Heel And Toe Downshifting The Ultimate Guide

At Racers360 we have realized one topic holding back many amateur drivers is how to properly heel and toe on downshifts.  We often see drivers slowly letting out the clutch.  It's impossible to progress as a driver in a manual car if you do not learn the heel and toe technique.  Without it your initial brake application comes very early, you can't roll speed into the corner, which means you can't trail brake in without way over slowing.  It will also over time kill your clutch!

As a kid coming out of karting, right foot braking alone was foreign to me when I first started racing and driving cars.  To be honest I was horrible at the heel and toe technique initially.  This forced me to truly understand how to teach myself the easiest and most reliable way to heel and toe on my downshifts.  What I have found is by focusing in on my knee and timing of the blip on downshifts has made the whole technique a lot easier.

In this article, we write in-depth on the important aspects for the perfect heel and toe downshift on the race track.  We hope through some professional race driver coaching we can help you with your motorsport journey!

the most common heel and toe mistakes

Knee Pivot

When I am approaching a brake zone I will pivot my right knee in towards the steering column before I start to hit the brake pedal.  Let’s do a little exercise right now so you can see why this helps:

Let's sit in a similar position to how you drive.  When you have your legs out in front of you like they are resting on pedals shift your knee in.  We want to go about to the point where it would lightly touch the steering column. Now, look at your right foot.  See how it shifts your toes in and your heel out?  Shifting your knee in naturally puts your foot in the perfect position to be able to blip the throttle well!

I always want my foot to be in this angled position when approaching the brake zone.  This allows almost all of my foot to be on the brake pedal and just knick the throttle with my heel when I blip.  Once you get your timing right on the blip you will only need a tiny knick of throttle to match the revs.

When To Time Your Downshifts

Brake zones are the busiest sections on a race track for a driver. In all of our minds we are having a conversation that goes something like this,

"C'mon let's brake deeper this lap.  Wait... wait... BAM brake!! Oh man, the corner is coming up fast.  We need to rush these downshifts.  Hurry, huuuryy!! Damn out of time I should have turned in back there"

This conversation and focus of braking deep causes all of us to rush our downshifts.

To me, this is partly due to the driver having their eyes way too low (as anxiety raises our eyes tend to shift in).  One of the big downsides to feeling rushed in brake zones is that it leads to a driver trying to downshift as soon as they start to brake.  This makes the whole heel and toe technique way more difficult for drivers.  The amount you need to blip early in the brake zone is a lot more than if you are slightly more patient and allow the speed to come down a little. If you are more patient before downshifting you will barely need to touch the throttle.

Often we are taught downshifting during threshold braking is the correct way to do it.  But, when you are threshold braking it is typically very early in the brake zone, which means you also have more speed. That will mean you need to hit more throttle than normal on your blip so you have a higher rpm to match the gear to the speed.  The chances of a driver locking their rear tires is higher at the beginning of the brake zone because it is more difficult to match the revs and speed.  The risk of locking tires is always higher when at higher speeds, so all of this shows why patience before starting downshifts is important.

As you are ready to start that very initial lightening of the brakes you are ready for that first downshift!  We do want to make sure we have finished all of our downshifts before initial turn in.  Let's take a look at data to show exactly where we want our downshifts to happen.

correct initial braking zone trace

The red line is a good looking brake zone. We want to see the most brake pressure at the start of the braking zone.

immediately trailing off of peak brake pressure

Almost immediately the red line is starting to trail off from threshold braking.

the time in the brake zone that downshifts should happen

This is the zone in the braking that we want to get our downshifts done in. Between first initial lightening of brakes and turn in.

Another topic for discussion is whether drivers should skip gears on downshifts or not. For instance, going 6th – 4th – 2nd on a big brake zone.

This is totally unnecessary and I believe this will actually open you up to more mistakes that outweigh the slight gain on shift speed you may get.  To get this right you have a very small margin for error.  It will be much more difficult to match those revs to the gear, especially if you aren't patient with your timing on the initial downshift.

Another important factor is mental fatigue.  The longer you are in the car, the more mentally tired you get, which we know will lead to more mistakes that we make in general.  If we make our shifting more mentally taxing there is a higher likelihood of mistakes once we get mentally fatigued.

If you follow our step by step guide here on heel and toe you will realize that you have plenty of time to make all the downshifts you need without skipping gears, and you will find a much more reliable rhythm going down one at a time.

Timing The Blip

The timing of the blip is less critical than the timing of the overall downshift, but getting this part right can make your life a lot easier in the car. Many drivers think you need to hit the throttle hard to rev the engine high to be able to sync the speed to the gear. This couldn’t be farther from the truth!

Actually when done right, we barely hit the throttle.  A small hit of 10% throttle is all we need. To be able to only need a very small blip of the throttle, the timing of that blip becomes critical.

Most drivers will start to blip the throttle before they even take the car out of the gear that they are currently in.  Instead, the blip needs to happen when you are already in neutral and putting the car into the next gear down. So for instance if you are arriving at a corner in 5th gear and want to get down to third gear the process is as follows:

step by step process for a successful heel toe downshift

Once you have mastered this it will become a seamless flow through these steps!

The Most Important Part!

The most important part of the heel and toe braking is to remember your priority is always the braking.  Way too many times before I have seen a drivers foot slip off the brake pedal because they are more focused on the blip than the braking.  Having our foot slip off the brake pedal will lead to a  much bigger problem than missing the blip on a downshift.  So, while you are practicing and perfecting your heel and toe downshift technique remember the number one priority is staying on the brakes all the way through your brake zone!

To ensure this, we want to make sure we get the majority of our foot on the brake pedal.  Ideally, everything from our midfoot up to our toes should be on that brake pedal.

If we get our knee pivoted in and that top half of our foot on the brake our heel should easily still reach the throttle and be able to hit enough of it for a proper blip.

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