Smooth Isn’t Always Fast – Ayrton Senna’s Throttle Technique

If Ayrton Senna’s throttle technique doesn’t give you a headache it really should, I know it has caused me endless hours of torment. The thing about Senna’s throttle technique is that it breaks almost all of the generally accepted rules about proper throttle technique. The great Jackie Stewart once stated that you shouldn’t “put your foot on the gas pedal until you’re sure that you’ll never have to take it off again”. Jackie however, was demonstrably wrong.

For reasons I can only hypothesise, to which I will in a moment, Senna’s relationship with the throttle and consequently how he understood grip appeared to be different to almost all other racing drivers. His high frequency throttle stabs flew in the face of conventional wisdom at the time, and they still do.

Mistakenly, many experts attribute Senna’s technique to his days in Turbo F1 (1984-1988). They said it was a way for Senna to spool the Turbo up so it was ready to deliver the power when required. The flaw in this theory was that Senna was stabbing the throttle when he raced karts in the late 70s, years before his time in F1. A 20hp rotary valve 100cc kart couldn’t be more technically different to a 1000+hp Turbo F1 car. It also simply doesn’t make sense that Senna would develop a Turbo specific throttle technique, and then keep it subsequently in other vehicles.

My belief is Senna started using this technique when he was very young. The basic driving model that a young driver develops tends, though not always, to be reflected throughout their career from cadet karts right through to F1. For example, Jenson Button was an impossibly smooth Cadet driver which was evident later on in his career. The complexities of how a driver develops the way they interact with a race vehicle at such a young age is neurologically fascinating, and still a mystery. Old habits sometimes die hard. From my own experience emulating Senna’s throttle technique I can say that it’s extremely challenging to master to any acceptable level.

My theory is that Senna’s first kart/s must have had a binary throttle – either on or off. The only way for Senna to develop any kind of modulation would be to use high frequency stabs. It’s a technique not uncommon for people that race simulators who only have binary inputs as I discussed with Bill Gricko in the Drivers Collective Podcast.

Albeit rare in the real racing world, interestingly we have seen this technique echoed by the young Cadet driver Lucas Ellingham. While his throttle stabs aren’t at the same frequency and quantity as Senna, he shows that this style of throttle technique can be developed in a young child racer, and with success. Lucas won the very competitive O Plate in Honda Cadet. Honda Cadets are notorious for having short ‘binary like’ throttle travel and this somewhat feeds into my hypothesis about where Senna developed this technique.

So before we can develop any ideas about the effects of Senna’s technique we have to understand it in the context of when we first see him do it – in karts where there’s no suspension or turbos. That means we need a universal understanding, or at least attempt to get to one.

Having spoken to Bill Gricko, who has mastered this technique, I was particularly drawn to his idea about how it enables him to run a front end bias set up. The high frequency throttle stabs enable Bill to hold the car without spinning out and maximise the benefit of high front end grip. This seems to nicely correlate with my own ‘pulsing throttle’ technique I use when I have extreme oversteer moments. This is something I developed in the GTS RS simulator and has allowed me over the years to get out of some very hairy situations, though admittedly not always.

It also fits quite nicely into what we observe when Senna drives a kart. Senna likes to hang the rear out on entry. We see this throughout his karting career from the late ‘70s right up until his last kart event at Bercy in ‘93. Interestingly in ‘92 you can watch him hang it out into a corner and use this technique to balance the kart into the corner. What’s counterintuitive is the speed he gets back onto the throttle. There is minimal coasting. It seems to infer Senna is using this technique to balance the kart early in the corner. If done correctly the kart doesn’t have to make a large rotation at the apex because the angle of the kart is already correct. Replicating the earliness of the throttle is what makes it so hard to master. It just feels plain wrong.

With my dual driving style using traditional throttle in normal conditions and Senna throttle when I am in big trouble I had to find a way to make ‘Senna throttle’ feel somewhat natural so I induced rear instability on entry. Once I did that, the high frequency stabs started to make intuitive sense, though I never fully mastered it to make any absolute conclusive statement. If the car was understeering or neutral I couldn’t make the stabs work.

The other benefit I felt was exiting slow speed corners. The high frequency throttle stables have a pseudo traction and stability control element to them. If you do experience a touch of exit oversteer you are already off the throttle correcting it anyway. An orthodox progressive throttle technique, if misjudged, can produce more elongated oversteer moments. Senna throttle, for me at least, seemed to cure that.

Not every driver’s interpretations is the same. Usmaan takes a slightly different approach to mine. During testing we found that our feelings on the technique somewhat differed, but that’s what makes it so interesting to learn about.

“My default driving style focuses mostly on what the car is doing in the middle of the corner, usually the apex point but sometimes not, depending on the nature of the corner. If you look at a telemetry trace, it would be the lowest speed the car reaches in a corner if we were to split one up as entry, middle and exit. I tend to sacrifice entry speed, and sometimes a bit of exit to ensure I achieve the highest minimum speed possible. If you listen to the Drivers Collective Podcast, you will hear Bill Gricko; who we think is the closest driver we have seen emulate Senna’s style, talk about how he used this technique to balance the car at high speed in an oversteer situation. He would prefer a very pointy car which would transfer its load quickly to the front tyres, pivot about its point fast and then he would use the high frequency throttle to balance the car and keep up momentum without exceeding the grip limit. To achieve this effectively, he would go into the corner hard using as much entry speed as the car will take, very similar to Ayrton’s style and in contrast to mine.

With my driving style, I struggle to build speed with high degrees of turn in oversteer which would partially explain my natural tendency to not ‘senna throttle’ as I am looking for stability rather than fighting the car through the corner. There is little to be gained for me once the car has reached its set point and is on its intended trajectory.

Rather perplexed, I looked for ways to further understand what was going on. Looking back on videos of Ayrton Senna, particularly the one where he is driving a Honda NSX with supreme precision, I could see he would apply this throttle technique quite early in the corner, often before the apex point. Listening to Bill Gricko gave me an idea. He spoke about developing this technique on the Gran Turismo video game because of the binary nature of a control pad and this hit home because I spent most of my young life doing exactly the same thing. I do not however, consciously remember stabbing the throttle at high frequency, mostly because I would use the traction control settings in the game to ensure I would fire out the corner perfectly. What if I try this technique using a high powered car without any traction aids and see what happens?

Consoles have come a long way since the original game and now gamepads have rear triggers on a potentiometer which means you can now feather the throttle as you would do with your foot. I proceeded to load up the latest F1 game and using the pad I tried to emulate Senna’s approach.

Instantly, the car became more drivable by tapping the throttle in the entry phase from the point of trailing off the brake to reaching the maximum lock required for the corner. Looking back again at Senna’s video I could see not only was the frequency important but the duration at which the tapping occurred in the corner. As soon as I retracted from the technique and applied part and steady throttle in any phase of the corner, I would exceed the grip limit and have a rather pathetic spin. It seems I was able to maintain a lateral load on the car earlier in the corner phase than when using a traditional trailing brake technique until I was in the position to fully apply the throttle without any slip.”

I am not sure we’ll ever get to the bottom of how Senna maximised this technique because the amount of drivers successfully using it today is small. However it should act as an inspiration to us all. There is no single way and always be wary of those that say there is!

Written by Alan Dove –