Simulators: mental training

This is the last in the ‘simulator’ series of posts on YSAR. I’m sure I’ll talk about virtual racing again, but next week returns to some more familiar territory…

This week I want to talk about how racing pretend race cars can improve your mental focus in real race cars.

Reference Points

One of the things that makes virtual driving more difficult than real driving is that your sensory input is so limited. Your eyes are particularly important in both virtual and real racing, but even more so in the simulated world. The reason for this is that computer monitors are 2D. Your sense of hearing and touch (steering wheel) aren’t affected as negatively as your sight. Driving in 2D requires you to estimate distances without 3D vision, and it’s not intuitive.

It’s really hard to drive by the seat of your pants in simulation. You need to plan on where to brake, turn, accelerate, and shift. And the way to make these consistent is to use reference points. If you find yourself crashing your virtual car over and over, it’s probably because you aren’t using reference points. You need to plan out everything in advance. Reference points will make your driving much more consistent. Once you’re able to drive consistent laps, you can start improving your line and technique. But if your driving is all over the place, it’s very difficult to improve because you can’t tell exactly what needs fixing. Developing the skill to find, experiment with, and evaluate reference points is also incredibly useful in the real world. Once you’ve done 100 hours of simulated driving, picking out reference points in real life will happen without you even thinking about it.

Driving Defensively

One of the reasons I like iRacing so much is that they mercilessly record incidents like loss of control, going off track, or hitting other cars. Whenever you do something dangerous, iRacing assigns you incident points. These cost you 0-4 points depending on the severity. Once you reach 17 points, you’re disqualified from the race. So let’s say you’re racing wheel-to-wheel and the guy next to you rubs you a bit and it causes you to drop 2 wheels into the grass. Well, you just might have lost 2 points for the rub and 1 point for the grass and none of it was your fault. Whenever there’s contact, both parties get penalized. Pick up too many penalties and it starts affecting your license class, which affects which cars you’re allowed to race. Does this sound unfair and overly harsh? Yes and yes, which is absolutely why the system is a fantastic training tool. It forces you to drive defensively.

Racing isn’t just about getting your car around the track as fast as possible. There’s also racecraft. And by that I don’t just mean strategies for attack and defense. Let’s say you get a decent draft, pop out and are door to door in the braking zone. It’s your corner by rights. What is your opponent going to do? Does he even see you? Have you raced with her before? Before going door to door at a virtual 100 mph, you should have some idea of the answers. You wouldn’t want them suddenly turning in on your car. Right of way doesn’t protect your safety rating or win you races. If they turn in on you, it could be the end of your race. That doesn’t mean you should drive completely scared. You have to be able to analyze a situation and figure out the path that optimizes both safety and speed.

Racing virtual cars with drivers of suspect ability is a great training tool for your situational awareness and decision making skills. You can find this environment in lots of sims, not just iRacing. Each community has its own rules, and some may be even stricter than iRacing. Regardless of which sim platform you use, try to make your training sessions serious. Pretend it’s your racecar and you would be gutted to crash it. That will improve your safety and race results in the virtual and real world.

Staying Focused

Practice sessions where you’re trying to beat your previous best lap time are fun and a good way to learn the subtleties of a track. But they aren’t good for training your mental focus. To develop a focused mind, it’s more useful to do races. Ideally, you want to make your training more stressful than a real race. It’s hard doing that in the virtual world, but I think that iRacing does a better job of that than other simulators because (1) you have to use your real name when you sign up (2) every incident affects your safety rating. There are quite a few sim racers who shun iRacing because it’s expensive and doesn’t have the best tire model. I won’t argue those points. If you buy every car and track, it is expensive. But you can use the default content and drive the Global MX-5 Cup for $6/month with no additional costs. That’s a good series to practice your racecraft and anyone who is racing real cars can afford $6/month.

Whatever simulator you use, your goal should be to race other people for 30 minutes without picking up any incidents. No car-to-car contact, no spins, no offtrack excursions, etc. Racing against AI is too predictable. You need to race against ass-idiots humans who do stupid shit for no reason. If you can do that and win races, you’re developing skills that transfer to the real world. Most online races are 20-30 minutes. That’s enough time to get you sweaty, but it’s nothing compared to a 2 hour endurance stint you might find in the real world. So in addition to races, you should do extended endurance sessions where the goal is to keep all of your laps in the same second for 2 hours. Does playing a video game for 2 hours seem silly? Not to pilots. They’ve been doing this for years.

One thought on “Simulators: mental training

  1. Very good. I like doing time trials vs. practice in iracing since your TT and safety rating are affected and you’ve got a 1/2 hour at a time to go.


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