Carlos Sainz. Stefan Roser. Daigo Saito. Walter Rohrl. What do all these brilliant drivers have in common?
The WRC, test driving, D1GP and prototype racing make completely different technical demands of the driver, apart from the universal skill of heel-and-toeing.
For those of you unaware what heel-and-toeing is, allow me to explain this geeky phenomenon.
Originally a technique developed by drivers on the track, heel-and-toeing allows a driver to simultaneously brake and keep engine revs high whilst downshifting for a corner. The driver will depress the clutch with their left foot, whilst rolling or flicking their right foot between the brake and accelerator in sync with each downshift. In a car with a three-pedal manual gearbox, this technique is desirable as it keeps the engine in the powerband for the exit of the corner, reduces the stress on the gearbox, and matches the road speed with engine speed. This makes the car much less likely to lock up its driven wheels during a downchange, especially if the road is wet or otherwise slippy. The video below gives you an idea of how it’s done:
Now, heel-and-toeing is all well and good on a track, but how does it work on the road? I’ve recently been trying to teach myself the technique. After two months of incorporating it into my daily driving, I’m nearly there.
The first thing I trained my feet to do was left-foot braking, just to trim some speed off before a corner, for example. This I duly achieved with all the delicacy of a wrecking ball on my first attempt. At this stage, it’s advisable to be travelling relatively slowly and have no traffic behind you. Whilst you don’t actually brake with your left foot when heel-and-toeing, drivers often left-foot brake on the way up to or during a corner, in order to keep the car tightly on line. Be prepared to risk headbutting your windscreen if you’ve a less-than-soft touch. I’ve managed to finesse my touch so that it’s indiscernible whether I’m braking to a halt with my left- or right foot with the car in neutral, of course.
Next, I moved onto rev-matching my downshifts. This is essentially when the clutch is depressed, the throttle is jabbed and a new gear selected all at once. Done correctly, the engine speed will match the car’s wheel speed, ensuring a seamless downchange and a nice little rasp of the throttle to boot. Done incorrectly – and you will get this wrong on your first couple of attempts – you’ll feel a judder as the car either lunges forward abruptly or snags on the feeling of an invisible cord pulling it back.
From the stage of rev-matching, heel-and-toeing isn’t so much of a jump. I’m still trying to iron out the imperfections in my technique, but when it works, it works. Approaching a damp roundabout the other evening I braked, dropped from fourth to third and rolled my heel onto the throttle. Bringing the clutch up at around 3000rpm allowed to surge out the other side quickly and with no loss of traction.
From my novice experiences, heel-and-toeing works best on fast two-lane roads with a mix of sweeping and tight corners. Be careful not to stab at the brake at the same time as you blip the throttle, as you can upset the car’s balance and kangaroo down the road like a learner. Two months ago, I couldn’t even left-foot brake smoothly. Break down the act into its component parts of left-foot braking, rev-matching and finally, heel-and-toeing and you’ll soon get better. I’ll leave you with a masterclass in automotive ballet from Senna (in-car view begins from 0:33):