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Guest Blogger - Nick Fontana

Want to become a faster race car driver? Sim racing is the answer.

The debate should be over – sim racing works. Professional drivers use it to get faster. Professional teams use it to find new drivers. Even Pure sim racers have gone on to become successful racers. They even made a TV show about it!

The benefits are clearly apparent at the professional level, so what about every serious trackday junkie, amateur driver, or HPDE weekend warrior? Can they use sim racing to advance their skills? Many have homemade rigs with varying levels of sophistication, but very few actually use them to their full advantage.

From my experience, it comes down to these two questions -

  1. What about the lack of G-Forces?

  2. How can sim racing ACTUALLY make me faster?

So what about those G-Forces? You’re sitting in a simulator, in front of your computer, traveling 0mph – how does anyone drive like that?

Well, for starters, you can see everything. For example, the tracks in iRacing are laser scanned and hyper accurate with all the visual references you’d experience on the real track. As reference points pass by, they reinforce a sense of speed. Upgrade to a VR headset like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, and it’s like you’re actually there – when you pit-in on the simulator you may find yourself reaching to take off your helmet!

You can hear everything. How do you know if you’re at the limit of grip? Listen for the tires. If you have a motion simulator, you feel the back end kick out on you. Not sure what kind of surface you’re on? Again, the tire squeal will let you know. The engine and drivetrain noises can also clue you in to speed and can help establish a rhythm around the track.

And you can feel, too! Modern force-feedback steering wheels can provide just as much sensory feedback as their real-life counterparts. Feel every bump in the road, when your front tires are understeering, or how the steering gets heavy in the middle of the uphill at Lime Rock. Between all of this sensory input, your brain doesn’t need “butt-feel” and after a while you’ll forget that you’re sitting in a chair in your basement. Also, some pedal setups provide vibration/feedback to simulate brake feel and ABS. And if you have a full-motion rig setup like the one from the guys at VR Motion Labs, you can even get that ‘seat of the pants’ feeling.

So what about getting faster? Whether you have a full-motion rig setup or not, several aspects of real-world driving can be improved through sim racing. Here’s a partial list of driving skills that I have worked on over the years in the simulator:

  • Becoming a safer driver – use the sim to learn track layout, corner worker stations, run-off areas and “escape routes” out of corners before arriving at the track.

  • Better vision – learn to look ahead. Some pro teams even use eye tracking technology in combination with simulator training to instill good visual habits.

  • Working out the line – with tracks laser-scanned and cars modeled based on engineering specs from the manufacturer and race teams, line theory translates directly between the sim and real-world.

  • Mental discipline – ever get red mist or lose focus late in a session? Using the sim to stay focused for longer periods of time translates to the real-world.

  • Brake pedal release – It took years to undo some bad habits I picked up during my first track days. Using the simulator allowed me to flip my technique on the brake pedal without fear of crashing.

  • Sharper listening skills – with imperfect ‘butt-feel’ I’ve had to rely more on tire and drivetrain sounds to gauge speed and grip. In real life I now find it easier to pick up the specific pitch/groan/whine of the tires over changing surfaces and grip levels.

  • Reference points – having trouble finding out where to let off the brake or turn-in? The sim makes it easy to experiment and review on the replay to identify reference points.

  • Data Analysis - Just like you capture race data from the car, you can view and analyze telemetry data from your sim sessions. Breaking down corners and trying new things in the simulator opens up a world of possibilities.

Improve on the skills listed above, and your lap times will drop. Still not convinced that sim racing can help you become a faster real-world driver? Maybe you just need to be moved to the fastest run group..

About the author

Nick Fontana is a life-long lover of racing simulation ranging from NASCAR Racing by Papyrus to Gran Turismo 2 to iRacing. Nick competed in the 2011 US Nissan GT Academy and finished 6th out of 55,000 competitors, reaching the final round GT Academy Race Camp at Silverstone which was judged by Danny Sullivan, Liz Halliday, and Tommy Kendall. Today Nick offers both simulator and track-day coaching and runs the Advanced Coaching program for COM Sports Car Club, one of the oldest non-profit sports car clubs in the country, offering driver education and competitive time trial events.

Nick is also our preferred coach for drivers of all levels. Want to book a session with him? Contact us today to setup a remote or in-person session with Nick!

Nick Fontana Sim Coach

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