Improving Shifting, Making It More Precise, and Avoiding Missed Shifts
A version of this article originally appeared in NASA SpeedNews, now with added content.
Shifting technique has the potential to move a driver several spots up in qualifying or be knocked off the race podium. While shaving 1/10th of a second from each upshift can result in nearly a second off lap times, smashing through the gears as quickly as possible has the potential to damage equipment and cause missed shifts. In a heated battle, missing a shift means losing a position or more. Assuming there are no mechanical issues (worn throw out bearing, syncros, return springs, etc.) quick, smooth and precise shifting comes down to technique: rapid clutch engagement, rev matching when downshifting, and guiding the shift lever precisely into the next gear.
The primary mistake that drivers make is grabbing the shift lever with a forceful grip. Transmissions have locating features designed into them so take advantage of that when selecting gears. Muscling the shifter has the potential to bypass these features leading to damage, missing gates and poor acceleration.
Generally, keep your hand in one position: with palm over the top, heel resting on the front, fingers wrapped overt the back, and thumb around the left side. Before moving the lever through the desired motion, rotate your wrist to the correct position to apply the optimal forces, While shifting, it’s best to hold the wrist stable, rotate at the shoulder and elbow and use the fingertips to feel how the lever moves through the gates, syncros and selector ring engagement.
Each gear change has a particular technique for optimal shifting. Each particular hand position and movement provides maximum tactile sensitivity while matching the control forces to the mechanical movement between gates. Here we assume a left-hand-drive vehicle with a conventional 5 or 6-gear H-pattern. The lever action to select a gear is the same whether shifting up or down:
1st gear - Rotate your hand to apply pressure through the left and center of the palm of your hand, move the lever toward your knee and then forward toward the dash board.
2nd gear - nestle the shifter inside the your fingers as they curl around the front and right side of the shifter. Pull the lever toward your body: back and lightly to the left.
3rd gear - use the heel of your palm to push the lever forward toward the dash. The shift lever will naturally slide through the neutral position between the 3-4 gates. Continue pushing forward into 3rd gear.
4th gear - pull the lever straight back with fingers wrapped over the top of the shifter. Be careful not to pull the lever toward you as this can select 2nd gear.
5th gear - use the meaty part of the palm to push the lever away from you (up and to the right).
6th gear (where applicable) - wrap the fingers as in the 1-2 shift but pull straight back against the neutral return spring.
Note that moving through the 1-2 gate and the 5-6 gate require some effort to overcome the neutral centering/return spring. With practice and experience you can sense the optimal speed without risking damage or missed shifts.
When upshifting, the clutch pedal is depressed almost simultaneously as the shift lever is moved to neutral. Do not release the clutch until the lever is fully engaged; doing so may interfere with the syncro action, which will cause a grinding sound or prevent the shift entirely.
On the downshift, lift the throttle and depress the clutch at the same time you pop the gear into neutral. The throttle release removes the load from the gears, allowing a smoother and more fluid gear disengagement, Without the throttle release, the shift to neutral may take more effort and over time it can wear down the edges of the gear selector. Over time, this can lead to a transmission that pops out of gear unexpectedly. When using the heel-toe technique, hold the lever in neutral for a moment to blip the throttle. If not using heel-toe, move the lever as quickly as possible into the next lower gear to reduce the rev drop while the clutch is disengaged. Note: heel-toe technique is discussed in another post
Keep in mind that shifting in the higher gears has the added risk of selecting 2nd or 3rd when attempting to shift to 4th or 5th respectively. It's critical to push away from you when shifting to 5th. Shifting into 3rd or 4th is straightforward as the lever returns to the central position if there are no side forces applied to the shift lever. 5th to 2nd is a common money shift so be mindful of muscling the lever or pulling too hard toward you. 1st gear is designed to prevent selection when not at a stop or travelling at low speeds. As such, selecting 1st instead of 3rd is uncommon, however it may be possible when using a heal-toe technique. Nonetheless, it is possible to get hung up in neutral when using too much hand and arm strength during shifting. In this case, the shifter can get held up in-between gates or going in a direction that the transmission will not allow: accidentally moving the lever towards the 1st or reverse gates for example. When shifting towards or alongside the reverse gate be mindful of the gap or lockout mechanism there and adjust the lever forces accordingly. This is why it is more important to apply precision and finesse rather than speed and force. With practice you will sense the optimal speed without risking damage or missed shifts.