2012 Mazda Mazda3 Long Term Road Test

2012 Mazda Mazda3 Skyactive: My Left Foot

February 23, 2012

2012 Mazda Mazda3 

Who knew that left-foot braking is such a mystery? Apparently if you’re a left-foot braker like me it makes you into some kind of secret freak, as if you had been abducted by aliens and then let loose to subvert normal right-foot-braking humans.

I’ve taken it for granted that everyone knows that this is a racing technique, not just in rallying but in all forms of racing, from stock cars to Formula 1. Plus, everyone has driven the go-karts down there next to the miniature golf place, right?

Of course, the question is, does left-foot braking have a place on the street? 

The left-foot braking thing came to me long ago when Bob Sinclair at Saab brought Swedish rally driver Stig Blomqvist to the U.S. and made him road race the Saab 99, which looked as big as a bus compared to the other street stock cars it competed against. With left-foot braking, Blomqvist could do that whole Scandinavian-flick cornering thing on dirt or gravel, but he told us that on asphalt it was all about damage control on the outside front tire.

Soon after that, left-foot braking became a big thing in road racing, and Don Knowles (recently honored by the Road Racing Drivers Club) became its most famous exponent. Then the racing schools starting discussing the technique because it addresses the whole friction circle thing, where you attempt to balance the load of braking, cornering and accelerating on all four tires.

After that, the open-wheel racers starting talking about left-foot braking, especially since the good guys had been using it for years at the Speedway. And then the go-kart generation overwhelmed Formula 1, with Michael Schumacher being the primary exponent. Car designers weren’t leaving enough room in the footbox of open-wheel cars to move your feet around anyway, especially once electro-hydraulic shifting with paddles on the steering wheel were introduced.

The big controversy comes with using left-foot braking on the street.  Some believe it quickens reaction time, though it’s hard to say if this is true. Some say that it compromises your ability to use the dead pedal and brace yourself in the corners, so you end up hanging on the steering wheel instead of using your fingertips the way you should. There might be something to this. At the same time, it’s impractical to use when you’re in the downshift mode with a car with a synchromesh manual transmission and a conventional three-pedal setup. Take a look at the pedal work by NASCAR stock-car racers on road courses  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMZO8EBnmFQ) and rally drivers of the 1980s  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGIiarIrUCI) on YouTube if you want to learn more about where and when left-foot braking is useful.

As for me, I'm a big fan of balancing the car’s weight in the cornering process, doing my best to optimize the car’s cornering attitude according to the whole friction circle thing. Jackie Stewart has told me more than once that the way you get into the brakes and get out of them is crucial for good corner speed, and only hacks stand a car on its nose under braking and then leave the corner with the nose up in the air under acceleration. It’s kind of the same thing as braking earlier and lighter because you’re able to gauge you entry into a corner better, so your speed improves compared to the thing where you stomp on the brake pedal at the last nanosecond.

Of course, left-foot brakers do use up brake material quicker than right-foot brakers, but as several race engineers have reminded me, brake pads are way cheaper than tires or clutches or transmissions, so don’t over-think things. I’ll admit that it’s annoying to follow a left-foot braker because the brake lights are always flashing in a distracting way, as guys on road trips with me often report.

There is a strange divide between right-foot brakers and left-foot brakers, as if they were religious cults. If you’re looking to get educated on the subject, I’ve attached some links below. I have a lot of time for the special site created by the Road Racing Drivers Club. In the old days, we’d be reading books by Paul Frere or Piero Taruffi, utterly confused by the little mathematical diagrams.

You should be glad that there is so much information about fast driving, because there was a time when there was no information at all. I remember F1 and Indy 500 driver Dan Gurney telling me about his first-ever road race at Torrey Pines in San Diego with a Triumph TR-2. Whenever Gurney was braking his car into a corner, he couldn’t figure out why he could hear blipping throttles from all the cars around him. It was only afterward that he and his buddy Skip Hudson heard guys talking about heel-and-toe downshifts.



Michael Jordan, Executive Editor, Edmunds.com

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