Guide to online racing – how to live with the joy and pain

Esports, online racing, e-racing… call it what you will it’s become hugely popular thanks to the coronavirus pandemic keeping us all indoors. Here’s our guide to online racing and how you can get the most out of it.

Thanks to COVID-19, online racing is now hugely popular, and many car enthusiasts have joined the fun. But Facebook and car forums are now full of people hugely disappointed with being punted off, rammed, spun into, losing good positions, unable to get the results they should, and general disappointment.

Welcome to motorsports, be that online or real. If it was easy, real or otherwise, there’d be no sense of achievement.

You can either jump straight in and join the ranks of the frustrated, or take a step back and try a more measured approach which pays off quickly. So what follows is my view as to how to enjoy online racing, written it based on my own experience in racing for real and online, where I’ve made just about every mistake in the book, at least twice. So, maybe I can shorten the learning curve for others! I race online with using Gran Turismo Sport (GTS), but the principles will apply elsewhere too, such as Forza and iRacing.

GTS rates players by Driver Rating (DR), which is how quick you are, and how safe/clean you are, which is Safety Rating (SR). The best races are with those who have high SR, and similar DR to yourself. So here my tips:

1. Learn how to drive on a racetrack

Forget racing just for a moment, and let’s talk about hotlapping. Driving a car fast on track is really, really tricky.  Going fast isn’t just a question of talent, it’s actually knowledge too, and you multiply knowledge and talent by time put into the sport. For example, if you don’t fully understand the following techniques:

  • trailbraking;
  • able to look at any corner and say when to late vs early apex;
  • oversteer and undesteer recovery;
  • compromising one corner so you’re better set up for the next;
  • when to single apex and when to double-apex;
  • that the fastest line is sometimes swing out wide for the corner, sometimes the shortest distance

then your knowledge is lacking, and regardless of your talent, that’ll hold you back. Go learn those techniques, and more, then start hotlapping, not racing. For more tips, go into the qualifying sessions for the weekly races and watch the replays of the top drivers.  And when you make a mistake, figure out what you did wrong, otherwise there’s no improvement. If it’s just you on the track it’ll be your error, nothing else to blame. And remember, only perfect practice makes perfect, no just random practice and hoping.

Trying to beat Lewis Hamilton’s time around Bathurst is HARD…but you learn a lot in the process

But how long do you practice for? Until you can reel off five laps, in a row, all within +/- 2 seconds of each other, and within 3 seconds of your best-ever time. Consistency is the key, because a single mistake often wipes out more time than ten of corners you take perfectly. For practice in GTS, try the circuit challenges, the Lewis Hamilton Challenges, and the weekly time trials.  And when you’re more skilled, you”ll be able to reel off laps within less than second of each other, within 2 seconds of your best times.

You also need to know how to recover skids, and we’ve got an article for you on just that. In GTS, go to the Drift Trials section and get to the point where you can rack up 10,000 drift points in one session, maybe using a BMW M4.

You don’t hold a drift when racing, but it’s worth learning so you learn to recognise ovesteer and deal with it before you’ve lost much time.

2. Have spare brain capacity

When you’re hotlapping solo, it’s just you, the car and the track. All you need to think about is the next two or three corners, as you always think ahead a bit. But when you’re racing, there’s way, way more to think about, such as:

  • The car behind trying to overtake you;
  • You trying to overtake the car in front;
  • Whether you need to stop for fuel or tyres;
  • Analysing the cars ahead to figure out what they’re doing; and
  • What lap you’re on.

This means you need to be able to drive well enough that the act of driving fast is what’s called unconscious-competence, so you’ve got brain capacity left to deal with the race. You’ll know you can do this when you can hotlap while talking to someone about what you’re doing, and change settings such as TCS on the fly.

3. Qualify well

In GTS, you can enter a race with no qualifying time and start at the back. I enjoy that quite often, but if you want to win, then qualify as best you can. That means lots of practice. You know you’re at your limit when you’re happy to get a 1/10th second improvement – when you’re good, you’re happy with 1/1000th.

The further up the grid you are, the better a chance of a good finish.

3. Focus on a finish, not a result

OK, so now you’re as fast as your talent and experience allows, and you’re consistent. Time to race. And this really is a whole new world. The game will be full of people who haven’t done steps 1 and 2, and it’ll show. They will be all over the shop, missing apexes, shooting off the track. You’ll get smashed around for sure, some of it accidental, some of it, sadly, intentional.

Your have one overriding priority , and this to finish the race by not making mistakes yourself, and avoiding trouble. Some examples of the latter:

  • If there’s three abreast into a corner, back out, take the racing line, and come out quicker. Nobody’s coming out of that corner fast, if at all, so don’t try and make it four abreast;
  • Side by side? If you’re on the inside and well alongside, you’re probably okay. If you’re on the outside, you’re probably at risk, so back out, cede the corner, and try again; and
  • It’s amazing how following someone quite closely puts pressure on and they make a mistake, and you just cruise by. Try it.

Your own mistakes hurt you in two ways – you lose time, and give opponents a chance to overtake. Let’s say the race is 4 laps, total 15m. Do you think you can drive, at 100%, for that period of time and not make a mistake where you’d lose time? The answer is no.

The point of racing is to complete the entire race as fast as you can, not one speciifc lap or corner. Think about that statement carefully, and don’t forget it.

So, you’re much better off driving at 90% and making hardly any mistakes than to drive at 100%, be faster for almost all the race, but make errors which slow your average speed down to 80%.

It really is true that the most important thing you can do is just finish with no mistakes. It is amazing how many places you can pick up doing that. But it’s hard, because every fibre of your being wants to drive at 100%. It’s how all the top drivers do it, but their 95% is quicker than your 100%, and they can drive consistently at 98% of their max pace, whereas newcomers need to drive at 90%. Like I said, if this was easy…it wouldn’t be fun. I don’t know why everyone thinks they’re a race ace from birth, but we’re not – your speed is a function of your talent, knowledge and time you put into improvement.

4. Learn to defend

If you’re in front, resist the temptation to drive as fast as you can. Again, go for 90%, leave a little on the table, because a well-driven car that hits all the racing lines is quite hard to overtake…but when you start going wide, you not only lose time but you open the door to being passed.

You’ll also know where it’s impossible to pass, which is usually corners that require little braking. So, no need to defend those.  How many times have you watched motorsports and seen a faster drive be unable get past a slower one who keeps their cool? It happens often.
Where you do need to defend is into deep braking zones, and on straights. If your opponent has a quicker corner exit than you, then you’re in trouble down that next straight. So, look for the next corner, which is let’s say a 90 degree right-hander. Instead of placing your car all the way to the left, put it mid-track. This will force your opponent to take a very tight line inside, which means they must brake very early, or go around the outside, which is risky.  Your corner will be slower, but that’s okay…you’ll have track position and that’s what counts.

Taken from the video at the end – I’m on the left, my opponent has carefully parked his car in the middle of the track, forcing me around the outside or very tight on the inside. A good defence. But, it’ll slow us both down which is an advantage to the guy behind.

5. Take only measured risks

Especially racing against less-skilled drivers, you need to be careful about overtaking, and being overtaken. So, pick your moments carefully. The good news is that the less skilled the driver, while they’re more likely to go for insane overtakes, they are also more likely to leave doors open and make errors. So for example, let’s say your opponent is behind you by 0.6 seconds, and you brake as late as you dare for a corner. A skilled opponent won’t see that as a chance, they’ll slot in behind. An unskilled opponent sees the gap through binoculars, and launches at attack from two postcodes away.  So, just close the door nice and early to minimise the risk.

Also, favour overtakes on the inside, or on straights. Just because you’ve caught a car doesn’t mean to say you need to overtake it at the next corner. In fact, pro racers often end up waiting for laps, carefully analysing their opponents weak points and planning their move. And all the time you’re behind the person in front…that’s pressure, which works to your advantage.

6. Enjoy the battles

Ever heard a pro racer say their best race wasn’t one they won? Many do. Generally, your best race is the one you performed best in, regardless of result.  Let’s say you were on pole, but got smashed off first corner, and then staged a fightback to 5th. That may well be your best race, and be more thrilling and rewarding than leading from the start and winning by 15 seconds.  A good dice with an equally matched driver for 6th is huge fun, more so than beating 10 other drivers for a win who don’t have your skill level. Sure, you can rack up wins by fiddling things so you get easy opponents…but wouldn’t you have that nagging feeling of cheating yourself? And think how much sweeter a good result is when you know you’re competing against drivers at your own level.

7. You will improve, and the racing gets better

When you start out, everybody has a low DR and SR. Mistakes are assured. As you improve, trust me, the racing gets cleaner and better. The really fast guys tend to be the cleanest, least likely to spear off the track, and they are less likely to deliberately take you out. How to get there? Follow the tips above.

Good racers can get around a corner like this and not take each other out.

8. Get over the dirty players

So you’ve battled up to second place, been tailing a leader for a lap, waiting for a mistake. He runs a little wide, and has to recover the car. You’ve taken that corner much better, and have a run on him so you pull alongside…but as you do, he swerves into you. Off you go into what’s known as the Shadow Realm, and there’s 15 seconds lost. The leader carries on and takes the win, and you end up 7th, with a smash to your SR and DR.

Mad? Want to ragequit? Send him a nasty message? Vent?

Of course. You’re human.

Now, get over it. Take pride in the fact the leader had to resort to that sort of tactic to stop you. And that you were even running at the front to begin with. Also, revenge is not sweet, and in a few days you won’t even remember it.

9. Join a league

If you race with the same players every week and know them personally, then the racing will be cleaner. Plenty of leagues to choose from, find a Facebook group or similar such as Gran Turismo Sport Australia and New Zealand. Admins of leagues are welcome to comment with a short description, and I may write another article making a list – doesn’t have to be GTS, anything online racing will do.

At the end of the day…

When all the cliches have been used up, it’s only a game. Yes, you will get smashed. Know what? There’s people like that in real-life motorsports too, same as in the game, and in the game it’s much more driver-oriented, there’s no mechanical advantage so if anything, sim racing has potential for less disappointment than real life – take it from me, spending a weekend in the pits under your car whilst others are racing is not fun. Just pick yourself up, don’t drop to their level, and consider it a challenge. Then you’ll really begin to have online motorsport fun.  Enjoy!

Some specific tips for Gran Turismo Sport:

  • You want to get into a Daily Race with clean-driving players, which means an SR or A or S. But, you’re at the bottom yourself. Easy fix – find the 25m long race, don’t qualify so you start last or nearly so, and trundle around at the back, take zero risks, don’t fight, avoid overtaking. You’ll pick up SR points very quickly, especially with a clean race bonus, and don’t worry about your DR. Do that until you’re SR S, then start racing for real. You’ll also see how even driving slowly but consistently you pick up places with ease. The time invested will pay off with cleaner drivers and better racing for you;
  • You can view your ratings at – look up your PSN username;
  • Your matching in a race is mostly based on your SR, then your DR;
  • The game has an idea of where it expect you to finish. This is reflected in the number given to your car. So you finish ahead of that number, your DR will go up, and below, it goes down;
  • Wins, poles and fastest laps are nice…but you’ll remember the quality battles, not the races you won by a mile;
  • Use the Radar view. You don’t have much peripheral vision, and the radar is absolutely your friend for situational awareness;
  • To be really quick, turn off all assists except ABS, and don’t rely on the game’s brake or gear recommendations; and
  • Everything you learn in real-life racing applies to GTS, so watch videos, read books etc…all helps.

Here’s a brief video of one of my races, where many things are done badly a few right. GTS allows you to save replays, and re-watch your finest or most inglorious moments.

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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!