The art of braking, with Jari-Matti Latvala

Volkswagen’s Finnish rally star explains how to master that middle pedal.
Written by Greg StuartPublished on
A braking masterclass from Jari-Matti Latvala
A braking masterclass from Jari-Matti Latvala
Motorsports – it’s all about how hard you squeeze that throttle pedal, right? Afraid not, rook. Those in the know will tell you that good braking technique wins out over how quick you can stomp on the loud pedal every time.
An ability to finesse your control of the brakes on your racing car will mean you can carry more speed into a corner, while also keeping your car more balanced. On a circuit, Braking 101 states that you start braking with your steering wheel in a straight line, before beginning to turn into the corner and starting to come off the brake pedal. But how the hell do you brake on a gravelly Finnish rally stage with your car’s back end fish-tailing all over the place, or in the snowy forests of Sweden while trying to stop your car barrelling into a snow bank.
To find out, we asked Volkswagen World Rally Championship driver Jari-Matti Latvala, a man so knowledgeable about his sport that he might as well have a PhD in it. Here’s the Finn’s ultimate guide to braking in a rally car.

The secrets of left-foot braking 

The first time you try and left-foot brake in your road car, you'll usually end up giving yourself whiplash as your unaccustomed and unsupple left foot slams on the anchors. But for a World Rally Championship driver, it’s an essential skill to master, for one very simple reason…
“When you left-foot brake, you don’t lose time when you go to the throttle,” explains Latvala. “Sometimes if you have a slippery place and you start to slide, then you have to go full throttle. And if you have to move your feet, it takes that fraction of a second more, and that can make a difference. So you can push more to the limit when you do left-foot braking because you can always control the throttle.”
Left-foot braking helps turn a FWD car
Left-foot braking helps turn a FWD car
So that’s left-foot braking for efficiency. But if you’re competing in a front-wheel-drive car, like M-Sport’s Ford Fiesta R2 for example, left-foot braking suddenly becomes a necessary tool to finesse your technique…
“You can’t really drive a front-wheel-drive car without left-foot braking,” says Latvala. “With a front-wheel-drive car, you kind of steer it with the left foot. Normally the rear brakes bite quicker than the front brakes. So if you use your left foot, you can get more turn in in a front-wheel-drive car.”
When I was eight years old, I was already left-foot braking
Jari-Matti Latvala
But don’t feel bad if your first attempt with left-foot braking doesn’t go well – Latvala’s been practicing for a fair few years now…
“When I was eight years old, I was already left-foot braking when I drove the first time with my cars,” says Latvala. “My father [former Finnish Group N rally champ Jari Latvala] was left-foot braking – and then I was driving karting, where you cannot do right-foot braking!”

The difference between braking on a circuit and in a rally

Grip levels are always changing on tarmac
Grip levels are always changing on tarmac
2010 saw Jari-Matti Latvala take part in the Nürburgring 24 Hour race in a Ford Focus, partly to help improve his performances on tarmac rallies. But in terms of braking, there’s one key difference between mastering a lap of a circuit – even one as long as the Nürburgring’s 14-mile Nordschleife loop – and a rally stage…
When you go to rallies, you don’t know the grip, because it’s changing
Jari-Matti Latvala
“On a racetrack, the braking is different because you know the grip level is consistent,” says Latvala. “You know that it’s not really changing so you can optimise the braking. On the race circuit you start braking and you wind the braking up to the apex, turning at the same time. Then when [the corner] is opening, you stop braking and you start to go to the throttle. But you wait until you feel that the car’s not going to understeer; when you feel that there’s enough grip on the front tyre, then you go full throttle.
“But when you go to rallies, you don’t know the grip, because it’s changing. So sometimes you have to start braking a bit earlier – you can’t always optimise the braking.”

No one rally driver brakes the same way

Latvala has studied the telemetry of Volkswagen team-mate and triple world champion Sébastien Ogier at close quarters, and it seems that the Finn’s made some interesting discoveries about the braking differences between him and his French stable-mate.
“Ogier is doing this with left-foot braking and throttle,” says Latvala, using his hands to mimic Ogier alternating quickly between the brake and the throttle. “He’s all the time braking a little bit, then coming off – kind of like he’s feeling the grip.”
Ogier and Latvala have very contrasting styles
Ogier and Latvala have very contrasting styles
Latvala’s way of braking, by contrast, is a touch more brutal. “My style used to be hard braking, [pedal] up, then back again [onto the brakes],” he says. “I had this hard way of braking, putting the maximum load straight away on the brakes. That was upsetting a little bit the suspension. As I’ve gotten a bit older, I’ve tried to be a bit smoother with the braking. Since 2010, I started to think about the braking more and nowadays, I do hard braking but I don’t come so much off the brakes.”

The Loeb effect

The arrival of Sébastien Loeb in the World Rally Championship at the beginning of this century was monumental. Here was a driver who wasn’t just quicker than everyone else; he was quicker than everyone else because he’d invented a whole new way of driving a rally car. Latvala explains…
Loeb and Citroën changed the way of rallying
Jari-Matti Latvala
“In the earlier days, or even 10 years ago, you’d brake, turn before the corner like on gravel, leave the car a little bit on the angle, make sure that it was starting to turn and then you’d have a nice drift out [with the throttle]. Nowadays, you brake straight and you turn straight [i.e. not sliding into the corner], then you control with the throttle how much you make the back end slide.
Loeb changed the way rally cars are driven
Loeb changed the way rally cars are driven
“It was Loeb and Citroën who created this style. They changed the way of rallying 11 or 12 years ago with that technique, and that was something that Ogier was following. Then the whole concept of rallying started to change; it went from a more aggressive style to a racing style, like what you’d do on a race circuit.”
So does less drifting mean less fun, we ask Latvala.
“Yes,” he replies with a rueful grin. “Yes.”

How to brake… on tarmac 

“On tarmac, it’s the same basic [technique] as on the race circuit. I try to drive the same way – smooth braking up to the apex. There are rallies where you cut and bring dirt onto the road. But you can’t brake where there’s dirt, because if you brake, you lock the wheels and you go off the road. So what you do is brake until the dirty place is coming, come completely off the brakes, keep maybe 20-30% of the throttle and you drive over the dirt. Then when you come back onto the tarmac, you go full throttle again.”

How to brake… on gravel

“On gravel, what you do is you brake, feel [the grip] a little bit, then when the corner comes, you come off the brake and full throttle.”

How to brake… on snow

“On the snow, you try and drive more with a straight car. We used to have a narrow snow tyre; that meant you were always putting load through the studs and you were always able to find the grip, whether you were on ice or snow. Nowadays we run as wide a tyre on snow as we do on gravel. When you have a bigger tyre, you transfer the load on the studs to a bigger area. So now, if you have, say, ice with snow on top, the studs don’t bite as well as with the narrow tyre. So nowadays you really follow the cleaner line. If you go off the line, it will be very slippery with those tyres. So it’s become the same as gravel: brake straight, turn straight.”