What makes a pilot better?

For those of you that have been in it around karting for a long time, if you had to describe it, what makes a very skilled pilot “different”?
Other than the obvious “talent” and “seat time”, what are the observable and describable differences that set them apart?

Adaptability is a big one for me. I’ve seen some really good drivers completely fall on their face when the grip level changes, or their tires go off at the end of a run, or when the kart isn’t dialed in perfectly for them. Something that always impresses me is when a driver can change the kart’s handling and attitude just by adjusting their driving.

I recall one of my teammates in '08 coming off the track and saying the kart didn’t quite have enough front grip. Tuner says, “okay should we widen the front?” Driver goes, “nah I’ll just change my driving.” Goes out and smashes it, top 3 in each race. Kart handles fine now, just by him changing his line in a few corners. Meanwhile, I’m struggling around the fringes of the top 10, making adjustments every session, on the same equipment. And this is at the Rotax Grands, so it wasn’t just club guys he was beating, it was top-tier competition.

I think another HUGE one, especially with kids, is attentiveness and willingness to learn and improve. Some younger drivers think they know everything, and basically anything I say bounces right off them. Others soak up everything I say like a sponge because they truly, truly want to improve and get better.

Also, we always talk about getting in “the zone” in racing. That mystical mental space Senna always talked about where you become one with kart and it’s like you’re driving through a tunnel. I knew a few guys who seemed to be podium contenders 70% of the time, but every now and then, they just had another gear in them. They would come out and smash everyone by multiple tenths. They found that rhythm and that zone and just locked in. Not everyone can access those extra two or three tenths that we all have inside us that our minds try and restrain because it’s scary or less safe than driving at 99%. If you are mentally fit enough to find that last 1% of speed, it’s a demoralizing tool for the rest of the field.

I keep forgetting things and having to edit…

Consistency is major too. Lots of drivers can put in the one good lap, but very few drivers can focus enough to stay within a tenth of their best lap over the course of a 20 lap final. It always takes me a couple laps to get going, but I see the guys who are winning a lot taking off immediately on lap one, and never putting a wheel wrong all race. They just pound away and you can never catch back up. One thing we really study with our drivers in the tent program is looking at their theoretical best lap, and checking how close they got to it each lap. If you’re within two tenths or so, you’re doing pretty damn good. Higher variance means the driver is making mistakes across the lap.