Automatic vs Manual For Racing: Which Is Better?

Automatic vs manual for racing is the age-old petrolhead debate. The purists in the motoring community will always back the manual transmission car, but automatics are far more common on the track nowadays. But which transmission is faster for racing, automatic or manual?

An automatic transmission will almost always be faster than a manual car if it is set up correctly. Specifically, a car with a racing gearbox – which typically 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. Below, I’ll go through the main differences between the two transmissions when they’re used for racing, so you can understand why automatics are usually faster.

Automatics vs Manuals: The Great Debate

Let’s start with opinions versus facts. If you ask many petrolheads, 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.

These skills have become a bit 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 if they have one.

However, in terms of pure speed around a track, 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 (semi-) 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 their 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, but they can be even subtler than that, such as slightly mismatching the revs and upsetting the balance of the car in a corner. Any of these mistakes can be extremely costly to a driver fighting for every tenth of a second.

Automatics Don’t Make Mistakes

Automatic transmission gearboxes don’t make mistakes. If you pull the paddle to upshift, it will upshift perfectly every single time, without hesitation (provided it’s in working order). This is what makes the automatic gearbox more reliable (in terms of shifting) 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 every single time.

The manual gearbox requires you to lift off the gas pedal, press down the clutch, and then change gear, whereas with the automatic gearbox (or a semi-automatic one with paddle shifters), you can keep the gas pedal fully engaged while the car shifts gears on its own, or you can simply pull the gear change paddle for a near instant gear change.

It might not seem like a big difference, but 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.


• Automatics will typically always be faster than manuals

• The same is true for both fully and semi-automatic transmissions

• They simply perform gear changes much faster than a driver can with a manual

The 3 Types Of Automatic Transmissions

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. These transmissions will basically only have a drive function, not a sports mode, as they’re designed for normal driving.

The problem with these is that they change gears 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 may be able to put up a decent fight on track, as the driver has lots of control over their rpm and road speed.

2. The Sport Gearbox

The sports version of an automatic gearbox is where things become a bit closer. These gearboxes have an extra functionality in their sports 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 utilize the optimum power range of the engine. On top of that, it will also shift much quicker and downshift more aggressively than usual. This is more akin to how professional racing drivers use their transmissions.

3. The Semi-Automatic Racing Gearbox

The last gearbox type we are going to cover is the semi-automatic race gearbox. These are found on supercars, like Ferraris and Lamborghinis. 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 60 ms, while we blink in about 100+ ms.

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

This is why semi-automatics have become so much better to use than manual gearboxes when it comes to racing. Manufacturers like Ferrari and Mercedes use technology that was primarily developed in Formula 1 to put into their road cars, so if you can afford this 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 like up ahead. For example, if there is a corner coming up, a driver will know that they will be braking and downshifting for it. However, an automatic gearbox will upshift if it hits its rev threshold regardless of whether you are approaching a corner or barreling down a straight.

Automatic gearboxes take away an element of control from the driver, in terms of using the gears to control the revs and power output of the engine. It also takes away the engine braking element too, as a driver might use this to help slow the car down for a corner, but an automatic might keep shifting down the gears instead.

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 with the car rather than leaving the car to try and guess what is happening on track. However, semi-automatic racing gearboxes give the best of both worlds in this case, offering the control of a manual with the speed of an automatic.

Final Thoughts

If you are looking to break lap records, the semi-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 out on the track. However, I still think manuals are more fun to drive!

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