Heel-and-Toe Downshifts

If you are a car enthusiast, you’ve most probably heard of the ‘heel-and-toe’ downshifts. What exactly is heel-and-toe?

A heel-and-toe downshift refers to a technique used to downshift on a manual transmission car by race drivers to set faster lap times. Since most of us are never going to drive around the Buddh Circuit, why bother with heel-and-toe?

THE ADVANTAGES
First of all, it makes you a smoother and better driver. It will help you control your car better and it will benefit from reduced vehicle wear and tear. If you want to get into racing, this will help you go faster through corners.

The heel-and-toe downshift is a rather complex action and may look intimidating. You steer with the right hand, shift with the left hand, use your left foot to operate the clutch while working both the brake and gas pedals with the right foot – all at the same time. The purpose of the heel-and-toe is to smoothly match engine speed to wheel speed.

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HOW NOT TO DRIVE
Since most people don’t know about this technique, here is a generalisation of how a normal person downshifts on a manual transmission car. Let’s call this person Mr X. He is driving around town in his fancy sedan. Mr X is approaching a right-hand corner while in fourth gear and realises that he is going a bit too fast to make it around the corner safely. So he starts braking until the car’s speed drops to take the corner. He looks at the tachometer and sees that the engine revs are dropping too low, so as he turns, Mr X pushes in the clutch. Coming out of the corner he realises that his car is still in fourth gear which isn’t suitable for strong acceleration at such slow speeds. So he shifts from fourth gear to second, releases the clutch and zooms away.

Did you spot the problem? With this technique, when Mr X lets out the clutch, the car will buck and put a lot of strain on his driveline. Let’s examine why this happens. When you depress the clutch to select a lower gear, the engine rpm will drop as it is now disconnected from the gearbox, but the wheel speed will remain high. When you downshift and release the clutch, the clutch speed and the engine speed are completely mismatched. This will cause a shock to the driveline resulting in sudden engine braking. This can upset the balance of the car, and in some circumstances, you can lock the driven wheels entirely.

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The simple solution for Mr X would be to give the car some throttle before he lets out the clutch. This way, the engine speed is equalised to the wheel speed for second gear, making the shift much smoother.

Using our example again, if Mr X used a heel-and-toe downshift, he would have downshifted while he was braking for the corner. This way, he would have had power while he was going around the corner and he could have quickly applied more throttle once he exited the corner.

HOW TO HEEL-AND-TOE
So how do you learn the technique? Here is a step-by-step guide on how to heel-and-toe downshift. Before you get behind the wheel, here’s a tip. It’s useful to wear racing boots or thin-soled shoes to increase your pedal feel and decrease chances of your foot sliding off the brake.

Lift the right foot from the accelerator and press the brake pedal.
Lift the right foot from the accelerator and press the brake pedal.

Now here’s the scenario. You are quickly approaching a corner. It’s time to lift your foot off the accelerator pedal and press the brake pedal. Just before the braking is done, the left foot depresses the clutch pedal. Use your left hand to downshift.

Use the left foot to push in the clutch pedal.
Use the left foot to push in the clutch pedal.

This is the hard part. While still braking, rotate your right foot and prepare to press the accelerator with your heel. That’s why it’s called heel-and-toe, because you use the heel to blip the throttle and the toes to brake. If your accelerator and brake pedals are closer together, with your right foot still applying pressure on the brakes, you can just roll the outside edge of your foot outward and downwards to reach the throttle.

Rotate the right foot so the heel is above the corner of the accelerator. Use the heel to give a quick push of the gas pedal to rev the engine quickly.
Rotate the right foot so the heel is above the corner of the accelerator. Use the heel to give a quick push of the gas pedal to rev the engine quickly.

Use the heel or the outside of your foot to blip the throttle. Blipping the throttle means temporarily raising the engine rpm to match the wheel speed.

The left foot releases the clutch, the right foot rotates off the accelerator.
The left foot releases the clutch, the right foot rotates off the accelerator.

Come off the brake and progressively release the clutch. Accelerate smoothly out of the corner.

The right foot slides over to the accelerator to assume the normal position.
The right foot slides over to the accelerator to assume the normal position.

PRACTISE TILL PERFECT
The whole sequence takes less about half a second. But it takes quite a bit of practise to get it absolutely right. The idea is to transition between braking and accelerating with absolutely no delay, and with perfect smoothness. You will know that you have done it correctly when there is no jerking of the car during the downshift and transition back to acceleration.

A good idea is to first practise this while stationary with the engine off. Start with your right foot on the brake pedal and feel the various ways of positioning your foot. Your foot size and pedal positions will dictate what position you find the most comfortable. Next, practise applying a steady and firm brake force while rolling your foot on and off the accelerator pedal. Finally, practise the full sequence of heel-and-toe movements – brake, clutch, blip throttle, shift down a gear, clutch out, ease off the brake. Start slowly to ensure each step is done properly in the correct sequence. Repeat this several times until you feel a rhythm.

With practise, heel- and-toe will become second-nature and bump your driving up to the next level.
With practise, heel- and-toe will become second-nature and bump your driving up to the next level.

When you are comfortable, it’s time to put it into motion. But first, find a road with minimal traffic. To begin with, practise matching revs without the brake – clutch-in, blip, downshift, and clutch-out. After you have learnt to match the revs smoothly, go ahead and practise the full sequence as you approach corners and stops. Done properly, the car should not lurch from either a variation in brake pressure or excessive mismatch in vehicle and engine speeds. With practise, it will become second nature and bump your driving up to the next level.

Heel-and-toe is fun to do. It improves driving safety and reduces the amount of powertrain wear on your car. Other than the amount of time it takes to learn, there is no downside. If you haven’t mastered it yet, start now. What are you waiting for?

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