The last couple posts have been about simulators, and I’ve got two more on that topic. Today, I want to talk using simulators for physical training. I don’t mean lifting weights but rather car control. Can you learn how to hold an entry slide with your brake pedal, match revs downshifting with heel-toe technique, or drift a car sideways around a hairpin via simulation? I certainly did. And it took a long time, just like in real life. But it was a lot cheaper destroying virtual cars than real ones. Once I had learned those skills in the virtual world, they translated very quickly to the real world. This came to me as a bit of a surprise actually. I had been using iRacing for about 6 months and hadn’t been on a real track during that time. The first session out, I didn’t have time to switch to my track wheels so I was on ancient all season tires in my 1986 BMW 325e. Suddenly I was sliding all over the place, but I was catching and holding the slides. I remember saying to myself, “it’s just like iRacing”. That was a watershed moment. From then on, I drove with more confidence and more slip angle.
For physical training, it’s important for the tracks, physics, and cars to be accurate enough to train your reflexes. In a virtual cockpit, you will never get the feel of being in an actual car, but the experience doesn’t have to be 100% authentic to be instructive. A force feedback steering wheel goes light in a way that’s very similar to a real car. But there are differences between wheels… and cars… and tracks… and simulators. Arguing about which simulator is best is not a very useful argument. That’s because what might be best for one car-track-hardware combination might not be true for another. For this reason, I think it’s a good idea to include a lot of variety in your sim driving experience. Try cars with different layouts (FF, FR, MR, RR) and varying power levels. I’ll probably never get to drive a vintage Formula car, however, I find them to be some of the most instructive for learning a new track.
Lots of cars have ABS in real life and most sims allow you to add ABS to cars even if they didn’t have it to begin with. I’m really against using ABS in simulation. The point of training is to improve your skills and ABS gets in the way of that. I believe that the single most important skill in racing is braking. It sets your entry speed, aids rotation, and is your means to escape impending doom. You should be able to feel your brakes lock and unconsciously release just enough brake pressure to restore steering.
One of the most important features of your sim rig is the brake pedal. Popular units from Logitech and Thrustmaster don’t have pressure-sensitive pedals. In order to make brake training as useful as possible, you need a load cell in the pedal. You can buy kits to modify your Logitech/Thrustmaster or buy pedals that already have load cells (e.g. Fanatec). It’s not about going faster in the sim, though for me it definitely also had that effect. It’s about replicating the feel of a real brake pedal and learning how that feels in all sorts of situations without balling up the car.
One of the most discussed features of any simulator is its tire model. Real tires are incredibly complex entities and extraordinarily difficult to replicate in software. One of the greatest criticisms of iRacing is that its tires slide way too much. Once over the limit, it can be nearly impossible to recover, even at low speeds. It’s also very difficult to hold long drifts. If you’re training to be a drifter, you might want to choose another platform. But for road racing, it works fine. One might even say that the excessive sliding is a useful training tool to keep you from abusing your tires. Most sim racers agree that rFactor 2 has one of the best tire models. In my opinion, all of the tire models in modern sims are good enough to begin training.
In real life, your tires sometimes end up in the grass, dirt, or gravel. And then there’s rain too. Most simulators don’t deal well with these situations. I’ve seen gravel behave like an oil slick, black hole, and ordinary asphalt. Why does one sim send you crashing into a wall and another stop you dead? Apparently, simulating loose surfaces isn’t a high priority. My advice is to train yourself in a sim/track/car combination where going off track is detrimental and realistic. You should lose grip, but if you open your wheel proactively, you should be able to save it. Once this behavior becomes automatic, you’ll be much safer in the real world. So many track drivers have the knee-jerk reaction of turning their wheel too much when going off track and coming back on. This generally results in at least one car going home early.
Most sims give you a choice on how to model damage from invulnerable to realistic. However, I find that even the realistic setting is generally too durable (with the exception of iRacing where cars seem too fragile). Real cars can bend or break parts when running into another car, swiping a wall, or even hitting a high kerb. I find it really fun driving a bent car. Maybe that’s because it happened to me in real life. Earlier in the day, our car (1987 MR2) had broken a half shaft and lost a wheel. This caused a bunch of damage to the right rear wheel (brakes and suspension bits). We found replacement parts from a 1985 MR2, but it turns out, they aren’t exactly the same. The geometry was off, and the car would pull to the right on a straight and lurch to the right in the middle of a left hand turn. It was horrible and felt like riding a wild animal. It was also some of the most fun I’ve ever had on track.