Game-Changer—the Garmin Catalyst

Game-Changer—the Garmin Catalyst

Jun 19, 2021

One definition of disruptive technology is an innovation that significantly alters the way that consumers, industries, or businesses operate. We can all readily think of examples: GPS, IPOD, Smart Phone, social media, etc. The problem with disruptive technologies, is that they are notoriously hard to describe fully while they are in the early adopter stage. It typically requires one to experience the technology before one gets it. If you find this difficult to grasp, think back to when the smart phone was a new idea and many people scoffed at having a camera, internet and email on their phone. Many of us thought the flip-phone did everything so who would need a smartphone? I predict that this is what the Catalyst experience will be to many drivers.

I have been participating in High Performance Driving Events (HPDEs) with the Club and other organizations for several years. As such I have had experience with excellent instruction and completely Wild Wild West experiences on track (looking at you Track Night in America!). I am not a wheel-to-wheel racer, so I am not qualified to discuss the Catalyst from that perspective, but I know a little about what type of data collection and feedback systems they use to make a crude comparison. So, my assessment of the Catalyst will be from an HPDE participant perspective, which appears to be the center of Garmin’s target demographic.

The Catalyst is hard to define; precisely because it is unique in its design function and philosophy, which was clearly a ground up approach by Garmin. It is almost easier to define what it is not: It is not a complete data acquisition system like an AIM system, but it does have aspects of the Solo series from a virtual coaching perspective. It is not a complete camera system like a VBOX but does include a decent dedicated front facing camera. Garmin labels it a “driving performance optimizer” and in my view it is a reimagining of the data collection system and video collection system as a combined tool, with a focus on immediate usefulness to the driver, not the data itself. As such, the Catalyst includes a virtual coach that purposefully limits the capabilities of both the data acquisition and video capabilities to a manageable set of things that an individual driver can understand and use, especially in situ, i.e., right after getting out of the car after your session.

My very generous wife got me the Catalyst for Christmas, so, I had time to research it a bit before putting it to use on the track. The thought Garmin put into the user experience right from setup rivals Apple’s. The setup includes everything you need—the touchscreen unit with a decent sized display, a very strong mounting solution, an appropriately small, but clear camera and a complete wiring solution set if you want to wire completely to your car, or just go straight to a car USB connection or lighter socket. The unit is magnetically attached to the mount and is an almost perfect tablet size and weight to pop in and out at the track easily to instantly review yourself or with a coach. To paraphrase Goldilocks, it is neither too big nor too small, it is just right. The setup process is intuitive and links to your home Wi-Fi to update the software, and it also has a walk-thru process to align the camera correctly. It should be mentioned that it has a battery, so you don’t have to plug it into power. Looking at battery draw when I had it out of the car, it looks like you could go through a full track day on the battery if you wanted. It appears to have an extensive inventory of tracks (full disclosure: I have only used it at The Ridge). There is also no additional software to install on anything else… and this is a downside —the data is not natively exportable to view on your desktop, but Garmin listened to its customers initial feedback and recently made the videos exportable via your computer’s file manager. It’s clunky but functional.

Once you have the mount installed (it is a strong suction mount that uses RAM mount-type technology), camera mounted and power routed, you place the Catalyst on the mount magnetically. If the place you plugged in has power, the Catalyst will start automatically. You will then be prompted to set up a driver profile and car (you can have multiple profiles and multiple cars). After that, it’s a simple selection between “Drive” and “Review.”

Drive mode is what you select in the pit before you go on the track. You select your track and your car and can select a few descriptors such as whether it is dry or wet. You then select “Start” and the Catalyst will start recording and analyzing once you go on the track. What Catalyst does technically is deceptively simple, but powerful. It divides the track into segments and then stitches together your optimal lap based on your performance. The Catalyst takes a minimum of three laps of data on a new track before it starts making recommendations, and the recommendations are based on an AI analysis of each segment. It will audibly coach in short snippets like “brake later here,” “track out more here,” “apex sooner here.” It will even tell you “good job” if you meet or exceed your previous performance in that segment. There are even two levels of verbal coaching, based on your preference (“Race” and “Advanced”) and you can link the voice to your car audio system via Bluetooth so you can hear it. The Catalyst also provides visual feedback of your performance in each segment by displaying a plus or minus time from your best with a green or red background (this is where comparisons to things like the AIM Solo are possible). When you finish your lap and pull into the pits, you are done with the real-time aspect of Catalysts’ coaching and now move into the Review mode.

Review mode lets you play your segments and laps back with graphed comparisons of your data against previous or optimal laps or segments along with video. It is here that the Catalyst can be most closely compared to a stripped-down data collection system. I say stripped down, because it doesn’t sync to car technical data such as RPM, gear, temperatures, etc. It only uses GPS, its knowledge of the track and your driving kinematics. But from that data, it gives you more than just comparisons for you to make sense out of. It recognizes things it calls “opportunities,” which appear to me to be driven by “size of gain possible.” But it is likely more complex than that. These opportunities are recommendations similar to what the in-car virtual coach was telling me, but now I can view it outside of the heat of the moment and fully understand and analyze them with repeating playback of those particular segments. It also allows you to compare different sessions and laps to identify best laps, best segments, top speeds and variance from optimal. You can then drill down to individual segments of each lap and compare to your own (or an instructor’s—more below on how powerful a feature this is) optimal segment.

Some detailed discussion on the Opportunity screen is warranted: It has four options: Overview, Braking, Apex and Speed. In Overview it will do a graphic playback of that segment in time and position and compare that particular lap’s segment against your optimal segment. Braking, Apex and Speed options give relevant data (and synced video) with simple coaching statements. This is powerful stuff. It is not just data. It is focused data and actual recommendations on how to be faster, just like a postsession talk with a real driving coach. To be clear, it certainly can’t replace Ross Bentley. But for those of us on a budget, it is certainly good enough. And that is really what the Catalyst is about, and why it isn’t just a data logger or just a video recording system. It is both more and less than those.

Ultimately, I found the post-run Review mode to be the more powerful aspect of the Catalyst. Popping it out of the car and comparing notes on your session and segments with other drivers or reviewing with a real coach seconds after your lap is phenomenal. If you have an instructor drive your car to demonstrate things (versus telling you in the pits after the fact), you will be able to record them and use them as your optimal segments to analyze them and train yourself to make those improvements. Wonder what Lewis Hamilton would charge to drive one lap in my car?

In summary, and with apologies to Colin Chapman, The Catalyst is the Lotus of high performance driving data acquisition and driver aids. It simplifies and adds lightness to the traditional process. Fundamentally, it limits the data to performance-relevant, driver-focused data in an incredibly compact package, both in size and features. It is both more, and less, than a full featured data collection system as it culls the feature set to a manageable set of things the average HPDE participant, as well as amateur racers can use. It then identifies high ROI opportunities for you to focus on and gives specific recommendations in limited fashion—braking, speed and apex. And in truth, this is how a living, breathing coach tends to speak to us as well. What the Catalyst cannot do that a real coach can, is discuss the next level down or more esoteric things like weight transfer, trail-braking, how to “read” the track for key points, mental simulation, etc. It also can’t tell you why you are having issues in a particular segment. But the Catalyst isn’t trying to be a real coach. It is trying to be an optimized virtual coach for a solo driver, and in that role it does pretty well. While I have only had a short time with it, I anticipate the Catalyst will improve my performance over this driving season and I look forward to the experience.