It’s me again – your tame sim-racer turned real life clubman competitor! This time around I’m going to explain exactly how you can use your home sim racing setup to help you prepare for racing success in real life.
While it might sound easy to translate time in the simulator to the track – just spend a small fortune on fancy equipment, load up your favourite circuit, and off you go, right – sadly that doesn’t really work. If you truly want to use your home simulator as a training tool, rather than just a bit of evening fun, here are some crucial things to consider to get the best out of both your sim, and yourself…
1. Always Have A Plan
You must have a plan when you practise, because it’s too easy to feel satisfied by jumping into the sim and doing laps until you’ve just had enough. We’ve all been in those three-hour long sessions, searching for the final thousandth of a second, but short, sharp stints are more productive and useful for the real thing. You need to set precise targets for yourself and then carefully analyse your driving afterwards to see if you achieved them. If you didn’t, what happened? Understanding why you didn’t hit your goals is key to your improvement.
This is a technique I learned while preparing for the Vision Motorsport Engineering competition back in 2020, and is something I still use now. The qualification scoring for the competition was based on short simulator runs measuring both pace and consistency: equally important areas when it comes to racing both in the sim and in real life (and you can check out the VMEP simulator here). Importantly, the sessions measured not only lap times, but the consistency of your runs. In the short, sharp bursts of 10 laps, the proximity of all laps to your best time was what mattered.
I quickly learned that there’s no use in unlocking a final, risky tenth if you’re going to throw it off in the following lap. It is better to be consistent when it comes to practicing for real racing. Don’t lap mindlessly until your hands are blistered. When you’re out there qualifying for real, you don’t have 30-40 laps to get your rhythm. Dialling in quickly is key.
So next time you’re practicing, target a lap time improvement within each session based on proximity to your potential best lap, and a time limit within which to achieve it. Afterwards, analyse how the session went. By doing this consistently, you’ll be training yourself to get down to business straight away.
2. Forget The Reset Button
As we all know, a key benefit with a simulator is that you can have as many crashes, spins and sets of tyres as you wish without ever spending another penny after the initial cost of software and hardware. However, this can also be a disadvantage, as it fundamentally changes the approach of a driver to what they are doing.
I often find my practice sessions are more valuable when I really consider my approach and try to mirror real life. On track, would I get into a car for the first time and drive it up to and over the limit without any fear of smashing it into the barriers a few corners in? Absolutely not. I wish the same could be said for some people I’ve instructed through the years, though, but that’s another article entirely…
It may feel odd at first, but try to honestly emulate the approach you’d probably take in reality. Do a couple of warm up laps to make sure the car is in the right operating window; try to consider how you’d drive the circuit if you were there in real life. For example, it’s often all too easy on the simulator to run every kerb on the track get another tenth here or there. In real racing, that’s often going to result in either a hefty bill for car damage, a telling off from one of the weekend officials, or both. Making this subtle change to your approach in the sim will help bring the simulated and real experiences together. What you practise then becomes mere muscle memory at the circuit.
3. Race, Race, And Race Again
I lose count of the number of drivers I’ve raced against who have been blisteringly fast over the course of one hot lap, only to crumble when it comes to the actual race. Racecraft is key, both in real life and sim racing, and luckily it also happens to be one of the things which translates well between the two. The simulator is an invaluable tool, as you can try different racing scenarios time and time again without footing the bill if things go wrong.
Preparing for races, I’ve often to turned to some of my good friends who are willing to lap with me in the simulator, practising different scenarios with the relevant car and track to establish what works and what doesn’t. This isn’t something you can easily do in the real world, unless you have a very large budget, two cars, a camera crew and a racetrack to yourself!
Racing in the sim also gives you valuable experience in reading a car’s behaviour from the outside. This allows you not only to plan attacking moves, but work out what sort of driver the car ahead (or behind) may be. This skill helps big time in the heat of battle, as you develop a sixth sense for when to push a driver in the hope of fraying their nerves, or when it’s best to just bide your time for an impending and inevitable mistake you can take advantage of.
The only way to do this, however, is to stop running endless hot laps and get out there to race. Finding like-minded people is key, and although there are some anomalies, iRacing’s iRating system does a pretty good job of doing this for you. As you race, your skill level and safety rating will see you matched against drivers of a similar standard who will hone your talents. Most driving sims have this option now natively, with competitive matchmaking sorting you according to your performance. There’s no excuse for getting out there wheel to wheel, and it also incentivises you to get better – quickly.
Last of all, in any race, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll have to deviate from the known conditions, lines and positioning you’re used to when practising on a particular track. You need to know how to handle yourself when you are put into an unexpected situation like this. The only way to get used to this is to race a lot virtually. Your racecraft will develop naturally as you are tested in different scenarios.
4. Dial In Your Car Setup
Baseline setups in simulators are exactly that. It’s almost always the case that the baseline will provide a steady, safe starting point for you to begin adjusting the car to your preferences. A feel for how setup affects driving performance is key in real life, and so it pays dividends to work out what’s happening with your car in order to diagnose handling problems before trying to fix them. On the sim, setup changes can happen easily as you flip from menu to menu, adjusting on the fly. In real life? Not so much. Setup changes require wrenching, and time is always precious at the circuit.
Use the sim to really get a feel for the type of handling you like as a driver, and when you get to the virtual circuit, try to identify where the balance of the car sits, whether that be in understeer or oversteer. Once you’ve got that, really analyse the differences between a setup you like and one you don’t and look for the discrepancies. You may just find that knowledge useful when at a real racetrack.
Sim racing is also great for developing and learning techniques to compensate for handling issues. You can set a car up to understeer quite quickly and enjoy (if anyone does actually enjoy understeer) the challenge of extracting speed from the car without a ruinous bill for front tyres at the end of the day.
One final tip is have a go at using multiple different setups for any given car, and to practise identifying and describing the differences between the two. If you can do that in a concise and relatable manner and you’re lucky enough to have a team of mechanics behind you, it can be the difference between a good race weekend, and a great one. Well-informed mechanics will help you dial the car in to the zone you find most comfortable, allowing you to really attack the circuit.
5. D Is For Data
Now it’s time to get serious. Luckily, most good driving simulators output raw data that can be used exactly as in real life to look for your ultimate potential around the lap. This goes past keeping an eye on your delta and logging the way in which you approached a particular corner in your mind. The data will give you a concrete answer as to why something works or not – which is invaluable when searching for lap time. Telemetry can be used to compare lines, braking points, brake pressure, corner speed, you name it, allowing you to piece together the puzzle within your laps.
There are different ways to approach data collection and analysis. I use the RaceLogic VBOX Sim pack both in sim racing and in real life to take a deep dive. There are also handy, free versions of data logging apps available, e.g. iRacing’s VRS data packs, which allow you to make a direct comparison against a hotshot sim racer’s reference lap. The point is however that the analysis you’ll be doing with sim racing is exactly the same as in real life, so practice here really does make perfect. Soon you’ll be able to read an overlay as easily as the back of a cornflakes box…
6. Optimise Your Home Setup
Comfort: it’s something so basic, yet often overlooked in both real life and on the simulator. We tend to spend a lot of time in our rigs, which means that even if something is a bit off in your setup, over time it can have a negative effect on your enjoyment and subconsciously make you avoid spending time in the sim. It’s therefore crucially important that you go through every aspect of your simulator kit. Check your seat position and recline angle, your wheel, your pedals, and your monitor setup to see if there’s any changes that may help you be more comfortable. You’d be amazed at the difference it makes. For example, giving one mounting hole about 10mm of extra height on the front of my rig completely cured a neck pain that I had noticed developing during longer stints.
Then there’s Field Of View. I won’t spend hours talking about FOV here but it’s very important in sim racing. If you can get closer to the screen and run within a percentage of ‘true’ FOV (which you can calculate using tools available online) then that will have a significant effect. The closer your FOV it is to real life, the less strenuous it will be for your brain to carry out the subconscious calculations in judging distances. That can buy you lap time you didn’t even realise was on the table.
7. Get A Coach
This one may sound obvious but isn’t nearly as popular in the sim world as it is in real life motorsport. In real life, most mid and high-level drivers have a coach who will sit alongside them, look through their data and sometimes even be their teammate during race weekends.
A good coach will be able to quickly pinpoint areas of focus which will improve your driving if worked on – it’s often the small things that, once changed, can make all the difference to consistency and lap time. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, having worked with thousands of different drivers over the last 5 years as an instructor and coach in the real world. One minor correction, such as where a driver is looking, can be the key to that extra half a second.
The virtual world has its upsides here, as logistically it’s far easier (and therefore cheaper) to find a coach in sim racing. A coach can (depending on the software) virtually sit with the driver in real time, analysing every input and parameter they see relevant. This instant feedback paired with the stable conditions and repeatability that simulators offer can really be the final step to making your simulator work for you as a proper training tool.
To streamline the coaching process, make a list of things you’d like to improve upon and areas you’re struggling in, be that in real life or in the sim, and give them to your coach when you first meet. This can really help to focus your sessions to make sure you get the best for your money.
So there you have it – some quick tips on how to make the best use of your driving simulator before taking to the track for real. When you start maximising the benefit of your simulator, your weekend preparation won’t be the same again, and if you’re consistent and disciplined, the return on both time and money invested may well surprise you!