These past months many of us have been stuck outside of the race car turning to sim racing to fulfill the competitive urge and stay fresh. The biggest question though is can sim racing help in the real world and what are the differences? My setup is nothing fancy, obviously, a $40,000 motion rig is going to have different results. I run a single monitor and basic Fanatec products on an 80/20 aluminum rig. The strongest point on my setup is the VRLA Tech Apollo I use. So consider this a pretty down to earth viewpoint that is not told from using the best of the best.
I made a short video recently showing my setup, you can see that at the bottom of this post.
There are more pros than cons for sim racing. One of the most beneficial tools through sim racing and using a service like iRacing is the ability to test and learn a new track without spending much money. While there will never be a replacement for real seat time learning a circuit, you can show up to a new circuit without feeling blind. I have even experienced the sensation that I've been somewhere before from turning so many laps leading up to an event. The fine-tuning comes from finding reference points, feeling the bumps to the actual car, and of course, adjusting everything to suit the car you are driving.
Another big benefit to sim racing and specifically the word racing is building race craft. The ability to hop into a race with 40+ other cars at a competitive level is very useful for any driver whether you're starting out or experienced. It keeps the dust off, you can try moves you may not be sure you'd try in real life, etc. While crashing is not taken lightly at least the cost is minimal and there's no threat to safety.
Most new sims have come a long way since the old days of PC racing. While physics will always be a debate and everyone has their favorite model, you can learn some of the basic car control fundamentals from your home simulator. I say this with a light tone because nothing and I mean nothing will prepare you for feeling a car step out a little at 100mph in the real world other than actual seat time. However, we can learn techniques such as controlling oversteer, threshold braking and managing weight transfer from home. This can also be somewhat hardware dependent. Different brakes for example provide different results of realism. I guess my main point is to remember it is a simulation of the real thing, not a totally accurate equivalent.
The last big benefit I have to say about sim racing is learning to set up a car. To go and do a test day at a circuit with a crew, tools, fuel, etc. we are looking at spending a few thousand dollars on the cheap side. Then we only have so much time. One of the big benefits of sim racing is the opportunity to test different setups, try weird things, and all for free. It is valuable for a team if you have access to the real car and it's an accurate model but also for a driver to get a better feeling for changes like camber, toe, spring rates, bump stiffness, etc. If you can learn these changes, you bring something of value to any team you drive with.
It's real racing and much more affordable. If we have learned something during this COVID-19 pandemic, it's that e-sports are a real form of entertainment and competition. It's now seen as a legitimate form of motorsport, has professional drivers, payouts, and even scandals as we saw with Daniel Abt's Formula E debacle. Racing legends BMW now even have a BMW Motorsport Sim Racing section on their Motorsport website. Is it better than real racing? It is real racing, it's just virtual. It's not a comparison, it's simply another type of motorsport now whether you like it or not. It's not meant to be a replacement.
It's not all perfect. The physics, while I praised them to an extent above can also cause confusion and bad habits. For example, some cars in iRacing have the tendency to lose tire grip immediately with no warning. Some of these are even downforce cars on a smooth track. Then, to save it, many times you can just stand on the brakes to lock it up and straighten it up. In comparison though the oversteer in Assetto Corsa is about as realistic as it gets. You can apply the CPR (correct, pause, recover) technique we use to teach at Skip Barber perfectly in this case. So it really depends on the sim, tire model, specific car, etc. So, take it all with a grain of salt.
The lack of actual feel. Now before I continue I know the motion rig guys may say otherwise but I still have yet to personally get the right feel even when trying out a high-end motion rig. Is it better? For sure, but it's still not perfect. For most, myself included, we use all of our sensory inputs while driving. I want to feel the car through the seat and steering wheel. I need to feel four corners reacting to inputs and weight transfer. While it is true these more upscale motion rigs can mimic it quite well, I think the fact that my brain knows if I crash it doesn't really matter changes how I process these sensory inputs. Maybe that's why for example a factory team's million-dollar simulator is about as real as it gets down to having the actual cockpit and everything?
My Final Opinion
Should you invest in a sim racing setup? Absolutely. I am not the only driver who has posted some of their input in recent months on this. I think almost any would agree it has more good than bad. It's not all perfect but for the cost to fun ratio, it is definitely worth it.
For me, nothing will ever come close to the real thing. The sounds, smell, sense of danger, physical effort, the team comradery, etc. However, if I cannot do the real thing at the level that I want, then sim-racing is an awesome alternative for very little money.