McC: Every time rally enthusiasts get together nowadays, sooner or later you will find them talking about left-foot braking. It is a technique which we associate particularly with Scandinavian and Finnish drivers, and their use of it is perhaps one of the reasons why they seem to be unbeatable in international rallies. How did you first hear of it Rauno?
A: About four years ago I heard a rumour that the big boys, like Erik Carlsson, were using left-foot braking, but it seemed impossible to get any details. I couldn't find anyone to explain it to me, and Erik himself said he he was not using it. So I had to learn it for myself. At first it made me much slower, because although the technique is not easy, it is certainly convenient. If you panic when you find yourself going too fast into a corner - and of course, you have a minor panic every time you go too fast into a corner! - it is very tempting to use the brake too much and too often if you have learned a convenient way of doing it. But now, after much practice, I think I have perfected left-foot braking.
McC: Does the technique apply exclusively to front wheel drive cars? Or is it better or more effective with FWD?
A: No, not at all. It has advantages when driving both types, but the advantages are different.
McC: Perhaps, then, we should consider them seperately, especially as they react quite differently when one enters a corner too fast. In general, I think we can say that a front-drive car will understeer, whereas a rear-drive car will oversteer; it is the tail which will break away first when you go over the limit. Let's start with the front-drive car, since you have achieved most of your rally success with a front-drive Mini Cooper. And let us emphasise that throughout this discussion we are considering entering corners far too fast; that is; at speeds altogether higher than any sane driver would use on public roads. You are driving your Mini Cooper over a special stage of a rally, a closed section of mountain pass or forest track where all competitors are timed and the fastest man wins. How do you approach the corners?
A: Well, some people always throw the car sideways before a corner. (cf. Roger Clark) It helps to reduce the speed quickly at the last moment, and of course it looks very impressive for the spectators! But when you are driving fast over an unknown road, nine corners out of ten look slower than they really are. So my technique, quite simply, is to go into every corner a little faster than the speed which appears to be the maximum for each one. This means in that practice, nine corners go just right but on the tenth one I find I am going too fast. By the time I have realised this, it is much too late to throw the car sideways - there is no more time for that. I am going off the road - straight off with the front end, you understand. Now I keep the steering wheel position just the same, and I keep the accelerator still hard down, but very quickly I hit the brake pedal hard with my left foot - I don't keep it down, I just hit it. This causes the rear wheels to lock before the front wheels, because the rear wheels are running free and the front ones are being driven by the engine. Now, locked wheels have very little grip, so the tail begins to slide out, the car turns on its axis, and you can continue through the corner, still on the road instead of using the ditch. I could do exactly the same thing with the handbrake, but I haven't time to take my hands off the steering wheel to use it. Also the handbrake is seldom so efficient.
McC: But all this must happen very, very quickly - the whole thing must be over in a fraction of a second?
A: Very true. This means you must have your left foot ready all the time, and then it becomes a great temptation to use it all the time. We used to say that if you have a close rival who is almost beating you on rallies, you must teach him left-foot braking - then he will not trouble you again for one whole season! When it is so easy to slow your speed at any moment, it happens that you start braking on the straights, too hard before the corner, on every corner. So you become too slow. Also, I have known cases where brakes have been burnt out completely in 20 miles by using them too much in this way. When trying to learn left-foot braking, many drivers are still accelerating with the right foot as they start initial braking for the corner with the left foot. This is nonsense - and besides, it is giving you most braking from the rear wheels at a time when the weight of the car is being thrown forwards. So at first I think it is better to use the right foot for initial braking. When you start accelerating through the corner, move the left foot from the clutch to the brake, to be ready in case you want to throw the tail out. Later, you can use the left foot for your straight line braking as I do.
McC: Now let's consider how left foot braking can be applied to a rear-drive car. Again, you are entering the corner too fast. What happens?
A: Normally, just before a corner you must get the car to drift slightly - and I mean slightly; I am very strictly against oversteering cars, which are going to much sideways. Let us say this car is perfect in handling - not oversteering, not understeering - it is neutral. So by putting full power on before the corner you have it drifting slightly, with the tail out a little. But now you find you have estimated the speed wrongly and the tail is going out more. You correct by steering the opposite way, but soon you will come to the full lock position - you cannot correct any more. And the car will be starting to spin. Now this is where you use the left foot instead of the steering wheel. Just before you reach the full lock position, and still keeping the power on to the rear wheels, you hit the brake pedal quite hard with your left foot. The front wheels lock and slide, so the front of the car comes back to the right direction for the corner.
McC: In fact, this is the exact reverse of the effect achieved with the FWD car?
A: Yes, but there are other advantages, too. When you are drifting nicely, with equal grip for all four wheels, it often happens that the inside rear wheel starts to lift. If you have no limited-slip differential, this wheel will immediately start to spin - and then you will lose all driving power to the other wheel. By using the left foot on the brake you can stop the inside wheel spinning and make more torque go to the outside wheel. It sounds very strange but it is true. Another advantage, for all cars, is this. With the brakes on; you cause a certain twist in the suspension which locks the joints and makes them stiffer. This makes the car more stable - there is less roll, it does not bounce and sway too much. That is very important.
McC: What advice would you give to the ordinary motorist who would like to learn the technique of left-foot braking in corners?
A: I have tried to explain that it is really quite difficult. A friend of mine in Finland, who tried it when cornering one day, unfortunately landed in a tree. Another friend in England, who make some experiments when driving in traffic, drove into the back of a very large bus. Please, if anyone is doing it, choose a place which is very quiet and far away from other cars, or there may be some nasty surprises.