Performing the Ancient Art of the Heel and Toe Downshift

Heel and toe is a technique used by racing legends and weekend warriors alike in order to execute a smooth downshift, while your right foot is busy braking. In order to even begin to understand heel and toe, you need to understand rev-matching and why it is important.

As a general rule, engines produce more power the higher they are revved. Likewise, different gears will allow you to be at different points in the power band at the same speed. For example, based on the chart below you could be screaming along at 6000 rpm at 90 km/h in 2nd gear, or you could be at a comfortable 3000 rpm in 5th gear. Same speed, but your engine will be producing more power and therefore deliver better acceleration in 2nd gear.

The bars range from 1500 rpm to 7000 rpm, with green representing a low power setting and red representing a higher power setting. 
The bars range from 1500 rpm to 7000 rpm, with green representing a low power setting and red representing a higher power setting. 

The problem is as you downshift down from 5th, to 4th, to 3rd and finally to 2nd, engine RPM will naturally fall towards idle each time you depress the clutch. If you shift from 3rd to 2nd, the transmission will force the engine up to its correct RPM, resulting in a rough down shift. On the racetrack, that roughness could be enough to upset the balance of the car. The solution is to “blip”, i.e. tap, the throttle while the clutch is depressed. That way, when you shift in to 2nd, the engine will already be at the correct speed, resulting in a smooth shift.

Before you even think about learning how to heel and toe, you need to get rev matching down to a science.

  1.  First, with the car in neutral, practice blipping the throttle. Get an idea of what a 1000 rpm blip feels like, what a 1500 rpm blip feels like. You’ll need to get to the point where you can increase engine RPM without looking at your gauge.
  2. You need to get a feel for your cars gearing. My 99’ Miata for example, needs about 1000 rpm when down-shifting from 5th gear, to 4th. Different cars have different gearing and will need a different amount of throttle for each downshift.
  3. Downshift like you normally would. This time, while the clutch is depressed and your moving the shifter, blip the throttle in order to increase the engine speed as much as necessary. For example, if I was driving my Miata at 4000 rpm in 5th gear, I would blip the throttle to 5000 rpm while shifting into 4th, before releasing the clutch
  4. Get it right, and it’ll feel smooth as butter. Apply too little or too much throttle, and the car will buck like a horse.

Practice until you can effortlessly bring the revs up to where they need to be by blipping the throttle between each shift.

Got it? Excellent.

Now imagine this. You’re flying into a corner at 150 kph and get hard on the brakes. Since you’ll be going slower exiting the corner then you were in the straight, you’ll need to downshift. This time though, your right foot, which you use to blip the throttle, is busy braking. Heel and toe allows you to blip the throttle while maintaining pressure on the brakes.

The idea is that you use the ball of your foot to brake, while your heel blips the throttle.

  1. Start off in a high gear, (like 4th or 5th) and start braking with the ball of your foot.
  2. As the revs fall as a result of deceleration, downshift into next year as you normally would. Because the ball of foot is being used to brake, you’ll need to rotate your foot, so that you can tap the throttle with your heel.

This way, you can still rev match while braking, but you’ll be using your heel as opposed to the ball of your foot to do so.

You’re then simultaneously doing two things; maintaining smooth and even pressure on the brake pedal, while blipping the throttle so that the engine is at the correct speed for the lower gear.

This is easier said than done, and there are also many different ways to do it. While having the ball of your foot on the brake pedal, some cars have the throttle and brake pedal close enough that you can use the side of your foot to blip the throttle, like this:

Some cars unfortunately, particularly those designed with no performance capabilities in mind, have pedal placement that makes heel and toe next to impossible. Whatever you’re driving, the key here is lots and lots of practice.

Happy shifting!