There has been no single better creation since the start of organized motorsport to let the masses that can’t afford to race themselves as a hobby to get closer to the feeling of becoming a racecar driver than sim racing games. But how real is it? There are different areas that we need to pick apart to get this answer. I’ll also let you in on some secrets on how I personally use sim racing to improve myself as a driver in real life. I know we are all looking for the tools to improve as drivers, and I want you to be able to take full advantage of this amazing tool.
To sum up the sim racing industry, as a whole, is quite difficult as the ranges of “sim racing games” are quite wide. For the purpose of this blog I am excluding the million dollar simulators that professional racing teams use, as well as the games available on Xbox or Playstation such as, Forza or Gran Turismo. The “sim” I use personally and am most familiar with is iRacing, it is also what most of the professional drivers use, so that is the sim racing game I will use for this blog.
So, to answer our first question: How real is it? iRacing has the most realistic tracks I have ever seen from a racing software game. They are spot on as long as they are up to date; I really have nothing to ask more of from them on this side. Where we can see improvements is on the car physics side. This is mostly a hardware issue, because if you don’t have feeling from the car you have to rely only on your eyes, rather than a combination of eyes and feel of the car. I have yet to find a motion based simulation hardware that is really worth the money. They do add to the enjoyment factor, but if you are using a sim to try and improve yourself as a driver they are largely a waste of money. Because you are purely relying on your vision to race the car on a sim the way you actually drive, learn and even setup the car is very different from real life. If you hear anyone talk about how they made some setup changes on iRacing that they are going to put on their car in real life, just walk away from the conversation or stay away from them on track for that session. (Yes I have totally heard that)
Now for those of us lucky enough to drive a car on track we know that the physics aren’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t use this tool to learn. I have found that iRacing is a fantastic tool for training the most important muscle for racing, the mind. The mental side of racing is the most difficult and most important to master. Thankfully your brain is a muscle that you can train so this is a skill you can absolutely build. Most of the time in sim racing everyone is just trying to go flat out all the time, trying to beat their friends. While that is a ton of fun, they lose focus on the most important thing, themselves! Where is your mental state while you are on the sim? How can I improve, rather than how can the car improve, how often do you check in on yourself while you are on the sim? I would be willing to bet very few drivers check in on themselves as often on the sim as they do in real life. If that is you, then you are missing in on the best way to use sim racing to improve.
In the racecar there are usually three different mental modes you experience: practice, flat out qualifying, and consistency focused. In practice your focus is on feeling the car and thinking in depth about what is truly preventing you from going faster and feeling the changes. While you are always doing this, in the two other mental modes you are adapting your driving further to just get the best out of the car. In this mode you still have to do this, but the focus is more on how to get the car to where you need to adapt your driving less. In qualifying mode you are intensely focused on getting absolutely everything out of yourself and taking more risk for a very short amount of time. When you are focused on consistency you have a slightly more conservative approach, but you of course need to push yourself to bridge the gap between that qualifying intensity and consistency approach.
Getting practice in that qualifying mindset is one of the hardest things for a driver to get the opportunity to do. Tires are not only expensive, but in many series they are limited as well. So I find sim racing a fantastic place to work on your craft. I do this by finding a decent setup that I am happy with and then going with the low fuel setup, and working on 3 lap runs. In qualifying mode I want you to focus much more on yourself and on what it feels like when you perform at your best on the simulator. The mindset that works there will be the same that works on the track. As you do this more and more you will be able to find that mindset easier when the stress is high and its time to go qualify for real. For me personally it is all about trying to quiet the mind, I have been able to achieve this more and more as I learn to focus on my breathe and nothing else.
Practicing for your race runs and building consistency is a very similar approach to qualifying. You are looking to complete runs that are at least as long as your longest stint in the car, but preferably you go even longer. Your focus here is on average lap time, you obviously want to go as quickly as possible every lap, but limiting those mistakes that lead to laps that are far off what you are capable of. Initially you will probably need to hold yourself back from really going for a fast lap at any point during your long run and being more conservative to limit mistakes. As you gain experience you will be able to work down your fast lap, while keeping mistakes infrequent, which gets your average lap time down. Your goal here is to get your average lap time in your race run as close to qualifying as possible. As you work on this I will guarantee you that initially you will become mentally fatigued very quickly and you will make many mistakes. It is truly a frustrating practice! But that is exactly what you want; you want to feel that mental fatigue, you want to push yourself here. That feeling of exhaustion and pushing through it is where you start to improve.
Sim racing has become a fantastic tool, but you can develop some bad habits if you don’t know how to correctly use it. If you keep the focus on yourself and how you are personally competing, rather than focus on the outcome in the game you, then you are using it right. Sim racing is a fantastic tool for practicing mental intensity and endurance, both of which are vital for a driver to be successful. In addition to it being a great tool for improving as a driver it is also a fantastic network for us gearheads. The number one thing I absolutely love about sim racing is it gives everyone access to the sport and what its like to race and drive. One of the biggest problems motorsports has is that it is so inaccessible for most to compete in, so bridging this gap is vital for our sport. The community iRacing has built is truly incredible, a place where the entire community can come together and race against one another, no matter of their experience level is something that no other sport has.
I hope you will find value in how to improve as a driver by using sim racing from the ideas I have listed above. The fantastic part of all of this is if you are just a sim driver then these ideas will absolutely work for you as well! As drivers we all love the challenge of this sport, it can be so frustrating at times, but we all know how to persevere. We all have that in common, if we didn’t we all would have stopped this sport a lot sooner! Keep up the hard work, keep the belief in yourself, and keep focusing in on your mind. If you do this, you will start to feel that “zone” more often and be able to access it when you want. Once you master that everything else will start flowing on track!