Earlier in the week, I discussed how becoming a student of the game – or a student of sim racing – made the transitioning phase from hardcore sim racer to amateur race car driver virtually non-existent. In a lot of articles you’ll see discussing some sort of accomplished gamer landing a seat in any form of grass roots motorsports, you’ll often discover a prominent turning point in their journey was the precise moment they were forced to “unlearn” bad habits they had picked up when sim racing. This is part of the driver training process most marketing campaigns for several prominent franchises don’t touch on simply because it’s bad publicity – yes, Polyphony Digital, Gran Turismo, and GT Academy helped Jann Mardenborough land himself a Nissan GT3 ride, but you can bet your ass the team engineers at Nissan spent several weeks explaining to him how fucking backwards Gran Turismo was, and to not even contemplate using some of the techniques that helped him to become incredibly successful on the PlayStation 3.
Personally, I don’t believe this kind of approach is all that necessary. I think the underlying factor in easing the transition from fake cars to real cars is not having a driving instructor privately tear apart your simulator of choice within one-on-one training; the reality is that many modern racing sims get portions of the overall driving experience absolutely correct, and understanding how to piece them all together – by sitting your ass down and investing time into all of them – is how to be successful when the Simpson belts are strapping you into the seat. What I’m saying, is that if you play primarily iRacing, or primarily rFactor 2 and refuse to try out other sims, it’s going to be an uphill battle if you suddenly find yourself signing up for an autocross event next year, or convinced a buddy to let you test his Spec Miata entry for a weekend. However, if you take the time to bounce around the genre and learn about the nuances of each particular simulator’s physics engine, inside the car you’ll easily recognize certain elements of competition driving that you’ve already learned how to deal with from multiple simulators. A lot of them get something right, and at speed, it’s like someone’s loading up a different game on Steam with each passing lap. Familiarizing yourself with all major simulators and the driving style required to be successful in them is the key to making a bit of a name for yourself out on the real track.
Throughout this article, I’ll outline some of the title’s I’ve spent the most time on over the past year or so, and discuss what characteristics about them transferred over to my real-life shitbox season. In a recent comment, someone said there needs to be a bit more of a positive outlook on PRC.net, so this one’s for you, anonymous shitposter.
To satisfy the guys who will undoubtedly complain, I have to begin by stating that we’re on good terms with Sector 3 Studios, and while we’re not outright paid to push any of their products, we do receive what’s called Media Access to their Free-To-Play racing simulator, effectively giving us all of the premium content the game has to offer at no cost, and this means I’ve spent a bit more time with the game compared to a traditional consumer forced to deal with the rather intrusive micro-transactions. That said, RaceRoom Racing Experience was basically the one game on this entire list that I can say with 100% certainty made me a better amateur race car driver.
Catching slides in R3E is scarily realistic, and this is both a combination of the game’s fantastic force feedback, as well as the underlying tire behavior. The way the game forces you to stay about a quarter of a second ahead of what the car is doing while in a slide, the vehicle sort of “hanging” at full steering lock as you wait for your control inputs to actually do something, and the exact wheel & pedal inputs needed to safely keep the car under you, are 1:1 with the real thing. As I’ve documented in the screenshot above, before our real season began I was having this killer battle with Milan Stefanovic over on Race2Play, and I blew the entry to the corkscrew at Laguna Seca on the final lap. It was an admittedly sweet save, but I was pretty bummed that Milan held on for the win. A few weeks later out on the real track, I received a massive shut from my car owner as a bit of a hazing incident, and once again was dead sideways – but this time, a mistake would directly affect my bank account. I simply did what worked in R3E earlier in the month; turning into the corner a quarter of a second before the car was set to snap the other direction, and getting back on the throttle. The wheel weight even felt the same.
But that’s not all R3E gets right; for those who have played it, you know full well that the game really magnifies both understeer and oversteer characteristics. If you missed the setup and the car is tight, it’s not just a minor issue; it feels like you’re driving a school bus, and within no time you’ve washed up the race track, requiring you to really get out of the throttle and nurse the car back to the preferred line. On the contrary, if you’re loose for whatever reason, it’s frustrating to keep the back end in check, and you feel like you’re in a never-ending fight with a temperamental toddler. Yet when you get the line just right, it’s like you’re on rails, and it makes the driving experience extremely satisfying. This is how it is in a real car as well.
I think it’s the way that you subtly adjust your driving line to deal with unwanted handling characteristics and fight with the control inputs that really drills home how good R3E can be out on the physical track. My alignment was fucked after heavy contact at the end of the season, and it made for a car that did nothing but understeer. It took two practice sessions and a pair of qualifying laps for me to finally decide to evaluate the alignment problem, as R3E had done such a good job of teaching me how to modify my driving line to adapt to a car suffering from perennial understeer, I was still running fairly well with what other drivers in the garage area would consider a broken car. Only the lap time readouts – which indicated I had inexplicably lost a tenth of a second – caused me to be like “yeah, I think there’s a problem.”
Lastly, the throttle rhythm, even in other classes, is dead on with R3E. At one point during the season I had positioned myself in turn three to evaluate what drivers in other classes were doing, and I noticed that this year’s track champion was fighting a bit with her car while trailing the leader. Her throttle rhythm in her Pontiac Grand Prix resembled what I do in one of R3E’s several GT3 cars when I’m just a hair tight through the center of the corner, and I could tell she was getting increasingly frustrated lap after lap, because I’d had that exact handling problem and throttle rhythm in Turn 10 at Zandvoort when things weren’t going my way.
R3E makes you brake once, lift once, and get on the throttle once. It helps you learn how to manage a shitty car, and gives the best “on-rails” sensation when you dial in the setup. If you don’t focus on your fundamentals – like a WNBA athlete – such as braking in a straight line, carefully rolling on the throttle, and being smooth with the steering wheel, R3E makes quick work out of you. Jumping into some kind of amateur car, having practiced this stuff beforehand on a simulator is incredibly valuable.
But it was only one piece of the puzzle.
I’ve discussed this in the last article, but I feel as if I should elaborate on it a bit more. The way you manage your tires in Automobilista, Stock Car Extreme, and both rFactor titles is spot on. Let me explain it to you in terms that even the most green of sim racers can understand: isiMotor titles reward a car setup in which a driver steers the car primarily with the brake pedal. So that guy you’re following in a multiplayer server who seemingly hangs the rear of the car out on entry, that’s something you should be aiming for as it significantly reduces tire wear over the course of a long run. I personally use a brake bias of 58% across all isiMotor games, but there are some guys I know – such as our boy Dustin – who drop down to 56% or even 54%. The reason for this is to initiate a four-wheel drift on corner entry and rotate the car around the corner, rather than turn the car with the front tires, and in the end this helps extend the life of all tires because they’re met with less lateral resistance.
In real life, this is essential, because lateral resistance on a tire does more than just wear down the numbers being displayed in the tire wear black box and make the car a bit nervous to drive; they can start to chunk, blister, and deform in ways that racing simulators won’t be able to model for a solid twenty years. I’ve seen massive bits of rubber fly off of a tire due to an inexperienced driver using too much wheel input on corner exit, and no video game has yet even tried to model what happens when the dynamic piece of rubber connecting the car to the road begins to self-mutilate. I think we all know that a tire wear indicator of 60% makes for a rather slick car to control, but physical damage to a tire feels like the entire car is going to shake itself apart. It’s not fun.
If you gain confidence in steering the car with the brake pedal within a traditional ISI simulator, applying that same driving style in real life prevents you from physically assaulting the outer edges of your tires. This saves you money and helps you reel in other cars over a long period.
It’s really fucking old and most people have probably moved on or lost their CD by now, but there’s a definitive reason real-world cup drivers were all competing in private leagues for this game back in the day. I recently discovered a hacked EXE file that turned NR2003 into a competent Super Late Model simulator, and I was fairly surprised at what I found. Not only were the lap times at my local track replicated down to the thousandth of a second, an integral part of short track driving carried over seamlessly.
RaceRoom Racing Experience teaches you to brake in a straight line and really think about your pedal inputs, but NR2003 elaborates on the art of braking. Most notably, when you’re pushing at max attack and chasing somebody down – as I had been during the final race of the season – the way you throw the car into the corner and ride the brake pedal is perfectly replicated in NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. You don’t just hold the brake at 7% pedal input and wait until you’re at the apex to lift; all of the little shit you do alongside riding the brake, such as kicking the rear end out just a tad and see-sawing on the wheel to maintain stability, that’s all present in NR2003, and it makes for an extremely accurate representation of driving on the limit. The other night I was running a 140 lap race at Oxford Plains just for shits and giggles, and during the middle of a long green run I noticed I was eating the AI cars alive under braking. Well, upon analyzing the replay and checking out the cockpit view with the steering wheel displayed (I disable mine while driving), I was doing the same things in NR2003 under braking that I was doing in my Hornet, and they were just as effective in-game as they were in real life.
The authenticity extended to the garage area as well. Very few games get this portion right, and as I’ve touched on previously here at PRC.net, earlier this year you could run the exact same setup across every type of car found in RaceRoom Racing Experience, so the garage menu is an aspect of racing sims that just aren’t there yet. NR2003 really drilled home how even a single adjustment or two could drastically change how the car handled, and I found myself really experimenting just to understand the diversity of possible changes. One testing stint, I ran a setup that had come bundled with the track, featuring stiff right side springs and soft left side springs. It was loose as hell and really enjoyable to manage the right rear tire slipping on corner exit. In the following stint, I inverted the spring rates to mimic what you might see in a real life late model stock car, and was rewarded with a quicker overall lap time and a much more stable car throughout the corner. Sway bar adjustments and wedge tweaks did wonders to fine tune what was already a satisfactory setup. Tire pressure changes of even a few PSI were noticeable within a few laps.
On the contrary, there are some titles out there, such as Project CARS, where you can run completely bullshit nonsensical setups and stomp the field.
We’re going to talk about this game in a serious light for a second, as I feel there is one element Kunos Simulazioni have gotten absolutely perfect when it comes to Assetto Corsa. The way street cars exhibit weight transfer and general inertial is basically spot on. Obviously I can sit here and contact people around the sim racing community to dig up stuff on fudged numbers and all that, but the raw sensation of cornering in the BMW M3 E30 or the Toyota GT86 is really unmatched by any modern simulator on the market, and it’s a large reason as to why so many people still praise the game despite the incomplete list of modes and features.
When going into a corner in Assetto Corsa, it’s a multi-step process. You have to make sure your wheel inputs are smooth and the suspension has time to interpret the sudden shift in inertia. You have to wait for the centripetal force load to transfer to the outside tires, springs, shocks, and for the car to become complacent in its current state before you make any drastic input changes. The way you have to wait for the car as a machine to process the forces that are acting upon it is very close to perfect in Assetto Corsa, and if you familiarize yourself with how this process feels at competition speed, it won’t be much of a shock out on the real track. On a lot of performance driving websites you’ll hear guys talk about “keeping the car balanced“, and this is what they’re referring to – allowing the natural gravitational forces to act on the machine without losing traction or changing direction.
This isn’t something I paid much attention to until we shoved a couple of spring rubbers in the right rear a few weeks into the season, and I used an entire practice session to understand how the car was loading on the right rear in a different fashion with the modified spring behavior. Now with a lot of new drivers, when they jump in a car after making adjustments, you’ll have to physically tell them what that adjustment is, how it benefits them, and what they should expect it to feel like on the track. I went out already knowing how to throw the car into the corner in a way that would let me test out the modified spring rate thanks to Assetto Corsa familiarizing me with sending a car into the corner under load and being able to process what was going on with the suspension, and used this sim knowledge to give my car owner short and concise feedback on the adjustment.
It’s not much of a simulator, but a lot of Codemasters games – DiRT 3 in particular – do a great job of establishing an overall atmosphere for any kind of auto racing event. Now while iRacing or Project CARS may boast laser scanned tracks or extremely high fidelity graphics, the environments often feel lifeless and bland. What DiRT 3 does right, and I’ve displayed it in the screenshot above, is litter the track with all sorts of legitimate distractions that you’d find in a real event. You can essentially make eye-contact with the camera men standing behind the fence, and while many sim racers may believe this to all be a bit pointless, it serves a purpose.
In a real car, I can see my buddy Metro taking pictures inside the exit of Turn 2. As you pass under the flagman’s perch, you can physically point out some kid eating a hot dog in row three, seat twelve. You can hear pockets of audio from the track’s PA feed, or spot a line at the concession stand. Hell, maybe there’s a rag on the track because it was windy that day and it blew all the way out towards the wall from someone’s pit stall. What I’m trying to get at, is that these are all little visual distractions and irregularities that can fuck with you while at speed, and only DiRT 3 has gone the extra mile to include all of them. Camp fires, tents, cameras, and crowds of people that serve a purpose – not just objects that have been scattered about randomly – all line the track and bring the facility to life. It has nothing to do with immersion, because quite frankly every developer does their best to inject some sort of atmosphere into the facility, but DiRT 3 is a game I’ve found does the best job at it. So if you find yourself playing this game, and on the exit of turn five at some rallycross track in Michigan you notice a crowd of people huddled around a fire pit – congratulations, we notice that shit in the real car too. It’s nice to be trained for it ahead of time in something like DiRT 3, even if it’s not the most realistic game.
Gran Turismo 6
I’m not trying to shill for something many will label as a simcade title, but if you plan on doing any form of amateur auto racing that mandates street-spec tires (autocross is a realistic goal), I’m here to inform you that just like in Gran Turismo 6 for the PlayStation 3, there is no option to turn down the tire sounds. Street tires are ridiculously loud, and I’m thankful my time spent playing GT6 taught me how to tolerate them, and even interpret the various pitches to understand what I’m doing to my tires.
Unlike a full-on racing slick, street or performance tires sing at even the slightest of stress. They are annoying as fuck, and you’ll be glad both the helmet and in-car radio do what they can to drown it out. Now at speed, a medium pitch indicates the tires are approaching the limit of grip, whereas a very high, ear-piercing pitch says you’ve gone past what the tire can hold, and the tires are no longer doing their best possible job to keep you glued to the race track. If there’s one thing Gran Turismo taught me, it was how to dance on the fine line between the satisfactory medium pitch squeal, and the unwanted high pitch squeal to get the absolute most out of the tires. Becoming comfortable with the intrusive tire sounds in GT6 also caused me to jack up the tire sounds in other simulators, as it’s a pretty direct form of information that replaces what you may not be able to receive from force feedback effects.
There are a lot of PRC.net readers who most likely do own some sort of track day car or are considering getting into something like autocross or grass-roots competition. When it comes to using a racing simulator to prepare yourself for the real thing, I think the worst thing you can possibly do is restrict yourself to just one piece of software based on your own personal alliances. It’s integral to your success that you bounce around and become a literal student of the game, exploring each application in an effort to learn something from it. As a video game critic I can indeed sit here all day and tell you to avoid Assetto Corsa because it’s unfinished or stay away from Project CARS because it’s buggy as hell, but there are genuine aspects of performance driving you can take from even the worst of simulators that will greatly assist you on your journey.
Real life feels as if you’re constantly opening a new application on Steam every thirty seconds or so, and being graced with the most prominent aspects of basically every simulator on the market. When I’m driving, there have been times I’ve seen a massive chunk of rubber fly through someone’s window net and think “oh wow, it’s just like Project CARS.” Fifteen laps later, I’m conserving my tires like it’s rFactor 2, and with five laps to go, threshold braking resembles NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. You really have to become a student of the game and explore the inner workings of this genre in order to make your sim experience translate to the real thing, but once you’re behind the wheel in something that won’t be too expensive on your wallet if you fuck it all up, the fruits of your labors will be rewarded with on-track success.