Driving tips from a rally champion

7 Mar, 2014 4:59pm

Skoda Special: we get top driving tips and put our driving to the test with Skoda's European Rally Champion Jan Kopecky.

The problem with drivers today is that they are far too aggressive – too hard on the throttle, too hard on the brakes,” says Jan Kopecky. That’s hard to argue with, but ironic given that the European Rally Champion is currently driving a Skoda Octavia vRS flat-out around a race track, with us along for the ride.

Yet there is method in this tyre-melting madness. We’re at the Autodrom Most in the Czech Republic to get some driving tips from the Skoda rally team ace. Today, Kopecky won’t be driving his Fabia S2000 rally car – we’ve handed him the keys to a standard 217bhp 2.0 TSI Octavia vRS to prove many of the driving techniques used to gain speed can also translate into making you a better and safer driver on the road. 

Although the Octavia vRS has an ESP system that can’t be fully disengaged, Kopecky still manages to get the rear end sliding before the electronics kick in. 

“With most modern cars, the ESP will help you out in an oversteer or understeer situation, but it’s important to know what to do if it doesn’t work,” he says. “For understeer, you need to slow down with gentle braking inputs. For oversteer in a front-wheel-drive car, you need opposite lock and some throttle to pull you out of the slide – not full throttle, or the car will understeer.”

After a few passenger laps, we jump behind the wheel for some fast laps of our own. Kopecky leads us around in an Octavia vRS Estate, to show us the line, before we swap places so he can take a look at my technique. “You lost the line on one section in particular, but your biggest problem is your steering inputs are too aggressive,” he points out.

It’s this smoothness, we discover, that’s at the heart of everything. Smooth steering movements, gentle brake applications, sympathetic downshifts and progressive squeezes on the throttle are core to not only driving fast on track, but safely on the road, too.

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“In my rally car, I have to be more aggressive than on the road, but I am always in control of my emotions,” says Kopecky. “We need to reduce driver aggression on the road, which leads to jerky, unpredictable manoeuvres, and that starts at the driving schools.” 

Clearly, he has high driving standards, and that applies to whether he’s in the driving seat or passenger seat. “I’m a rubbish co-driver,” he explains. “There are only two people I really trust to drive me – my dad and one of my mechanics. “I can fall asleep in the car with them, because they are smooth and safe.”

5 top driving tips from a rally champ 

1. Steering

On a rally stage, Jan always aims to be on the limit, so quick steering corrections are vital. But on the road, smooth and predictable movements are the order of the day. Always keep two hands on the wheel, and if there’s a tight corner coming up, prepare your hand position in advance. 

2. Brakes

Unlike in rallying, there are no benefits to left-foot braking on the road. Road car brakes are more sensitive so you need to apply them gently and progressively – then, if you hit a low-grip surface, you’re less likely to slide. It makes the journey more comfortable for your passengers, too.

3. Changing gear

In rallying, it’s crucial that you choose the right gear – and this is just as important when you’re out on the road. When braking, you need to be prepared with the correct ratio so that you can accelerate away smoothly. 

4. Vision

Kopecky says the hardest skill to learn, whether on the road or rallying, is looking ahead. During a race, this helps you to anticipate the next corner and pick the perfect line. During everyday driving, it helps you to anticipate hazards up ahead. 

5. Seating position

Everyone has a slightly different preference when it comes to seating position, but the basic principle is the same for all of us. You want to have your upper back supported against the seat, not floating in mid air, and with both hands on the wheel your arms should be slightly bent, not locked out.