What Does Trail Braking Mean? (Does It Improve Results?)

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Trail braking is a technique that is vastly misunderstood. It can thus be done incorrectly in a number of ways, and it can indeed cost you lap time when not done properly. Many people struggle with trail braking as they don’t have a full grasp of what it means to trail brake.

Trail braking is a braking technique used to manipulate the balance and grip of the car into and through a corner. It involves heavy braking in a straight line up to the corner, followed by a steady release of the brake pedal with gentle turning. When used properly, it can improve your lap times.

But when is the right time to use trail braking? We will answer this question below, but first we will go through what trail braking means, and how to use it properly.

What Is Trail Braking?

Very Useful Technique

When you approach a corner in a race car, your instinct is probably to slam on the brake pedal, release it, and turn, before accelerating out of the corner. While this is sometimes exactly what you need to do, other times call for trail braking. This is a very useful driving technique which, although not the favorite method of driving schools, can save you a lot of lap time when done correctly.

Essentially, you hit the brakes quite hard on the straight leading up to the corner. Then, as you are reaching the point where you want to turn the wheel, you release the brake pedal steadily, by a fair amount at first, and then maintain a slight pressure on it as you gradually turn the wheel. You then maintain a balance of brake and steering through the corner, before accelerating out of it.

All About Feel

It may sound simple to some and complex to others, but the best way to learn how to trail brake is to simply practice it. You will learn to feel for the right amount of braking pressure along with the right amount of steering, and every car, corner and driver will be different. Thus, a lot of trial and error is required when learning how to trail brake.

Should You Use Trail Braking?

Grip And Balance

It’s great to know what trail braking is, but why might you use it? How does it benefit your racing? Well, to answer this we need to think about grip and balance. As you are approaching the corner, you hit the brakes as hard as you can to slow the car down enough for the turn. When you do this in a straight line, you are making full use of the longitudinal (forward and backwards) grip of the tires.

Your tires only offer a certain amount of grip, and as you are braking hard from a high speed, you are approaching the traction limit. If you then turn while you are still braking heavily and moving forward fast, you will push the tires beyond this limit and go into oversteer or understeer. You can learn more about the traction limits of a car by reading our article on the traction circle.

Using Maximum Grip

The idea is that you use maximum grip to slow the car down by braking in a straight line, and then releasing the brake pedal before you start turning. This way, you are freeing up a lot of grip to use for turning and eventually accelerating out of the corner. This means it can sound counterproductive to continue braking through the corner, potentially pushing your tires beyond the traction limit.

However, the idea is that you brake hard enough on the run up to the corner that your speed is reduced to a low enough level to allow for some grip to be left in the tires for both braking and turning. As long as you release the brake enough and don’t jerk the wheel too hard, you should be able to balance the speed of the car, along with braking and turning to go through the corner smoothly.

Weight Transfer

The key word here is balance, and it is once again all about feel. However, balance is important in another sense, as when you brake heavily on the lead up to the corner you shift a lot of the weight of the car to the front. If you then release the brake pedal too quickly, the front of the car will rise up as the weight shifts to the back again, causing the front tires to lose grip quickly.

This can send you into understeer, which is not what you want. To combat this, trail braking allows you to control the speed at which the weight of the car shifts, making it much easier to control the car through the corner. The aim of the game with trail braking is to make use of as much of the car’s grip as possible, while taking the corner as fast as possible as well.

Now, this brings us to the point of when to use trail braking. There are corners where you do not want to trail brake, and so how do you do this without shifting the weight of the car too quickly? Let’s take a look at some examples of corners where you do want to trail brake, and when you don’t.

When Should You Use Trail Braking?

Long, Slow Corners

We can think of two broad types of corners, with the first being longer and slower corners, which require smoother turning of the steering wheel. These corners require the driver to rotate the car in a way to give them the best exit speed possible, allowing them to get on the throttle as early as they can. Trail braking can allow this to happen without losing too much speed on the entry.

As you approach a slow corner, you brake hard like you normally would, but as you don’t need to sharply turn the wheel, you can make use of some longitudinal grip while also turning the wheel gently. By steadily releasing the brake pedal as you turn the wheel into and through the corner, you allow the car to remain balanced, and then you are able to get on the throttle as soon as you can.

Fast, Sharp Corners

The second type of corner is a fast, tight corner. For these corners, with a tighter turning angle, you need to be able to turn the steering wheel quickly, which means you need maximum grip in the lateral direction. If you are still braking as you rapidly turn the wheel, you will likely break traction and end up cutting the corner or going off the track completely.

Thus, for these corners you want to be hitting the brakes hard in a straight line on the approach to bring your car down to the speed at which you want to take the corner. You might still release the brake pedal steadily rather than jumping off of it so that you don’t upset the balance, but you will likely want to be completely off of the brake by the time you are turning into the corner.

Every Corner Is Different

As we said earlier, every corner is different. This means you will need to use your feel for the car to find where you should and shouldn’t trail brake. Some corners might require lots of it to get the fastest time, and others might only require a split second of trail braking, or none at all. Practice makes perfect with trail braking.

Final Thoughts

Trail braking is a very useful technique which can shave valuable seconds off your lap time when used correctly. Not all corners call for trail braking, and learning when to use it is just as important as learning how to trail brake in the first place.