The iRacing Conundrum: Faster in the Sim or Faster in Real Life?

The iRacing Conundrum: Faster in the Sim or Faster in Real Life?

Due to the recent pandemic, many real-world track drivers are left for months on end without any seat time. This can wreak havoc on driver performance, leaving them helpless when it comes to practicing their craft. 

So what are the alternatives to real life seat time? 

As a supplement, many drivers are investing in online racing simulators as an alternative way of staying sharp during this down time. 

One service in particular, called “iRacing” is a very popular racing sim that many real world racers from all over the country/world are partaking in.

Many describe the physics of iRacing as being very comparable to what it’s like to drive on track in real life. And I strongly agree with that. 

The physics of how a car responds to driver input in iRacing is something I find remarkable about the software and it’s something I’ve routinely used for practice even before the global pandemic for this reason.

However, it’s important to note that the standard of trying to replicate what “real life” actually feels like is a VERY difficult thing to do. 

I look at it like this. I believe the physics in the software are about as good as you can possibly get. And I commend iRacing for this achievement.  There are however inevitably many differences between real life and the sim, things that just aren’t possible to replicate in the digitized world. 

What it takes to be fast in iRacing versus what it takes to be fast in real life are two different things. 

This is something I find increasingly relevant as I get better at iRacing. This can create potential bad habits for the performance driver, and it’s important to know these differences to avoid this problem.

The performance driver wants to use iRacing as a driver DEVELOPMENT tool to improve their real life performance, not necessarily to be better in the sim. 

In terms of driver development, two things can happen to a real-world track driver who decides to take on sim racing:

  1. It makes them a better driver in real life.
  2. It teaches them bad habits in real life.

This article takes for granted that you are not a die-hard gamer, but rather a real-world driver, stuck at home, wishing you were are the track, instead getting your “fix” through iRacing.

Let’s get into it.

Are there any specific high-performance driving techniques that I could practice in iRacing to help better prepare myself for a real-world scenario?

Yes. But it’s a double-edged sword. There are many techniques that are fast in iRacing that would put you in the wall in real life. You have to be careful of this. 

Think of iRacing as a habit-forming tool for us, and whether the habit formed is good or bad decides the effect it will have on your real-world driving.  

I’m not a big fan of telling you what NOT to do because I’d rather have you figure that on your own. But I will tell you what TO do and how to practice using the sim to make yourself a better driver in the real world. 

Learning A New Track

iRacing is a remarkable tool for simply learning a new track that you’ve never been to before. 

Quite simply, it’s good to know where the track goes before you begin driving it in real life. This will give you a good jump start when you finally get out on track in the real world.

It’s good practice to learn things like turn numbers so that when your instructor says “turn 4” you already know what that means. Take into consideration where there are elevation changes, camber changes or pavement changes. 

These are things that can catch you out in real life, and it’s good to find out they exist in the sim before you find out the hard way in real life!

Using Reference Points

In iRacing, I find it particularly difficult to judge your general sense of speed and closing speeds as well.

Many iRacers have triple monitor set ups, which claim to enhance peripheral vision, but I don’t really find them to be particularly helpful. Regardless, you just don’t have the same sensations of space and time that your brain gives you in real life. It’s just not the same.

Since we don’t have this “seat of the pants” feel that we’d normally get in real life, the performance driver is left with a significant handicap considering how precisely accurate the physics of the game are in reference to driver input. 

THIS IS A GOOD THING. Here’s why. 

Without the seat of the pants feel, it’s impossible to drive on instinct!

In the circumstances of sim racing, the only way for the performance driver to find any sort of lap-time & consistency is to use some sort of marker to identify where they brake, where they turn, etc. They are essentially FORCED into using references as it’s the only way to make any sense of anything. It’s impossible to “wing it” and just drive on talent alone, but in real life it IS possible to do just that, especially for talented drivers. 

This is why many real life professional racers struggle on iRacing. 

It should tell them something about how they shouldn’t be relying on their talent in real life and maybe should consider doing things more “by the book.”

In real life, many talented drivers can get away without using references. They can still put together a good lap or good session by just keeping their eyes up and relying on car control skills.. 

But in iRacing you can’t put anything together without these references. 

The performance driver is forced to develop using references as part of their skill set. 

Eye Work 

Eye work is a perfect example of a fundamental driving concept that translates over from sim racing to real life track driving very nicely.

Using iRacing can teach you how looking well ahead of the car  on your intended path is beneficial to anticipating your trajectory through a corner.

This gives the performance driver the ability to drive more proactively (planning the line) rather than reactively (reacting to the skid), giving the brain the ability to remain calmer and therefore process more information.

Looking far enough ahead can be uncomfortable for a lot of newbie track drivers. There is a common feeling of uncertainty as to where the nose of the car is when looking far enough ahead, and many will end up “regressing” their eyes and resorting back to what’s directly in front of them.

It’s easier to step outside your comfort zone in regards to this because of the low risk environment the sim provides. Hitting the reset button is much less costly than crash damage!

You will see how your performance improves in the sim as you develop higher eyes, and this is exactly the same way it will work in real life!

Mental Focus

We all know how mentally demanding it is to drive on track. Your brain is incredibly busy and is overloaded with sensory inputs.

And let me just tell you, your brain is even MORE busy in the sim than it is in real life!

Part of your ability to remain calm, focused and relaxed comes from your familiarization with the senses you experience out on track.

Things like your ability to feel the car underneath you, the vibrations, the G-forces, even the sounds and smells contribute to your brain’s sensory input.

Your brain then processes all this vital information from your sensory input and tells you, the driver, to make the desired inputs through your experience to achieve the desired result.

Now imagine taking away 3/4 of that incoming sensory information but still expecting the driver to be able to make the same inputs.

This is why iRacing is phenomenal training for the psychological part of high performance driving/racing!

Since there is extra demand on the brain because of the lack of incoming sensory information, common performance driving principles (like using references) become even more important to get right in the sim than they do in real life. 

In order to make any sense of space, distance and time, our brain must work EVEN HARDER than it does in the real life world! Excellent training!

This is a tremendous opportunity for the performance driver, considering the risk of crash damage dollars spend is a big fat ZERO.

Conclusion

These are the 3 areas I’d recommend using iRacing for if your primary goal is to be a better track driver in real life.

And if you’re struggling to find that last few tenths to catch that guy who’s a little quicker than you in iRacing, there’s a good chance that what you did to get those last few tenths wouldn’t work out too well in real life 🙂 

Just focus on these concepts and you will see your performance in the real world increase.

Thank you for reading, stay safe and I hope to see you at the track soon!

Jonathan Goring

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

JONATHAN GORING

From 2006 Skip Barber National Champion to 2015 Spec Miata SCCA Runoffs Champion, and with the 2008 IMSA Lites title in between, I’ve been in the racing scene for quite some time. I’ve been fortunate to race against (and beat sometimes) the best drivers in the world currently racing in various top level motorsports.

I’m very passionate about the art/science of performance driving and want to share that passion with you. 

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