Author’s Note: This article is a piece that I originally wrote for Ross Bentley’s Speed Secrets Weekly (Click the link to subscribe to automotive awesomeness.
I highly recommend that you sign for his newsletter, and subscribe, so that you can get more great pieces from others motorsport writers who are passionate about developing drivers.
Benefits of Sim Racing
-by Davin Sturdivant
If there was one minor bright spot during the global lockdown of 2020, it was the explosion of sim racing. Thousands of new racers started to explore digital racetracks for the first time with interest, competing in open events and leagues.
As a driver development tool, sim- racing has had an ever-growing impact on the motorsports community. Once a technology only available to top-flight professional teams, amateur racers can now create a budget simulator in their own home, to use as a training tool and as an accessible method for many to begin to enter the world of motorsport.
Much like how there was once doubt around the benefits of having a driver coach to develop a racer’s mental skills, the benefits of sim racing have met similar skepticism. Although the digital world does not offer all the kinesthetic experience of driving on a racetrack in the real world, there are still many benefits for racers who properly take advantage of sim-racing as part of their development program.
Learning a new track quickly
One of the immediate benefits of sim racing, is the ability to learn new racetracks. Most credible titles, such as IRacing or Assetto Corsa Competizione, have built most of the world’s popular racetracks using laser scanning technology. It allows the simulator to show the major details of the racetrack, from elevation changes to important track defects.
Drivers who use simulators have the benefit of being able to do lap after lap, without the need to book an expensive track day. They have the ability to a ‘virtual track walk’, stopping on various places and using the replay cameras to analyze the driving line from different points of view, providing additional familiarity preparing for the real thing.
Laps in a simulator will not make you a master of a track on your first lap in the real world, but it can help to reduce the learning curve required to know which way the track goes.
Practicing the fundamentals of technique.
A good racing driver is a coordinated racing driver. Spending time on a simulator allows a driver time to practice some of the well-established fundamentals, such as being smoother on the input surfaces, keeping a soft grip on the steering wheel (or at least not death-gripping it), using one input at a time when accelerating, cornering, or braking, or how the driver is releasing the brake pedal entering a corner.
A driver can easily setup an action camera or smartphone camera, point it at themselves and record how they are using the steering wheel and pedals to help fine tune their technique.
There are also plenty of data analysis software that integrates well with simulators like IRacing and Assetto Corsa (such as AIM’s Race Studio), that can give drivers an opportunity to practice reviewing their data, from the comfort of their own home.
Helping yourself focus and managing your nerves.
As most readers know, racing is as much of a mental sport, as it is a physical one. The ability to control our nerves and make appropriate decisions under stressful conditions are key attributes to a successful racing driver.
Fortunately, in the virtual world, racers can practice improving their mental programming to better prepare them for racing in the real world. Racers can practice developing key areas of their mental game, such as maintaining focus over extended periods. One good exercise is practicing providing your brain a trigger word or phrase to help yourself regain focus under certain situations, such as:
- When you notice your mind is starting to wander.
- When you start to get nervous, before making a pass, or if you are about to be passed.
- Relaxing your nerves on a race start.
Spending time on a simulator can also help you mentally stay focused during races that have longer stints or require a longer strategy over several laps to pay off. By doing longer sessions, you begin help the brain get used to driving more on autopilot for long distances, focus on turning more consistent lap times, and making fewer rash decisions.
Improve your race craft etiquette, by enhancing your decision making.
One of the benefits of sim racing, that you do not have in the real world, is that if you make a mistake, you can always hit the reset button and try again. That gives you an opportunity to try new things or take bigger risks than you in the real world (which is only helpful if you go back and analyze why did something worked or not.)
Reviewing replay video is a huge benefit of sim racing, especially when analyzing racing situations. On a simulator, you can review an overtake from multiple different angles and speeds, that just are not possible in the real world. Whether you are passing, or being passed, you can start to understand why something worked (or more importantly, did not work) and what you will need to change as a driver to make sure that your race craft is more effective the next time.
(Author’s Note: I am a real big proponent of using replay cameras, when it comes to practicing getting up alongside other cars when making an overtake. I am sure we have all been in a sim race when someone has dive bombed you going into a corner, just because they did not know where their car was in relation to yours.
Being able to understand when you are clearly up next to someone, or in someone’s blind spot will help you be more confident when overtaking cars in the real world, because you will have more experience understanding when a pass is not going to come off.
Maybe you are the one doing the dive bombing. Pro-tip: “Stop doing that”. 😉)
Although practicing this with AI cars helps, by entering multiplayer competitive leagues, the human element is added back into the equation, increasing the level of unpredictability that may be encountered and giving you plenty of opportunities to practice your race craft.
You can practice how to practice properly.
Although just hopping in and pounding around laps is fun, all too often, drivers hop onto the simulator without having a specific goal to focus on. It is important to have a practice plan, to know what you need to perform, and then be able to provide yourself feedback on what you need to do to improve.
Much like when learning to play an instrument, intentional practice is such as important is learning how to improvise.
Come to each session with goal in mind. For example:
- Working on consistency over ten laps or more.
- Focusing on understanding a setup change on the car and seeing if you can notice the differences.
- Working on understanding a specific area of the track and working on improving a particular corner or sequence of corners.
Some sim racers use a physical logbook or keep track of practice notes in a spreadsheet or OneNote, to track their progress over time, and refine their approaches. This intentional practice really helps to accelerate your development and is also a heavily advocated practice in the real world as well.
It is equally important to practice the little details as well, such as using the pit limiter when coming into the pit lane, doing clean pitstops, or following all the flag’s rules on the racetrack. These little details will help you create positive habits as a driver and perform them subconsciously whenever you are behind the wheel of a racing car.
Just like in the real world, if you do not come prepared to develop something specific, you may just end up developing bad habits. Practice time in the real world is expensive, so using a simulator to teach yourself the discipline on how to maximize the use of a practice day will pay dividends.
You can jump in whenever you like.
As we get older, and more adult responsibilities become an ever-present element in our lives, getting time to be able to travel out to the racetrack can sometimes be challenging. It can be difficult to be able to take time of work, find time to service the car, or and for some afford the costs of a practice day regularly.
Practice does not have to be long, but it does need to be intentional if one is to improve as a driver.
Fortunately, on a simulator, the ability to jump in and start practicing is much more accessible. Drivers can do laps, whenever they have some time to boot up their machines, which is always better than no seat time at all. (Especially during the lockdown period, when some tracks were closed, being able to get on the sim was a suitable substitute.)
Combined with the fact that you can drive basically any car that you want to, on almost any track that you want to, it is easy to see the appeal of adding sim racing to your driver development activities.
Introduction to a new form of motorsport or vehicle, before making a purchase in the real world.
Let us get the obvious out the way. Racing is expensive. (Access to track time is expensive. Wear and tear on the cars is expensive. Getting practice time is expensive.) Very few people can test various formulae of racing cars in the real world at will, before deciding where they would like to hang their helmet.
Realistically, the cost of a proper gaming computer and hardware can cost less than a couple sets of tires for your race car. Of course, as you go deeper into the sim racing world, the costs will increase. However, compared to testing in the real world, the costs of purchasing a car in IRacing is pennies on the dollar in to contrast to trying out the real thing, just to find out that you do not prefer a specific style of competition.
With the growth of esports sim-racing championships, and an ever-decreasing cost of entry, sim racing has found a foothold in the motorsport world. It is here to stay.
One of the biggest challenges in sim racing, is adjusting to the learning curve of racing against faster drivers. Every moment of seat time is a learning experience on teaching yourself how to better improve your own development and having more fun.
Like anything, simulators must be used properly to be useful. Of course, there are some sim racing ‘hacks’ that work digitally, that just will not work in the real world, but a dose of common sense will help you from being led astray.
While not a hundred percent the same as driving a real race car, as an improvement tool, it should be a key instrument in your racer’s tool kit.
About Davin Sturdivant
Davin Sturdivant is a competitive sim racer, based out of the Pacific Northwest. Davin’s enthusiasm for performance driving and motorsports is highly engaging, encouraging people to become involved with the sport through his impassioned efforts.
With an additional background in Solo II autocross and competition kart racing, Davin’s ‘superpower’ is being able to introduce new people to accessible forms of motorsport and pointing them to resources they can use to develop themselves.
You can find him on Twitter and Instagram under the handle – @Relaxeddriver.