ARE SIMULATORS USEFUL FOR HPDE?
Professional teams use simulators to gain competitive advantage, either by modeling changes to the car via highly sophisticated simulation software or by improving driver familiarity with specific tracks. For top teams, the simulator has become an essential part of the process and drivers may run many more laps in the simulator than they actually do in the car on the track.
But is there an argument for using a simulator for the everyday driver who just wants to get the maximum out of their track days? The answer is simple: Absolutely!
Even with a relatively modest pedal and wheel set up connected to a pc or console, it is possible to access some very sophisticated driver simulation software such as iRacing, Assetto Corsa, Assetto Corsa Competizione and rFactor 2, to name some of the most popular. In particulr, the use of open architecture in Assetto Corsa and rFactor 2 mean that you can find just about any track or car that you want so you can work in your car on the track you are going to visit.
So how can a simulator help?
Even the most basic of simulator set-ups can be useful to help you learn the layout before your track day. There is nothing worse than going to a venue with limited time on track and wasting the first couple of sessions figuring out where to go. By visiting the track virtually beforehand you are in a position to memorize the turns and start to think about braking points, visual landmarks etc. Your track day may only give you four or five 20 minute sessions in total, so your track time is at a premium.
Is there more than just knowing which turns go where?
Most simulation software is very sophisticated and tracks are often laser scanned, capturing not only elevation changes and bumps in the track surface, but also braking reference markers and other visual cues to help you nail your braking and turn-in points. Spending time on a simulator before going to the track will minimize the learning time while actually in your car and you will be able to drive faster more quickly.
Working on a simulator will allow you to get your driving dialed-in before you even get to the track. You can experiment with different driving lines, braking points and speeds without any consequences, to give you a good idea what to expect once at the track. You will be able to test the limits with no fear of the consequences of going too fast or making a mistake at a critical point on the track. You can press the reset button and try again. Making the same mistake at the track could ruin your weekend and result in some hefty bills!
On the simulator, you can literally run hundreds of laps and it won’t cost you a dime in terms of brakes, tires or fuel and you will see real life dividends once you get on track.
Can it improve my driving in real life?
Yes. In addition to being able to experiment with braking points, line and speed, you can work on your driving technique. Simulation software has advanced to a point where the car’s behavior to driver inputs is realistically modeled, so you can get to grips with trail braking and see how weight is transferred under braking, acceleration and cornering. You can explore grip levels on different portions of the track, and see the impact elevation changes and track camber can have on the behavior of your car. Ambient conditions, track evolution, tire wear and fuel load are all taken into account. Understeer and oversteer are accurately modeled so you can work on how to change your inputs to make the car handle better. iRacing also now has a feature where you can work on a specific portion of the track, so you can keep working on a problematic corner until you get it right.
Can a simulator help with car set-up?
Yes, just as with your own car, you can adjust a wide range of suspension and other variables and see what impact the changes have on your car's handling. You can change tire pressures, ride height, rebound, brake bias, springs, roll bars, alignment and a whole host of other variables to tune your car to your style of driving and the demands of the particular circuit you are visiting. On the simulator, you can achieve in a few minutes what could take a whole weekend, or more, on your car.
What are the limitations?
Even with the very best set up, driving a simulator generally falls short of the real life experience - you lose the feedback that you get through the seat of your pants and have to rely more on visual cues, meaning that it is difficult to anticipate what the car is doing and to “get ahead” of problems - there is a tendency to become reactive rather than proactive. However, you can turn this to your advantage, by recognizing what inputs cause what reactions, and to anticipate what is going to happen. When you get in your car you will be more finely tuned to what is going on. Most simulators provide force feedback via the wheel (and sometimes the pedals), and more sophisticated setups have multi-axis motion simulation that can get you closer to the real sensations you feel on the track.
What about a VR headset?
The use of a virtual reality headset can really immerse you in the experience, but some people find they suffer from motion sickness when they first use one. Using a headset takes the realism of the driving to the next level - you feel you are actually sitting in the car and you can look all around, to see the inside of the car, other cars around you, and most importantly, the track ahead of you. Using a headset enables you to behave as you would in the car - you can turn your head to look through the corner and practice elevated vision - a key component to driving faster on track.
How does Track Rekord use a simulator?
Before heading to an unfamiliar track, I will always try to spend as much time as I can getting to know the layout on the simulator, and identifying key features that I will need once I get to the track, such as braking points and turn-in cues. One of the great features of iRacing is the ability to download telemetry data, which can be used in the software we use to work with clients, enabling us to focus on the key areas the student needs to work on without having to use up valuable session time in their car setting a reference lap. If I am going to race, I will compete in races on the simulator, either against live opponents in one of the many available online leagues, or using AI to set up race simulations, so I can identify the best places to overtake, and areas where I need to be careful defensively.
The simulator is a great tool to work with clients remotely, ahead of meeting them at the track. We often set up private server sessions, where we can do lead-follow exercises, just as we would in real life, to help the student get up to speed and to identify areas where they are losing time. Post-session review of replay footage is invaluable to help examine racing lines and brake and throttle application. We also look at telemetry data and can overlay it with ours to quickly identify problematic areas in the lap. We also help in online races by acting as a spotter, coaching the driver through race scenarios, just as we would in real life.