Can a car racing simulator make you a better racer?

The very word “simulator” means that a car racing game isn’t real but does that mean they’re “just a game” or can they help develop track skills?

Car racing simulators have been around for decades now, and are used by all the major race teams not only for drivers to learn new tracks, but to develop the best setup for the real-life cars. And some of the top level teams and drivers are now competing against each other in e-racing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Almost no other sport can be simulated as well as cars – you can literally use exactly the same steering wheel, seat and pedals as in a real car, and the driver doesn’t need to move unlike almost all other sports. And simulation technology in general is quite mature – for many years now airline pilots have been allowed to qualify for new aircraft purely on simulators, with their first ever flight of the actual airliner being one with paying passengers. So simulation technology in general is incredibly advanced, but for the average home race there’s still limitations:

Two reasons why car racing sims will never be truly real

  • The handling will never be perfect: the physics of how a car handles is impossibly complex. Even tyre models are a best-guess on approximate data, so the handling will only ever be an approximation of reality.
  • The sheer physical experience of driving at speed on a track: you’ll always know you’re in no danger and there’s no cost to a crash. This changes your mindset quite a bit, and a sim will never replicate that experience.

Four areas where car racing sims are part-way to realism

  • Learning mechanical sympathy: this is the art of driving carefully so you don’t break or over-stress the car. Some sims have no damage or wear models so you can’t overheat the brakes, run out of fuel, over-run an engine or otherwise break the car. Even those with damage models are nothing like as fragile as real life.
  • Changing track conditions: again, some sims have changeable weather and conditions, but there’s still work to do to replicate track evolution in real life through temperate, rain, wind and rubbering the track as more cars use it.
  • Car setup: every sim delivers you a brand new car, and all you need do is press the throttle to go out on track. In reality there’s so much more to it, but that’s not really driving so perhaps that’s being a bit unfair. And not all sims have much in the way of car setup options.
  • Gearchange skills are hard to replicate: most sim systems use paddle shifters. Setting up a sim so you can realistically do heel-toe shifts is possible, but a new level of expense. Of course, this only applies if you have a manual car.

Five areas where car racing sims are realistic

On the other hand, sims are very helpful in every other area. Here’s what they can help you develop:

  • Learning a track: you can watch as many videos as you like, but nothing is better than driving it. I can confirm that driving complex tracks like the Nurburgring, Spa and Bathurst was far, far easier in real life for me because I’d practised them on the simulator first – see the video at the end of this article, and the title photos are images I’ve replicated in Gran Turismo Sport from real-life photos.
  • Racing lines: amazing car control means very little if you’re not taking the right racing lines, and that’s a complex subject. When to early apex, late apex, take the shortest path between two corners or keep average speed up…it’s much easier to learn this on a sim where you can download top player’s replays, and see your improvements in real time.
  • Brake, throttle, gears and steering: the interplay between the car controls is complex and delicate. For example, on a wide sweeping corner you should adjust your path using the throttle, not steering wheel. And which gear to choose if you’re almost too fast for one?  You’ll need to learn trail-braking, the delicate art of transitioning the car’s weight from front wheels to side wheels in order to maximise traction. A sim can teach you all that and more.
  • Mental approach: driving to your maximum potential on track is as much about the right frame of mind than actual talent. Strangely, the fastest laps happen when you focus on doing things right not trying to drive as fast as you can. Sims very much teach you that.
  • Basics of car dynamics such as oversteer and understeer: any decent sim will model these well enough for you to be able to learn the causes and corrections. 
Minis racing on Gran Turismo

Overall, there’s no question home-level sims are way more than good enough to develop as a racing driver. I’ve found that people who are good racecar drivers in real life pick up sim racing very quickly, as the techniques are the same, just as a professional pilot would do well in a flight simulator. So there’s no question sims are very useful learning tools and fun machines for everyone from a novice trackday driver to a professional racer, but I thought I’d see what some other people with experience in the matter thought:

Here’s what people with both real-life and sim racing experience think

Lee Partridge – semi pro racer 

What’s your experience with real car racing and trackwork? Circuit racing for 20 years (state and national level) currently driver coaching and racing at a semi professional level for car owners. Manager of Melbourne Performance Centre.

What’s your experience with car racing simulators? Been sim racing online for about 10 years on Gran Turismo etc. Currently using iRacing and rFactor for driver coaching purposes and personal racing for last 12 months.

What skills can be learned on a sim that translate to real life?  Every aspect of real racing can be practiced and trained using the right simulator. Most common is concentration technique and also consistency of basics.

What does a sim teach you that shouldn’t be done in real life? Just the obvious stuff. You can make many mistakes and reset on a sim. Real life you need the usual precautions.

What tips do you have for someone looking to start out in sim racing? Get a decent set of wheel and pedals that suit your budget. Get the platform that suits your budget and most of all. Use it as a practice tool not just a fun game. I use mine a lot just concentrating on one thing at a time whether it be lines, brake technique etc.

Dean Sammut – owner/instructor, Evolve Driving

What’s your experience with real car racing and trackwork? I started motor racing in cars about 20 years ago and have raced on and off in a range of cars and categories over those years. Unfortunately I never having the budget to run a full season of anything, just races here and there.

What’s your experience with car racing simulators? I have not spent a lot of time in racing simulators but have had the chance to experience a couple of good set ups including versions with VR and others with full 6 post motion. As things have been developing in the sim world I have been coaching a lot more sing them and have found that they are getting closer to real world feel so this is giving me confidence to utilize them more.

What skills can be learned on a sim that translate to real life? It is surprising how far sims have developed and this has influenced the things that can translate from virtual to the real world. Early days sims were probably mostly used to help a driver ‘learn’ a new circuit, basically just getting to know what direction the next corner goes. As technology and sim set-ups have improved there are now a lot more aspects that transfer across from sim to real world driving allowing sims to be used as a part of enhanced driver development. This includes; training the ‘process’ of driving (brake, steer, accelerate), practicing consistency (which is vitally important for driver development),- developing rate of input (steering & accelerating), braking technique (application and release, including timing and rate of release),and obviously circuit lines.

Sims also offer the chance to develop a robust performance driving mindset, helping to implement things such as visualization/realization (mental imagery), managing mistakes, high level concentration, etc.

What does a sim teach you that shouldn’t be done in real life?  The reset button – real life doesn’t have one!

Sims have come a long way in recent years (both the software and hardware aspects of a sim build) but there is still a major gap between the feel offered by a sim and any real world driving situation. This is evident when seeing some of the worlds best drivers struggling to get up to speed in the current eSeries that have popped up to fill the void caused by the virus lockdown.

When you see and experience the level of major race team (F1, Porsche Motorsport, etc) sim set-ups and even those have a gap to reality then you can appreciate the gap that event the best of home sim builds still has to real world. The perception of speed (and danger) is lost in the sim world and the ‘feel’ for grip is also quite different. Having said that practicing on a sim will give any driver a chance to get up to speed in the real world much quicker than a driver only relying on their real world track time.

What tips do you have for someone looking to start out in sim racing? Understand your goals and invest in the right equipment at the start. That’s not to say go out and spend the most money on every item but be aware of what you want from your sim and what items will give you the best result in achieving that.

The most important part of the sim build in my mind would be the brake pedal, its feel and feedback of grip and retardation is the most important influence on a drivers performance.

Stephen Harrison – grassroots motorsports

What’s your experience with real car racing and trackwork? Hillclimbs, timed circuit sprints and trackdays in cars (mainly historics), motorcycle racing to state/national level for many years.

What’s your experience with car racing simulators? Arcade games, early PC sim with Grand Prix Legends (original Microsoft force feedback wheel), PS1/PS2 rally/race games with a controller, a couple of short runs in more serious simulators including with VR and full motion rigs, and just recently, Gran Turismo Sport.

What skills can be learned on a sim that translate to real life?  Situational awareness, sight lines, planning, smoothness, arguably some aspects of setup.

What does a sim teach you that shouldn’t be done in real life? That you can take an enormous risk, have a massive shunt and walk away without injury or violence from competitors.

What tips do you have for someone looking to start out in sim racing? Same as real racing, start with more economical but serviceable kit, spend time observing how better drivers do things on the track, work up your pace smoothly. Practice pushing limits one corner at a time. And don’t allow frustration from the behaviour of others to lower your own standards of behaviour.

Kristian Ristell – sim racer, automotive engineer, racer

What’s your experience with real car racing and trackwork?  Typical progression started with karting, autocross, motorkhana, club sprints, state and national level rallying. Now raising 2 sons in karting. 

What’s your experience with car racing simulators? Simulated driving since age 10, now own and operate a small sim components business, GTEYE

What skills can be learned on a sim that translate to real life?  Fundamental driving processes which I have learned and maintained in a sim environment: Psychological training Strategist your opponent and yourself, coordination and driving style technique, adaptability to changing condition, risk awareness and reduction, alternative technique analysis, vehicle behaviour and setup comparison. Track learning, improved ability to implement coaching – I have noted a direct correlation in the behaviour of my sons in the sim and driving their karts. I am able to work on eradicating their bad habits and speed up their learning whilst on the sim. Particularly important in karting as you cannot do two-up track work, karts are single-seaters.

What does a sim teach you that shouldn’t be done in real life? Sim racing may facilitate over confidence and unrealistic optimism both mentally and in terms of car sympathy. 

What tips do you have for someone looking to start out in sim racing?   Firstly decide whether this is just for fun, or are you intending to use it on a more constructive level such as replacing a real car experience, this can help avoid making the mistake of investing in the wrong software platform. Most software titles are targeted towards specific audience demographics, many are intended for pure entertainment value (games) whereas others are attempting to replicate something in the real world (simulations). Do some research before you start to make you are adopting a platform which fits your requirements.

Expensive sim equipment won’t necessarily make you faster, start out with a basic affordable setup to see if it’s right for you. If the bug sticks and the budget allows then start upgrading your equipment to improve driving immersion and accuracy. There is a strong demand in the second hand market so you wont be stuck with all your old stuff. 

Don’t get discouraged by the aliens [the top 1% of players]….chances are if you are starting out in sim racing, there will always be someone quicker than you. Particularly those who are using higher end simulation software take it very seriously and will have spent many years learing and refining their skills compared to yours. It is highly likely you will get demoralised and consider giving up because you are “no good at this”. Irrespective of whether you are in the mid field or rear of the pack, my recommendation is to hang in there and try to enjoy it for what it is, over time you will find new ways to improve. Remember luck often plays a big part in simulated racing as it does in real life, even the best have a bad day. 

A real vs virtual side-by-side comparison

Here’s my comparison between a virtual Toyota 86 and a real one at Bathurst.  I drove the virtual machine to the same risk level as the real one, and dropped tyres down till the grip matched. As you can see, the results are very close and that’s why I found sim preparation a huge advantage before my first runs around the Mountain.

Don’t miss our Guide to Starting Online Racing, and How to Deal with the Joy and Pain of Online racing.

Question: What’s your experience with sim racing vs real racing? See you in the comments.

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Automotive technical journalist specialising in 4X4s, camping, racecars and towing. Has designed and run driving courses covering offroading driving, winching, track racing and towing. Enjoys most things involving wings, wheels or sails. Follow me on Facebook and YouTube if you want explanations you won't find anywhere else!