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Automatic vs Manual For Racing: Which Is Better?

This is the huge petrolhead debate. The purist in the motoring community will always back the manual transmission car. There will also be some who back the automatic transmission car as well though. But which transmission is faster for racing, automatic or manual?

An automatic transmission will almost always be faster than manual if it is used with the correct settings. Specifically, a car with a racing gearbox – which features a semi-automatic transmission with paddle shifters – will be faster around a racetrack than its manual equivalent.

There are various factors to consider. In some cases, a manual transmission could be faster than an automatic. As a racer myself, I have done some research into the topic to see just how much of a difference there is between these two transmissions.

Petrolheads Love Manual Transmissions

Let’s start with opinions versus facts. If you ask any petrolhead, they will tell you that a manual transmission is the best way to go. Even I can agree with that to an extent. If you are looking to be more ‘involved’ with the car, and looking to be a more skilful racing driver, then the manual transmission is absolutely the best way to go.

Using stick shift in racing conditions requires a lot of skill and focus, and this means that you, as a driver, have to develop the skills required to make a car go as fast as possible with a manual transmission. This is the old school style of racing, and all drivers will tell you that it is arguably the most difficult aspect of racing.

These skills, to an extent, have become somewhat of a ‘lost art’ when it comes to racing. The new generation of racing drivers do not need to learn skills like double clutching or heel and toe techniques. They most likely will only use the clutch two or three times in a race!

However, if you were to look at the pure speed of a car, an automatic transmission would beat a manual any day. There are various reasons for this, but think of it this way: if manual transmissions were faster than automatic transmissions, would Formula 1 and IndyCar teams really spend so much time and money developing their automatic transmissions?

Why Are Automatic Transmissions Better For Racing?

A major factor in why automatic transmissions are faster than manual transmissions is human error. Now you might think that a professional racing driver will have his clutch work and gear shift timings down to perfection, but in reality, people make mistakes.

These mistakes can come in the form of missing a shift on the straight or releasing the clutch too quickly in a downshift. Any of these mistakes can be extremely costly to a driver fighting for a few tenths of a second.

Automatic transmission gearboxes don’t make mistakes. If you pull the paddle to upshift, it will upshift perfectly every single time, without hesitation. This is what makes the automatic gearbox more reliable than the manual gearbox.

The next factor to consider is the speed at which an automatic transmission can shift through the gears. If you can find a drag race between identical cars where the only difference is the transmission, you will see that the automatic will beat the manual by a couple of tenths every single time.

These comparisons have often been done with the VW Golf R and GTI, as they are still built in both manual and automatic versions.

The manual gearbox requires you to lift off the gas pedal, press down the clutch and change gear, whereas with the automatic gearbox, you can keep the gas pedal fully engaged and simply pull the gear change paddle for a near instant gear change.

It might not be a massive difference, however this is enough to ensure that the automatic transmission is the faster car of the two. This is why most high performance and supercars don’t usually have clutch pedals and instead utilize paddle shifters.

The 3 Types of Automatic Transmissions

The type of automatic gearbox you are comparing to will play a large role in determining whether it will be faster than a manual gearbox. Now, automatic gearboxes can be divided into 3 subcategories, you get the standard road gearbox, the sport version, and then a racing gearbox.

1. The Road Gearbox

The standard road version of the automatic gearbox won’t do too well on a racetrack. The gearbox in question here is the one found in your regular road cars like the base VW Golf or Renault Clio. These transmissions will basically only have a D function, not a sports mode.

The problem with these is that they change slower and tend to be a bit ‘lazier’ in their upshifts and downshifts. This is purely because they are designed for comfort and efficiency on the road. In this case, a manual gearbox will be much more efficient, as the driver will be able to have more control of their downshifts and will be able to change gears faster than the automatic gearbox.

2. The Sport Gearbox

The sports version of an automatic gearbox is where things become a bit closer. These can be found in more sporty cars such as the VW Gold R or the Renault Clio RS. These gearboxes have an extra functionality in the S mode. This mode will change a number of factors in how your transmission works.

Generally, it will rev much higher than usual in order to utilise the optimum power range within the engine. On top of that, it will also shift much quicker and downshift more aggressively than usual. This is more accurate as to how professional racing drivers use their transmissions. It will also allow you to control your own upshifts and downshifts with the paddles on the steering wheel.

This comes closer to manual transmissions because of how much faster the gearbox becomes. The computer system on the car can time the gear shifts so perfectly that no human driver can compare to it. It also eliminates the possibility of human error that we mentioned earlier.

3. The Racing Gearbox

The last gearbox type we are going to cover is the race gearbox. These are found on your supercars, like the Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s. These gearboxes are so advanced, that they can shift gears in the blink of an eye, literally! The latest models of supercars can shift in under 60ms. The human eye’s blinks take 100ms (0.1 seconds) each.

The average time it takes for a stick-shift gear change is 0.5 to 1 full second. Plus, you don’t even have to take your hands off the steering wheel when using the paddles of the racing gearbox.

These cars have developed their gearboxes to change gears at an impossibly fast rate, which is why they have become so much better to use than manual gearboxes when it comes to racing. Manufacturers like Ferrari and Mercedes use technology that they have developed in Formula 1 to put into their road cars, so if you can afford that kind of tech, you can shift faster with an automatic than with a manual transmission.

Automatic vs Manual Or Humans vs Computers?

The problem with the automatic gearbox is that it can’t see what the road is doing up ahead. For example, if there is a corner coming up, a driver will know that they will be braking and downshifting next. However, an automatic gearbox will upshift if it hits its rev threshold regardless of whether you are closing in on a corner or not.

Automatic gearboxes take away an element of control from the driver. Mainly in terms of using the gears to control the revs and power output of the engine. It also takes away the engine braking element when the driver uses the brakes to slow the car down for a corner.

So, in this regard, a manual transmission gearbox is actually better than an automatic gearbox, since the driver can be more in control and engaged in the car rather than leaving the car to try and guess what is happening on track.

Humans Working With Computers

This brings us nicely to the final part of this debate, and that is making use of the driver’s instincts and combining it with the speed and responsiveness of an automatic gearbox. We mentioned earlier the racing gearbox that can change gears faster than you can blink. These gear changes can happen just by pulling a paddle behind the steering wheel.

These gearboxes still allow the driver to have the same amount of control over the gearbox as with the manual transmission, but it makes shifting much faster by utilizing that automatic gearbox.

This is the gearbox that will be the fastest around a circuit.

Final Thoughts

The manual transmission gearbox is the main choice for every petrolhead and driving fanatic. This is because it is much more fun to drive, and it allows the driver to be much more engaged and in control of the car.

Older automatic gearboxes were slow and ineffective, and back in the day, manual gearboxes could still compete with and beat automatic gearboxes. However, technology has advanced a great deal since then through Formula 1 and IndyCar development.

If you are looking at breaking lap records, the automatic gearbox is certainly the way to go. The modern-day automatic gearbox can shift gears in the blink of an eye, much faster than any driver could, professional or not. This gives the automatic gearbox a distinctive and clear advantage over the manual gearbox.