How To Heel-and-Toe Downshift

Have you got multitasking down to an art form? Can you furiously text a friend while simultaneously listening to your MP3 player and watching YouTube clips of monkeys peeing?

Well, we've got another multitasking trick for you. It involves your car, and it's called the heel-and-toe downshift — the ultimate multitasking technique, and something they don't teach you in driver's ed.

The heel-toe downshift entails precise actions on all three of a manual-transmission vehicle's pedals, moving the shifter and listening to the sound of the engine. It all happens simultaneously, and in less time than it takes to text "CUL8R."

What is it?

First off, the heel-toe technique only applies to vehicles with a regular manual transmission. Got an automatic or, by some stroke of amazing fortune, a Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano with a trick paddle-shift automated sequential manual? No point in reading any further.

Though manual transmissions are pretty rare on modern cars these days, they do provide more direct control over a car, as well as the tactile enjoyment of working the clutch and shifter.

In simple terms, a heel-toe downshift means downshifting a car's transmission while braking at the same time. The name might lead you to think that it involves the heel and toe of your foot. But in our photos and video, you'll see how it's actually the ball and outside edge of your foot that are being used.

The technique is primarily used by racecar drivers, as it enables them to get quicker lap times on a racetrack. But with some practice, you can learn heel-toe on the street and in your own car. The result is that it's actually really fun to do, and you'll be a safer driver because of it.

How normal people drive

Picture this scenario: You're driving along a street and need to make a turn. You apply the brakes of the car to slow down. If the car is in gear, the rotational speed of the engine (the rpm) slows down as the engine is physically connected to the slowing drive wheels.

Let's say your car is in 4th gear at 50 mph and you slow down to 20 mph for the turn. After you've turned, 4th gear is no longer the suitable gear — its gearing is too "tall" and the car will probably bog down if you try to accelerate. At that speed, 2nd gear in most cars will probably have the best ratio for acceleration once you've finished making the turn.

Many people just drive around the corner with the clutch pedal depressed. Only after they complete the turn do they choose the proper gear and release the clutch pedal. It gets the job done, but no more than that.

Do like the racers do

The problem in the above example is that the car isn't primed for maximum acceleration. When going around the corner with the car's clutch pedal in, the driver has no ability to use the throttle.

Racecar drivers want complete control of their car at all times as well as the best opportunity to accelerate out of a turn. This is where the heel-toe downshift comes into play. It allows them to get any downshifts done and out of the way while braking. This way, a car is in the proper gear at all times.

On the street, the idea of quicker lap times is meaningless. But having a car in the right gear at all times is. Street driving is full of sudden or unpredictable events. If there's a situation where you've braked but then suddenly need to accelerate, the use of heel-toe would mean that your car is primed for max attack.

How to heel-toe downshift, step by step

The first thing you need to do is understand how to properly position your right foot on the brake pedal. You can do this by looking at the accompanying photos and video. Heel-toe can be broken down into these steps:

Step 1: Apply the brakes with your properly positioned right foot. The braking action continues throughout the remaining four steps.

Step 2: Depress the clutch pedal with your left foot.

Step 3: While still on the brakes, roll your right foot to the right and onto the throttle pedal to raise (or "blip") the engine's speed (rpm) to match the expected wheel speed.

Step 4: Simultaneously move the transmission shifter into the next-lower gear.

Step 5: Release the clutch pedal. If braking continues, you can repeat steps 2-5 again for another downshift until the correct gear is finally achieved.

Is it easy? Erm, well, sorta

There are three hard parts to the heel-toe downshift. One is synchronizing the motions of your feet and right hand. The second hard part is doing it all relatively quickly. The final tricky component is step 3 — the action of braking and applying throttle at the same time.

The throttle blip is used to smooth the transition into the lower gear. Why? If you just depress the clutch pedal, drop a gear and release the pedal, the car is going to buck or jerk because the rotational speed of the engine isn't synchronized to the rotational speed of the wheels when the clutch reengages. The lower gear requires a higher engine rpm.

The rev-match of engine speed and wheel speed is simple in concept but requires practice and patience to learn. During heel-toe, looking at the tachometer to see engine rpm is a bad idea — you're supposed to be looking at the road, right? Rather, you need to listen to the sound of the engine in order to tell what rpm you're at and what rpm you want to be at.

Unfortunately, there's no golden rule that explains how much throttle should be applied. Every situation is different and depends on the car, gear positions and speed. Basically, doing heel-toe correctly results in a smooth downshift. Done incorrectly, the car balks.

Feel the flow, Happy. Feel it...

The cliché of "practice makes perfect" holds true in this case. But there are two things you can do to aid the heel-toe learning curve. First just park your car and practice with the engine off. Get a feel for the heel-toe position and matching all motions together.

You can also simulate a throttle-blip rev-match without braking. Drive to a remote area where there's no traffic and little fear of incident. Drive at a constant speed and then do steps 2-5. You're not braking, so just blip or raise the throttle with your right foot. Keeping an eye on the tach (assuming it's safe to do so) can help, too.

With practice, you can become a heel-toe master, ready to snap off a triple sequential 4-3-2 heel-toe downshift like a shuriken-throwing ninja. Got it? "XLNT!"

Extra credit:

For info on how not to drive a stick shift, check out "Busting the Myths of Driving a Manual Transmission."

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