It may seem counter intuitive, but to drive as safely as possible and to wring the greatest distance out of a tank of gas you could do a lot worse than to try and emulate three-time F1 World Champion, Sir Jackie Stewart. Stewart raced in the 60s and early 70s, retiring as World Champion at the close of the 1973 season. Apart from establishing a record for the most wins, 27, which stood for 14 years, Stewart also created the mould for the modern racing driver. He was the consummate professional, always working at his craft both on and off the track. Driving in an era where death could, quite literally, be around the next corner, Stewart championed safety and bears no small responsibility for the track, vehicle and equipment improvements taken for granted by today’s drivers.
What set Stewart apart from his peers was his smoothness and mechanical sympathy. Stewart stood on the podium, finishing 1st, 2nd or 3rd, in more than 40% of the 99 Grands Prix he started. Those results were achieved by combining tremendous natural pace with a machinery-saving style that delivered superior reliability.
Stewart drove just fast enough to win, meaning that he didn’t beat up the cars he drove by being unnecessarily rough or aggressive. For example, on a tight circuit like Monaco where he might be confronted with having to make a choice between holding a lower gear and high engine revs or shifting up to a higher gear between two corners, Stewart would always shift up to the higher gear, even if only for a moment, reducing engine RPM and minimizing stress on the engine and gearbox. He made every attempt to brake smoothly, without locking up any of the wheels and to avoid unbalancing the car before entering a corner. Similarly, he seldom made sudden, violent steering inputs to launch the car into lurid slides that, while appreciated by spectators, would ultimately overtax the tires and suspension components. This seemingly relaxed and unhurried approach was made possible by Stewart’s concentration on what lay ahead and his ability to anticipate on-track events and react almost before they happened.
So, what does Stewart’s brilliance as a racing driver have to do with the everyday motorist’s interest in driving safely and minimizing insurance and fuel costs? Quite a lot, actually. Following his retirement from motor sport, Stewart worked as a consultant on driving and safety to vehicle manufacturers and safety organizations around the world. As a means of demonstrating his approach, a small ball was placed in a molded shallow bowl attached to the hood of a car. Stewart would drive the car, accelerating, braking and cornering in his trademark smooth fashion. The ball would remain in the bowl throughout. Volunteers were then asked to drive the vehicle without ‘spilling’ the ball. The ball would typically be quickly ejected from the bowl. The point of the exercise was that a smooth approach meant superior control and was ultimately less wearing on the vehicle, driver and passengers alike.
Driving this way on controlled access highways can lead to a more secure and fuel-efficient journey. By looking ahead and anticipating changes in the traffic flow, it should be possible to almost entirely avoid using the brakes and certainly possible to avoid having to brake harshly. Every time a vehicle has to be accelerated following a reduction in speed, a significant amount of fuel is wasted. By looking ahead and planning passes in advance it’s possible to maintain a steady, energy-conserving speed. You naturally begin to seek open space and steer clear of packs. When you have space around your vehicle you are far less likely to become involved in someone else’s accident and you have time to calmly react to dangerous situations. These same techniques can be applied when driving on city streets to similar effect.
Maintaining a constant speed, accelerating and braking smoothly, and minimizing your exposure to potential accidents can pay off in fewer traffic citations and a claims-free insurance record, which translate into lower insurance premiums. Your fuel bill too, will be lighter. Driving smoothly is not about driving more slowly, but about driving more efficiently. In fact, people who have had the opportunity to ride alongside Jackie Stewart note that even when he is driving well above the legal speed limit, they do not feel they are traveling too fast or are at heightened risk. So, do yourself, your car, your wallet and your passengers a favour, and try to drive like Jackie.
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