Simulators: physical training

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.

Braking Bad

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.

Tire Model

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.

Damage Model

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.


The highside is one of least common but most spectacular auto racing incidents. It happens on motorcycles all the time because motorcycles have only two wheels, but getting a car to flip over is not so easy. Most of the incidents I’ve cataloged involve a high berm/kerb. Why anyone would intentionally put such features on a race track is beyond me. Low kerbs can become high kerbs if the dirt on the outside of the track gets worn down enough, so watch out for that. When approaching a corner with a high berm, be extra careful. The tenth of second you lose by driving under the limit may save your car. Oh right, the TLA for this is HBH (high berm highside or HKH if you prefer kerb).

Q is for Question

Racers are always trying to find just a little more speed every corner. To do that, you need to experiment with brakes, throttle, line, etc. But how do you know what works and what doesn’t? Is it better to change to 2nd gear or stay in 3rd? Is it better to take a double apex or single? It’s critical to ask these kinds of questions all the time. If only you could try different strategies and get immediate feedback… you can, and it’s darn simple.

One of the best driver training tools is a predictive lap timer. This tells you if your speed is increasing or decreasing compared to your previous best lap. The least expensive option is to get an app for your smartphone but the dedicated devices work better. I personally own an Autosport Labs Race Capture / Pro, RumbleStrip Racing Products DLT1-GPS, and Track Systems Technologies TraqMate. All of them are excellent products, and there are several others on the market. To use a predictive timer, check the time on the way in to a corner, try a new line, and then check it again on the way out. If your new line was better, the time will decrease.

In the following video, which was taken last week at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in the Lucky Dog Racing League, you can see a RumbleStrip DLT1-GPS in action (it’s the black box on the dash with the red numbers). The upper number is the time delta. The lower number is speed (MPH). Oh, and the video is queued up to me driving! It was only my 2nd time at Mazda Raceway, so it was useful to have a predictive timer help me refine my line.

There’s always a crash video on YSAR, so here’s one that happened right in front of me (the delta is pretty extreme if you look at the timer — that’s because this happened on my first lap).

The track had sand bags on the aprons to protect from water (supposedly it rains in California in the Winter). That’s what happens when you hit one. Dude, next time, pay attention in the driver’s meeting! I’m patting myself on the back for not getting caught up in that mess.

K is for Kerb

The outside and inside edges of a track can be a bit of a mystery. Some tracks have very large  aprons while others have dirt, grass, or even a slightly raised kerb. Going over a kerb at high speed can really unsettle a car and cause it to oversteer quickly. Clever drivers sometimes take advantage of this, but it’s not without some risk. In the first clip, a Miata driver encounters the T6 inside kerb at Laguna Seca (I mean Mazda Raceway), loses control, and collects the POV car.

In this next clip, there is a low apron on the inside of T7 at Lime Rock. The leading edge of an apron can get dug out from being driven over repeatedly. Driving over a dip is a lot like driving over a kerb. In the following video, the driver is really unprepared for the sudden oversteer and his corrections are unpracticed and uncoordinated. Un-good.

Streets often have kerbs. It would be idiotic to race on public streets, both because it is illegal and because you could damage your car hitting a kerb (not to mention a light post, pedestrian, dog, etc). While a closed parking lot can make a convenient autocross course, it’s a stupid sort of convenience.