down more so that when I start to turn and get off the brakes it comes back across for quite a late apex. The grand prix 500s were like big 250s, providing you had grip. Because their powerband was quite aggressive rear grip would only last maybe 30-40% of the race, then you really had to square things off; you had to be pretty good at getting it sliding and picking it up at the same time. MotoGP bikes are slightly different because they're light and they've got the grip and the suspension to carry the corner speed, but they've also got the power to square the corner off."The high-revving 750 fours of superbike years gone by were in stark contrast to the dominant V-twin Ducatis of the time. "The Ducatis had so much torque that you could drive them out of anywhere," says James Haydon, who rode the Reve Red Bull Ducatis in BSB in 2000, and the high-revving Yamaha R7 four-cylinder machine in 2001. "You could square corners off and fire them out, you didn't have to make the classic racing line and apex. When I rode the R7, that didn't have much low-down power so you had to be really pinpoint with your lines and keep your corner speed up. Those two were really different to ride. On the R7, if I had no-one on the track I could do really quick times, but if I was racing the Ducatis I couldn't run the line I wanted; they'd stop in front of me and drive out, pulling a few lengths."

Individual machine set-up preferences can also have an effect, although this is more likely to be the case in top level racing. Racers have other issues to deal with too, such as learning a new track and setting up a bike at the same time.

"It's a pain in the ass doing both," says Colin Edwards. "If you change your line for the better then that can effect the way the bike reacts so you need to change the set-up again. It compromises your learning and it compromises your set-up. It was easier to do on a superbike - if that was 90-95% right you could ride, but the MotoGP bikes are so critical. Some places it works good, others it don't, it's all down to set-up, it's down to what the bike allows you to do."

Combinations of set-up and style can give riders clear advantages at certain corners. At this year's Brands Hatch World Superbike round Nori Haga could take a tighter line than anyone through Surtees and onto the back straight, without sacrificing drive. "Hizzy had a real tight line there too," recalls Niall. "No one else could use it. He'd just dive down the inside and still get a really good drive. Hislop would have passed where Haga was having a go, but he was certainly making time."

5. And in conclusion...

If you're new to track days and smooth, consistent, pinpoint lines are a bit beyond you for now, don't worry too much about it. Just get out on track, take it steady and enjoy yourself. With practice and a bit of thought, it'll come to you. Remember, being on the ideal line isn't always necessary. "It's not the end of the world if you're not on the perfect line all the time," says Niall. "It depends on the bike and what you're trying to achieve at any time." Perhaps the most enlightening thing we can learn from all this is just what separates them from us. All the racers spoke of how their lines came to them naturally. It might take you or I months or years to master Donington Park or Laguna Seca; Niall talks of doing it in a single practice session. Gregorio Lavilla had only two short practice sessions at Cadwell Park - "one of the most difficult tracks I have been to", he says - before racing there in August, yet he was on to win race one before his team-mate ran him off the track. He finished second, twice.

Stuff like that, along with the disarmingly casual way with which James Haydon talks of dealing with slides and wheelspin, or how both he and Lavilla brake 'when it feels right' are most likely what separates the likes of them from the likes of most of us, and it's why they are making a living from racing bikes and we aren't. But it's nice to get an insight into how they do what they do.

A word of warning: don't try and translate this into your road riding. Fast racing lines and swift, safe lines on the road are in many cases two entirely different kettles of fish. We'll be looking at road lines next month.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

The trouble with explaining this sort of thing is that a picture of a corner looks nothing like real life. But we'll try.

Red is right. Turn in too early (blue) and you'll apex too soon, running wide on the exit unless you tighten your line when you should be on the gas. Simple. Trouble is, one person's early turn-in is another's heart-in-mouth late entry. Tell 100 riders how to get through Donington's Redgate and one will go into the gravel on the way in, one will run wide on the exit and you'll get 98 different lines in between. Oh well...

WHITE LINE TO APEX OR MIDDLE OF THE ROAD?

Give yourself a comfort zone away from the edge of the track on the way into a corner and all you're doing is sacrificing width on the way out. It's the same as turning in too early; if you're carrying any speed you'll still be turning the bike as you exit, risking a highside if you get on the gas.

It's one of the reasons people manage to crash on track days when they may not be lapping particularly quickly or near the limits of the bike - they impose an artificially lower limit on their bike's performance by asking the wrong things of it at the wrong time.

RIGHT AFTER LEFT AFTER IGHT AFTER...I'M GETTING A COMPLEX

When dealing with complexes of corners joined together, your aim is to get the best line through the final turn for the fastest exit. The dotted grey line (left) shows the ideal line through the first right-hander if it were to be taken as a corner on it's own , with an imaginary track heading off to the right. The red line shows how the line through the right-hander is compromised in order to get the best exit through the left. Enter more slowly, turn tighter and keep it right for a good drive onto the following straight. Easy. Now you try.

OLD HANDS AND FRESH IDEAS

regular track day goers will have a favourite circuit, one they always ride their best at. Same goes for racers. Or does it? Track specialists would once excel at one circuit, but that has been blown out of the water recently.

"You could convince yourself that coming to a circuit you didn't know would put you at a disadvantage," says Niall, "but you learned through experience that after a couple of sessions you're going to know the way. One example for me was the 1988 500GP at Laguna Seca. I went there with all the top Americans - Rainey, Schwantz, Lawson - and qualified third very close to pole and led for most of the race. So if I ever had a doubt at a new track I'd reflect on that."

The arrival of rapid foreign riders such as Ryuichi Kiyonari, Yukio Kagayama and, a few years back, Troy Bayliss, proved that local knowledge isn't a pre- requisite to race wins, but this year BSB new boy Gregorio Lavilla has set new standards. So can it be beneficial to come to a track with no circuit knowledge?

"We grew up on the UK circuits," says Niall, "and the lines are kind of set in stone, but Gregorio comes with a distinct advantage because he doesn't know that stuff. We'll never try any new or bizarre lines; Bayliss took some mad lines and everyone thought 'where's he going?', but he won the championship."

ACCELERATED LEARNING WITH GREGORIO LAVILLA

At the time of going to press Gregorio had taken a two-point lead in the BSB standings. It is incredible how quickly he has adapted to the quirky British tracks; even Kagayama and Kiyonari took until their second years in BSB to master some but Greg has been on the pace at each one, first time out. Here's how he does it."When Airwaves Ducati first offered me the ride it was just for Brands Hatch, where I had tested the Suzuki one week before, and at Thruxton, which I did last year with Suzuki, so it was not a big problem. After that they asked if I wanted to race the whole season. Then I thought whoops, this is going to be more difficult.

When I get to a new track I walk it on the Thursday and try to see which lines will be quick, but to understand it well you have to ride it on the bike. Walking it you think you will do one line but on the bike it may be impossible. I follow someone in the first laps if I can, but I try to learn from everybody - even slower riders can help because maybe they know the lines even if they are not fast on it.

Much of the time I am doing lines that no one else is doing, but that is sometimes because I need to pass people and need a different line. For sure many people say this track is difficult to pass, or there is no way to pass in that corner, yet I manage to pass. I think the main thing is I am able to keep my speed into the corners even with a different line, and the second thing is I'm able to change my style through the race to pass people. Also I am used to always having to learn and yet still be competitive. I am very open minded to what I can do.

I don't really use markers. If I do it is on very fast straights or into blind corners. We are humans and the normal feeling is to brake earlier than is necessary, but this is more for really fast tracks and in England the tracks aren't really fast. It is more instinct about where the right place to brake is.

The Ducati isn't the easiest bike to learn new tracks on. There are some other bikes that are easier to ride, but faster? I don't know. Of course we are competitive and of course we are fast, but to learn the tracks the bike is not making the job easier. But for sure any bike that you ride to the limit is a difficult bike."

In an ideal world, we're all looking for an effortless flow from white line to apex to white line, gracefully scribing smooth arcs lap after consistent lap. What many of us end up doing is often quite different. We need professional help.

"A guy at a briefing for a car day once described it to me quite well," says Niall Mackenzie. "He said if men are in Tesco's they'll go down the vegetable aisle and make a nice swoop with the trolley to get a good exit into the fruit aisle, then drift across nicely to peel in for the biscuits. But on track you've got gears to change, wind noise, other people around you, braking, all that. The geometry is pretty straightforward - the shortest distance between two points - but executing it is hard because so much else is involved."

What we can't do is talk you through every corner on every track in Britain. Instead we're going to look at what we're trying to achieve overall and how best to approach it, from learning a new circuit, be it on a track day or a club race, to finding the fastest, smoothest line.

In an ideal world, we're all looking for an effortless flow from white line to apex to white line, gracefully scribing smooth arcs lap after consistent lap. What many of us end up doing is often quite different. We need professional help.

"A guy at a briefing for a car day once described it to me quite well," says Niall Mackenzie. "He said if men are in Tesco's they'll go down the vegetable aisle and make a nice swoop with the trolley to get a good exit into the fruit aisle, then drift across nicely to peel in for the biscuits. But on track you've got gears to change, wind noise, other people around you, braking, all that. The geometry is pretty straightforward - the shortest distance between two points - but executing it is hard because so much else is involved."

What we can't do is talk you through every corner on every track in Britain. Instead we're going to look at what we're trying to achieve overall and how best to approach it, from learning a new circuit, be it on a track day or a club race, to finding the fastest, smoothest line.

Learning the track

1. First steps

Learning a new track is nothing to be scared of. Turning up for a track day at a circuit you've only ever seen on TV or through trackside fencing is one of the biggest buzzes in motorcycling. Certain sections of some tracks may have reputations that precede them - Cadwell Park's Mountain, Paddock Bend at Brands Hatch and Laguna Seca's Corkscrew spring to mind - but all that should do is illicit a healthy caution. If you're actually racing things might be a bit different. Nerves can be bad enough even on a club race grid, so throw the stress of learning a new track into the mix, combine it with the pressure of setting up a bike in preciously short practice time and it's enough to set the butterflies off in anyone's stomach.

Forewarned is forearmed. Anything you can do familiarise yourself with the track before you ride it should help, so watching race DVDs - ideally with on-bike footage - and lapping virtually via a Playstation can help. A bit.

All the racers we spoke to recommended walking, cycling or scootering round the track first. Niall saw his Thursday track walks as "an extra practice day. I would walk or cycle round, looking for lines, braking markers, peeling off points and exit points." But Colin Edwards doesn't place so much importance on it.

"I don't like to walk the track," he says, "it's too slow and I can't get a visualisation. I go out on a scooter to get an understanding of the bumps and cambers, get a hypothetical line and mark some points for braking and so on, then when I actually get on the bike all that kinda goes out the window. Sometimes it's about right, sometimes I'm a foot or two out, but it gives me something to work from."

Walking the track first is fine for racers, but you rarely get the chance on track days. If you're new to a circuit, try and get yourself to the front of the queue for the first session so you're right behind the instructor for the sighting lap(s). They should have as good an idea of which way the track goes as anyone.

Once they peel in or clear off though, you're on your own. Don't panic, take it easy and keep things nice and smooth. Following someone else at this point may be an option, but are you sure they know exactly where they're going? If their pace is a bit hot you could end up riding out of your skin just to hang on to the back of them. It's your choice - if you've got a mate who knows what they're doing and is up for holding back and showing you round, it can save time. Or ask an instructor to show you round. It's not for everyone though.

"I specifically don't follow anyone when I'm learning a track," says Niall. "If I was struggling somewhere or had a section time that was down I might look at someone else, but I always try and work it out for myself first."

Whether you're following someone or not at this point, the most important thing to do is try and get into a rhythm of braking, turning, apexing and accelerating, rather than letting the bike get ahead of you and your brain constantly playing catch-up with what's going on around you. See where you want to put the bike and how that equates to where the bike wants to go, and somewhere along the way the two of you should reach a compromise.

"It's very important to build up slowly on a new track," says James Haydon. "Once I'm on the bike I try and link my apexes up. I might be a bit slow but I'm hitting the apexes and getting the line right, then I try and put speed into it. After the first session I like to find somewhere quiet, visualise the track and do laps in my head. Doing that, getting the apexes right, coming in nice here, sliding it there, all seems to help."

The right gear for each corner is key to fast laps, but don't worry too much for the first couple of sessions.
"Keep gear changes to a minimum for the first session," says Niall. "It's something less to think about. As you build up speed the gears you're using are going to change anyway. On, say, a 1000cc bike, you can pretty much learn any track in three gears - second to fourth would be fine."

Racing lines

2. Joining the dots

Key to getting yourself round a track, both in the early stages of learning and later when cracking on a bit, is to have reference or marker points to help you brake, turn and apex.

Your line can be seen as nothing more than a series of fixed braking and turning points, apexes and exit markers linked together - "just joining the dots," as Colin Edwards calls it - but it needs to be done smoothly and with rhythm if your riding is to flow at any speed. A staccato series of straight lines jerking from one marker to the next won't get you anywhere, fast.

This is where a race school can come in handy for learning a track. Most position cones around the track for braking, turning-in and apexing. While actual markers can vary from person to person depending on how fast they're going, easily-spotted cones give a handy baseline to work from. Don't get too used to them, as they probably won't be there later if you turn up at the circuit for a track day. And they won't be there on race day.

All sorts of things can be used as braking, turning and exit markers: trackside marker boards in the braking areas (obviously), tyre marks on the track, tufts of grass and patches of new or different coloured Tarmac for example, but don't use shadows - they move through the day.

The late Steve Hislop was renowned for his super-smooth style and super-precise lines, hitting his apexes to the millimetre lap after lap, but he claimed never to use any kind of markers, relying instead on feel and depth perception. "Freddie Spencer was another rider who said that," says Niall, a former team-mate to both men, "but most have reference points. Some might not like to admit to it but I think generally most riders use them."

James Haydon is one not admitting to it. "The only times I've ever used braking markers are at places like the old Hockenheim," he says, "just because it's so bloody fast. Generally I just brake when it feels right. I think that helps me. I do most of my passing on the brakes, and it helps not being so regimented. If the 100-metre board is the latest you think you can brake and he's braking at the 100-metre board, you're not going to get past."

If your lines are going to flow your vision has to flow too, so don't fixate on your markers. Look for them, aim for them and register where they are but don't continue staring at them once that's done. Where you are very quickly becomes where you were, and you need to be thinking about what's coming up next. What you're dealing with should be a conveyor belt of information, each piece immediately discarded once it has been used.

Be flexible and use your markers as references rather than fixed points. As your speed increases you may need to move your braking or turn-in markers back, away from the corner. For example, if you suss a faster exit from a corner preceding a straight and have been braking at the 150-metre board at the end of that straight, you may need to brake earlier as you'll now be carrying more speed at the far end. Your markers will change from bike to bike and year to year; as engines get faster, tyres grippier and brakes better, your reference points and lines themselves will need to evolve too.

"I have markers all the way round Donington, for example," says Niall, "but I always tell myself not to get them too hooked into my head. If you're doing lots of track days and you've got regular, fixed markers, you should be looking to push past them as things move on."

Using the track

3. Using all the track

For outright speed round a track you should look to make it was wide as possible, and for racers this means stealing every spare centimetre.

The wider the circuit the less critical it is to use every last piece of it - Brno and Silverstone, for example, are very different to Cadwell Park - but generally racers will try to make use of all the track available. Watch MotoGP or a British or World Superbike race and you'll see riders positioning themselves right on the white line at the edge of the track before turning in to corners, and running up the painted kerbs and kicking up dust on the exit.

And have a close look at them at the apexes; where possible, knees, legs and most of the bike itself will hang over the kerb, with the tyres as close to the inside of the track as possible. If you apex with your knee skimming the white line on the inside of the turn then your tyres are a good two feet away from the edge of the track, effectively making it that much narrower. The tighter the bike is to the edge of the track at the apex, the earlier and harder it will be possible to accelerate out without running off the edge of the track on the exit. This isn't always possible of course, as some tracks have high, steep or serrated kerbs
that can't be used in this way.

Many track day riders find that once they build up some speed their previously smooth and accurate lines start to slip away from them. As speed increases it can be more difficult to remain pinpoint accurate, and hitting your marks inches from the track edge on the way into corners becomes harder. The temptation is to move towards a more middle-of-the-road position, leaving a comfort zone between you and the track's edge. This may give a feeling of security, but all you're doing is making the track that much narrower on the exit - give yourself a metre's safety margin on the way in and you're sacrificing a metre of track width on the exit; to compensate you'll have to tighten your line while trying to accelerate out. At lower speeds this isn't a problem, but it's asking more of the back tyre and is ultimately a recipe for a highside.

Of course it's possible to lap at a fair old rate without running from white line to apex to white line everywhere, but ultimately it will put a cap on lap times. If, as your speed increases, you find yourself missing apexes and running wide on the exits, go back to basics for a session at a slightly reduced speed and concentrate on hitting your marks again.

Don't be afraid to experiment and try different lines. Corner complexes flowing from one to another can be tricky; what works for the guy who's easing away from you may not be right for your bike, riding style, or pace.

"I think most tracks have one line that's pretty much the fast line," says James Haydon, "and everyone wants that line. You might find it's not quite working right, but it really comes down to what laptimes you're doing, or if there's somewhere you're particularly uncomfortable or there's a section that isn't flowing right. Maybe there's an awkward bump, or it's spinning in a dip or trying to wheelie, things that become obvious the faster you go, then you do experiment and play around a bit with different lines."

Set-up and style

4. Set-up and style

For any combination of bike, set-up and riding style there's going to be a perfect line for ultimate, outright speed through any corner, but perhaps the main factor determining lines is the type of bike you're riding. The rule of thumb is to make best use of your bike's biggest performance advantage. Lightweight bikes with relatively low horsepower need to keep their momentum up with high corner speed and smooth, flowing lines; an excess of horsepower means you should be looking to get on the gas as early as you can and make use of that bhp on the straights, which means squaring the corner off at a reduced speed and powering out early.

"The bigger the bike, the more horsepower you've got and the slower your entry and mid-corner speed will be," says Niall. "On a superbike I would tend to brake deeper into the corner while keeping it in a straight line, go past the point I would normally turn in but get it slowed down more so that when I start to turn and get off the brakes it comes back across for quite a late apex. The grand prix 500s were like big 250s, providing you had grip. Because their powerband was quite aggressive rear grip would only last maybe 30-40% of the race, then you really had to square things off; you had to be pretty good at getting it sliding and picking it up at the same time. MotoGP bikes are slightly different because they're light and they've got the grip and the suspension to carry the corner speed, but they've also got the power to square the corner off."

The high-revving 750 fours of superbike years gone by were in stark contrast to the dominant V-twin Ducatis of the time. "The Ducatis had so much torque that you could drive them out of anywhere," says James Haydon, who rode the Reve Red Bull Ducatis in BSB in 2000, and the high-revving Yamaha R7 four-cylinder machine in 2001. "You could square corners off and fire them out, you didn't have to make the classic racing line and apex. When I rode the R7, that didn't have much low-down power so you had to be really pinpoint with your lines and keep your corner speed up. Those two were really different to ride. On the R7, if I had no-one on the track I could do really quick times, but if I was racing the Ducatis I couldn't run the line I wanted; they'd stop in front of me and drive out, pulling a few lengths."

Individual machine set-up preferences can also have an effect, although this is more likely to be the case in top level racing. Racers have other issues to deal with too, such as learning a new track and setting up a bike at the same time.

"It's a pain in the ass doing both," says Colin Edwards. "If you change your line for the better then that can effect the way the bike reacts so you need to change the set-up again. It compromises your learning and it compromises your set-up. It was easier to do on a superbike - if that was 90-95% right you could ride, but the MotoGP bikes are so critical. Some places it works good, others it don't, it's all down to set-up, it's down to what the bike allows you to do."

Combinations of set-up and style can give riders clear advantages at certain corners. At Brands Hatch Nori Haga would take a tighter line than anyone through Surtees and onto the back straight, without sacrificing drive. "Hizzy had a real tight line there too," recalls Niall. "No one else could use it. He'd just dive down the inside and still get a really good drive. Hislop would have passed where Haga was having a go, but he was certainly making time."

Conclusion

5. And in conclusion...

If you're new to track days and smooth, consistent, pinpoint lines are a bit beyond you for now, don't worry too much about it. Just get out on track, take it steady and enjoy yourself. With practice and a bit of thought, it'll come to you. Remember, being on the ideal line isn't always necessary. "It's not the end of the world if you're not on the perfect line all the time," says Niall. "It depends on the bike and what you're trying to achieve at any time."

Perhaps the most enlightening thing we can learn from all this is just what separates them from us. All the racers spoke of how their lines came to them naturally. It might take you or I months or years to master Donington Park or Laguna Seca; Niall talks of doing it in a single practice session. Gregorio Lavilla had only two short practice sessions at Cadwell Park - "one of the most difficult tracks I have been to", he says - before racing there in August, yet he was on to win race one before his team-mate ran him off the track. He finished second, twice.

Stuff like that, along with the disarmingly casual way with which James Haydon talks of dealing with slides and wheelspin, or how both he and Lavilla brake 'when it feels right' are most likely what separates the likes of them from the likes of most of us, and it's why they are making a living from racing bikes and we aren't. But it's nice to get an insight into how they do what they do.

A word of warning: don't try and translate this into your road riding. Fast racing lines and swift, safe lines on the road are in many cases two entirely different kettles of fish. Head over here for the perfect road riding lines

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