We’re constantly trying to provide you guys with posts that are different and exciting here on PretendRaceCars.net – sometimes that leads to us revealing sensitive behind-the-scenes info about upcoming games, and sometimes we upload illegal mod conversions for Game Stock Car Extreme that are surprisingly good. Today, we continue to push the boundaries of pretend journalism by sitting down with 23 year old German Formula Renault 2.0 driver and longtime PretendRaceCars.net reader Severin Austerschmidt to blur the line between simulation and reality in our brand new series of articles that probably won’t run on a regular basis: Blurring the Line.
PretendRaceCars.net: So let’s get this started… A majority of your real world racing experience is in Formula Renault 2.0. How did you get into this series, what tracks have you driven at, and how well did you perform?
Severin Austerschmidt: My story differs a lot from how most of the other guys in the field got into racing. I’d never done any serious karting before, just rental kart stuff with my mates, but for my twentieth birthday, I had the idea that my dad and I could do a racing license course together. We’d already done one or two track days before in a BMW Z4 and really enjoyed it, so a licensing course would be the next step for us. However, we thought that paying a lot of money to get an FIA-approved license and doing it in our own car would be a bit boring, so I looked for alternatives and found an Austrian racing team that did Formula Renault 2.0 racing experiences similar to what you see in North America with the Richard Petty Driving Experience. My dad thought this was a solid alternative, so off we went to the Pannoniaring in Hungary.
I was pretty fast right off the trailer, and at the end of the day, the team owner came up to me and asked me if I would consider to properly test with them, possibly to enter some legitimate races as my “end goal.” I told him I’d get back to them, as at the time I was studying in London so flying back and forth to Austria & Hungary would be insanely time consuming, not to mention impact my studies a whole bunch. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity though, I looked for teams in the UK to test with. I eventually decided on Hillspeed, and we went testing in Spain at the Circuito Guadix. During the test day, we were also accompanied by a driver currently in the European Formula 3 Championship, and despite my relative lack of skill, I wasn’t too far behind him on the timing sheets. After the test day, the owner approached me and offered me a spot on the team for a full season and only a full season. However, the price of signing on was beyond what I could afford, and I had to decline. This was four months after my first time sitting in a race car, making laps.
Having a change of heart and still wanting to pursue a venture into auto racing, I contacted the team I originally earned my license with, and told them I’d be interested in running a part time schedule with them. They were absolutely fine with it, and my first test with Donau Autosport was a few weeks after my University finals at the Hungaroring Grand Prix Circuit. It was a really difficult test because temperatures during the day reached up to 38C/100F, but at the end of the session I was on pace with Alon Day, who’s now an FIA GT3 competitor.
As I signed on late into the season, the Championship only had three race weekends left, two events taking place at the legendary Hockenheim circuit, and one event at Most in the Czech Republic. During this wild year I managed to score two podiums on my first race weekend, one podium in the Czech Republic, and during the final weekend of the season, finished both races in the top five.
PRC: Now that you’ve really gotten into sim racing, give us a rundown of your equipment, and more importantly, how do you set your Force Feedback? Do you make your plastic steering wheel feel exactly like a real car’s wheel, or do you turn up the canned FFB effects slider to compensate for the lack of G-Forces and other things you’d feel naturally in the cockpit?
SA: I use a G27 wheel and pedals, though I’m considering upgrading to something that’s a bit higher quality, like a T500RS and a used set of Fanatec pedals, because after having used the G27 for a while, it starts to feel like a toy. As for my Force Feedback settings, I guess I try to set it up in a way which makes the car easiest to predict. It’s not light, but not super strong like you see on arcade machines. It’s somewhere in the middle. I think what annoys me the most about Force Feedback in general is the way most games handle the car regaining grip. It’s all wrong. In real life, sometimes the wheel just snaps a certain direction when the tires find grip after losing it, and our consumer wheels don’t do that. It’s really unnatural and probably the biggest discrepancy between real life wheel behavior, and what you’d get from Force Feedback in a sim.
PRC: A common debate between almost all sim racers is whether race cars are easy to drive out of the box, like in Game Stock Car or Assetto Corsa (which some call “simcade”), or that they are extremely difficult and unforgiving as seen in iRacing. Settle this one for us – is it easy to jump in a race car and make laps, or does it try to kill you? Give us some examples if necessary.
SA: This is a really difficult question to answer for me, since I got to try my hand at real race cars before driving pretend race cars. I can, however, say that games like Assetto Corsa feel leaps and bounds ahead of other certain sims on the market, and Assetto Corsa on its own is very close to what a real race car feels like. To me, the actual physics of the car aren’t that important. Yes, they decide how the car handles overall, but every car in real life handles differently anyways – so it’s always going to be something you must deal with. The tires, however, are the only thing that connects the car to the road, so if the tire model isn’t right, the car won’t feel right.
There is a common misconception that race cars are incredibly hard to drive and that it’s almost impossible to catch a slide, which is probably the biggest lie ever told on the internet. In real life you have so many more inputs that your body can process: Not just the wheel in your hand, you have a whole car under your ass – you feel it moving, twitching, vibrating… All those little things help you understand what the car is doing. If you possess the ability to understand what the car is telling you, then this of course helps you catch the car when you get sideways, or when there’s a little bit of oversteer. I would say, however, that very good sim racers would probably possess these skills in real life as well – they’ve learned all of this from simulations after all, so I don’t see any reasons to inflate the difficulty to compensate. Sure, it may make for a nice challenge, like in Grand Prix Legends or iRacing, but there’s no need for it.
SA: I haven’t driven every racing sim out there, but for me the best sim car is Assetto Corsa’s Formula Abarth, which is basically a re-branded Formula Renault 2.0 car. It handles shockingly close to what the car drives like in real life, and a close second is the BMW M235i Racing which was found in Assetto Corsa’s Dream Pack DLC. The body roll is a bit excessive in Assetto Corsa, but the tire model really helps these cars shine. Assetto Corsa, as a whole really, is probably the best consumer simulation on the market. It’s got a very good tire model, amazing re-creation of tracks, and practically every car in the sim could win the best sim car award. My only complaint, however, is the weird temperature behavior of some of the tires. They seem to cool down super fast on the straights, and then gain all the temperature back in one corner. It’s as if the sim only calculates surface temperature and not core temperature. Maybe I’m wrong though.
Another game worth mentioning is Stock Car Extreme. The Brazilian Stock Cars aren’t very nimble, but the game undermines the point that if you have a good tire model, which they developed together with Pirelli, then the cars will feel very realistic to drive. I’ve done some racing in rFactor and some racing with Stock Car Extreme, and I’m average at best in rFactor, whereas in GSCX I’m near the front of the pack in online leagues. That’s how important tire models are and why so many developers are obsessing over them now. Reiza Studios and Niels did an incredible job with an ancient engine.
PRC: On top of having a decent amount of experience in an open wheel car, you’ve also got some laps under your belt in touring cars as well – testing both a BMW 235i and trying out for the 2015 Audi TT cup. How did your foray into touring car racing go?
SA: Like my time in Formula Renault 2.0, and like the careers of many young talents, money is an issue. After my part-time efforts driving open wheel cars, my eyes fell on the VLN series in Germany, because it was something I had followed for a while and the Nordschleife is only an hour away from where I live. Touring cars are a lot cheaper to race, so I thought this was a really logical decision. Earlier that year BMW announced the M235i, which would be reasonably cheap to run and would have a very competitive championship, I got in touch with a team that would be running the car in the VLN where the car itself would get its own class and cup.
By that time I’d also managed to get a sponsor who was ready to pay for half the cost of the season, and pending on performances, would offer to pay for the rest as well. I arranged a test before the first round of the VLN season which I had to pay for myself – and I was the fastest in each session. What surprised the team the most was that even though it was raining and I had never driven the car before, let alone a race car on the Nurburgring GP track, I was on average a second faster than a BMW Junior factory driver who happened to test for a factory team that day. The team then offered to sign me for half a season, but my sponsor pulled all support a few days before signing day. Unfortunately for me, no team was willing to hire me based on performance, as every driver in the series was a paydriver.
The best offer I got was a test with a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car on the Nordschleife, however I’d never raced on the circuit, and couldn’t afford the insurance required. Things got even crazier as time progressed, as I received a try-out with audi for the new Audi TT Cup, which is being re-created for Assetto Corsa. They held a big qualifier event where they invited 40 drivers to their testing facility close to Ingolstadt. We had to run qualifier laps in the TT where I was one of the fastest guys from both days combined, and at one point we did a drift training session in an Audi R8 V10 Plus where I managed to outperform a driver who was an instructor from a different school.
I made the cut, but the series would have cost me more than 100,000€ to participate in, and I just didn’t have the money.
PRC: You mentioned that the Nordschleife is only an hour away from your place… Assetto Corsa put out their laser scanned version of The Ring a few months back. How does it compare to the real thing? Is there anything it lacks?
SA: I’ve done about fifty laps with road cars on the Nordschleife, twenty of those in a BMW Z4, about ten in a BMW M3 GTS E92, and twenty or so in a BMW M5 F10. Add to that a photographic memory, so I know every corner by heart. AC’s Nordschleife is the most realistic version of The Ring I’ve ever driven in any game. It’s completely accurate. The only thing it lacks are some trackside things like misplaced trees, fences, and random barriers, but for me, that doesn’t make the experience any worse. Many people, including yourself, criticized that it feels too wide and easy to drive, but in my opinion, that’s just because the track is seen as some mythical figure and you see all those hilarious crash videos on YouTube – many people get the impression that it’s some impossible to drive track.
PRC: In recent years, it’s becoming more apparent that keeping up on your physical fitness is necessary to driving a race car. During your time in FR 2.0, what was your fitness schedule like? How physically demanding was it on your body to drive the car?
SA: I had a pretty intense fitness schedule while racing, mostly because my height is a big disadvantage for me. I’m 6’2″, so naturally I weigh more than some of the 5’7″ guys on the grid. I did weight training about three times a week, focusing on muscle stamina a lot more than muscle strength. Once you reach a certain muscle strength, you don’t need any more strength to drive the car, you just need stamina. Especially during test days, where the lap count can sky rocket to 200, more than you’d ever see in a race weekend. The most important muscle groups to train are arms, chest, and the neck. The neck is more important in high-downforce cars than in sports or touring cars, but considering that at all times you have an additional 2kg of force pulling your head into different directions, it should never be neglected. After the marathon test session where we ran 200 laps in two days, I knew my training paid off because the only thing hurting was my back, just from being so tall.
For stamina, and to reduce my weight I did a lot of cardio training. After each weights session I’d do a spinning class or get on a spinning bike for half an hour and do some high-intensity interval training to burn off calories. Additionally I went mountain biking twice a week to train my legs, since most race cars don’t have brake servos. This means you have to apply the force with your legs 1:1, which could sometimes be up to 90kg or 100kg to get the pedal to maximum brake pressure.
When I was at my peak, I weighed around 76kg and could easily run half-marathons without having to rest the next day. To put this into perspective, I was around the same weight as Mark Webber during his F1 career and Alexander Wurz with Toyota in WEC. If you want a reference to how fit stamina-wise race car drivers are, watch Jenson Button’s video with GlaxoSmithKline on YouTube. His hobbies are triathlons and he runs a marathon in under three hours!
PRC: A few years ago, Greger Huttu was given a chance to test an open wheel car at Road Atlanta through some connections he made over at iRacing, and more recently, Ray Alfalla practiced in a Mazda MX-5 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Both drivers failed to transition their phenomenal virtual skills into the real world, yet on the flipside you see guys like Kyle Larson running rFactor Sprint Cars and Timo Glock destroying kids in R3E during the offseason as if it’s a complete 1:1 simulation. If you were to help train someone to transition from sim racing to driving some sort of amateur race car, how would you do it? What do you need to unlearn for real world driving?
SA: The only thing I can think of that someone would have to unlearn in terms of driving techniques is a technique I see on many high-level sim racers where they use a very rear-biased brake balance and use the gas under braking to stabilize the car, enabling them to brake later and turn the car better under braking than using a normal braking technique. This is obviously something that you can’t do in a real racing car and would instantly wreck you into the closest barrier available.
The other things Sim Racers would have to unlearn are more psychological rather than physical. They have to be aware of the fact that this is a real car they are sitting in, that it can break when you crash, and that you can get hurt when you crash. I’m not saying that they have to be afraid of the crash or of getting hurt, but they should be aware of the fact that racing is in fact dangerous, no matter the advancement of safety in auto racing. They’d also have to accept the fact that they don’t have the possibility to be able to run lap after lap after lap at maximum attack, or anywhere close to maximum attack. The cars have wear and tear, they have to take breaks when testing and driving and have in general a lot less time to practice than when they drive in a sim.
PRC: When it comes to car setup, a lot of sim racers believe it’s a science that takes several hours worth of YouTube tutorials and guides to understand. When setting up the FR 2.0 car, was the process as complicated as sim racers make it out to be, or was it just a bunch of small tweaks based on your own preferences?
SA: I think to a certain extent, they are right. In real life, you first have to understand the physics behind the car before you know how to set up a car, and it is the same in sim racing. When I first started driving the Formula Renault I was terrible at setting up the car because I had no idea of what part of the car changed a specific part of the behaviour of the car. I only told my race engineer that in corner X the car was oversteering or understeering on entry, in the center of the corner, or on exit, and that I want it different – and he then changed the settings on the car.
Of course there are many things on the car that basically change the same thing, and I never bothered to ask what my engineer eventually changed on the car, so when I went to sim racing and had to work on setups on my own, I had to look for guidance as well. It is however very important to have a very good base setup on the car. After we had found a good base setup for the Formula Renault the only things we had to change was wings, roll-bars and tire pressures, and in my opinion the same goes for sim racing. For example, I think for the Stock Car in GSCX, I have a very good base setup, so when I go to a different track I just load that setup, do a few laps, change the wing or the roll bars, and leave the rest as it is, and after a few tweaks the car feels perfectly fine to drive, as was the case in real life.
PRC: As a gamer, what non racing game are you looking forward to the most?
SA: The Witcher 3 is coming out this month, and Star Citizen will come out later this year, or in early 2016. Another game I’m really wanting to get around to playing is Wolfenstein – The Old Blood
PRC: Lastly, online racing is often full of bad or inexperienced sim racers that make one boneheaded move after another, leading to what ends up being a really disappointing race for all involved. What kind of etiquette do real life drivers display that sim racing lacks?
SA: Most people who are notoriously bad at racing sims don’t realize that by messing up, they ruin someone else’s race as well. Many people practice many hours to be fast, but when you come up to someone you want to lap and the guy starts racing you and/or crashing into you, it’s simply not fun, and an apology won’t give you back the hours you wasted on practicing.
I feel that for many of those guys, they see getting passed or lapped as a personal insult which their ego somehow can’t take, so they start driving erratically to defend their ego. If someone overtakes me in real life, then I have to accept the fact that on that day, on that track, he simply is the faster guy/has the faster car. When I tested the BMW M235i at the Nürburgring, there were some GT3 cars driving as well. I didn’t simply start blocking them because I wanted to be the troll under the bridge, I got out of the way and let them pass safely because I knew I wasn’t as fast as them.
The same goes for you if you’re one of the notorious backmarkers in an online race: If someone faster comes up from behind and wants to lap you, you let him overtake safely and don’t start racing him. Real life racers NEVER want to damage their own car or someone else’s just out of spite (let’s just ignore the ALMS race at Laguna Seca 2009), because they know that at a given point there will always be someone faster than they are. This was the case with Ayrton Senna, with Michael Schumacher, with Lewis Hamilton and with countless other insanely fast drivers, so why should it be any different for the average driver? Hamilton, Senna, and Schumacher won many races, but they all knew when it wasn’t their day, and knew it wouldn’t ruin their legacy if they finished fifth that particular race.
A huge thank you goes out to Severin Austerschmidt for joining us today on the first entry in the Blurring the Line series, and hopefully we’ll be able to do more of them in the future. If more PretendRaceCars.net readers want to talk about their experiences transitioning from sim racing to the real thing, or in some cases, the other way, check out the Submit page and drop us a line with a few pictures of your car – we’d love to talk to you!