We have a guest article for you all, written by an old sim-racing friend of mine, Christian Guirguis.
Having recently started racing in real life, Christian had the opportunity to race at Laguna Seca, driving a Mazda Miata (MX-5 to those in Europe). Laguna Seca has featured on countless games over the years, including Forza Motorsport 7, a series most gamers have at least some knowledge of.
Christian has raced thousands of laps around the twists and turns of the track on Forza, and it’s fair to say he knows it forwards, backwards and sideways. As I’m sure many of us have wondered, does all of this virtual experience count for anything on the real circuit? Are the braking points the same? Will the car be unsettled in the same way over the cambered turns? And, the most important question, after playing a game for hundreds of hours, are you as good as you think you are?
With the opportunity to race in the Lucky Dog 2020 Laguna Seca race, Christian had the perfect opportunity to put this theory to the test.
“So, how does sim racing translate to real racing?
I’m not generally the kind of guy that can show up to a track never seen before and get more or less on pace within a half dozen laps. Pros do that. Normally, after about an hour of seat time, I’m still trying to remember which corner is coming up.
So how much did thousands of laps on a virtual Laguna Seca help? Well, I had a few practice laps with so much traffic that it was hard to learn much, then I got in the car for the first time in the race and was on pace on lap 5.
There are whole stages of learning a track that I simply skipped. Knowing which corner is coming up, knowing the line through each corner, and knowing the little unintuitive tricks to some other corners (e.g. you can go faster in T5 than you think). I arrived with all of this knowledge built-in and reality matched expectations surprisingly well.
The Miata I drove was running street tires (Lucky Dog Racing rules). I had built my best guess of that car in Forza 7 to get some refresher laps (it’s been a couple of years since I sim raced) and I ran a best lap of 1.53 in Forza, although I’m fairly sure the car I built will run 1.50 or lower on there. In real life, my best lap of the weekend was a 1.53.8.
This is not to say that I could just go and do whatever I did in the game and have it work. There are as many differences as there are similarities and some of the lessons learned in a sim take (at least myself) so much longer than it takes in real racing.
When I first got on track, the scale of everything was surprising. In a video game, everything fits on a screen smaller than you are. Real-life takes that screen and stretches it out to surround you. The bigger things, like signs stretched over pedestrian bridges, are awe-inspiring in real life after being used to the scaled 50” version, but the smaller things are where the really important differences lie. A cambered corner is so much easier to pick up on in real life than in a game, and Laguna is full of those. Little details like the drain on the outside of the right-hand part of the corkscrew are in Forza, but they are so unimportant that I never really realized they’re there. In real life, the first thing I’m told by my teammates is to stay the heck away from that drain lest it blows my shocks, which had reportedly happened.
There are other ways in which sim racing translated beyond just knowing the corners, the features, and the fast lines. I knew where *not* to overtake (e.g. on the outside of T9, although I made an exception for an especially slow car once on Saturday). In a multi-class race, this is invaluable.
I knew how to set up for a pass on a car that’s faster on the straights but slower in the corners (e.g. let them gap a little bit into T11 and get a really good exit out of there and out-brake them into T2), and most importantly I knew when I had made a small mistake to mitigate it before it became a big one (e.g. I’m not on the right line to floor it through T10 right now). A lot of the skill involved in running a car fast is having a mental model of what the car is going to do when you do something: if I get on the gas now, the car will rotate a little more (or, in other cases, less). If you wait until you know, not just think, that you will make it through the corner before you get on the gas, you’ll be too late.
But sim racing does not prepare you for changing car and track conditions. If you’re in the same car on the same track in sim racing, you can do the same thing as last time and expect pretty much the same result. Not so with real life, and especially endurance racing. The tires are in worse condition after 6 hours of running, the track temperature had changed and so you have different grip levels, and air temperature has changed so you’re making different power. I don’t know of a sim that models that accurately.
If you’ve sim raced for thousands of hours though, chances are you’ve driven very different cars. And that does somewhat prepare you for the notion I call “not forcing the issue”. You’ve driven an understeering car and dealt with that, and you’ve driven an oversteering car differently to achieve the same result. If you do enough of that you learn to feel your way around a car and guide it around a track in the way that’s easiest, and thus fastest, for *it*.
In real life, the same car will act like those different cars. I got in the car at 9 am on Sunday naively expecting to just do what I did on Saturday at noon and have it work; it didn’t. I lack the real-world experience to predict that since track temp on Sunday is around 39F, whereas it probably was in the 50s on Saturday, then I will have very different levels of grip. And the tires were cold at the beginning, and older since we didn’t replace them after 7 hours of racing on Saturday, and we had different, and new, brake pads.
Since some corners are shaded and some are in the sun, grip will accumulate differently at each. T6 and T9 were so slick on Sunday that I thought something was wrong with the car. It was only after I got out of the car and talked to drivers of the other cars that I realized it was not a car issue because everybody had the same problems.
But I know “not to force the issue”, and to try and drive a car the way it wants to be driven. Oversteer in T6 off-throttle? Downshift to 3rd and stay on the throttle. Touchy/grabby brakes? Use less brake pressure and start braking a touch earlier.
All of my mistakes in sim racing seemed to be real assets in real racing. They were cheap, and they taught me a lot. You have to put in hours and hours into a sim just to learn what you would in real life in a few hours. But it’s a trade-off just like everything, time vs money. I didn’t have to wreck and pay for a car to learn those lessons.
Given the chance, I would absolutely sim race a track for 3 hours before real life to know which corner is coming up. And if given the luxury of putting 100 hours in, I would, to learn the fastest way around and all the little details. But even if I don’t, it has already taught me so much that is translatable across cars and tracks that I think would have cost me so much more to learn in real life.
And hey, it was fun!”
So there we have it, you can rest in the knowledge that all of those hours spent in games like Forza or Gran Turismo are actually teaching you useful skills that you can take onto the track. There’s a reason all the F1 teams train on simulators, but theirs are multi-million-pound setups that few of us will ever get to experience. Being able to gain even a fraction of this experience from the comfort of your own home is invaluable.
We’ve put together some comparison videos for you below. Unfortunately, there was no in-car footage from Christian’s Miata, though we have kindly been given footage of Kirk Myhre driving the Race Invaders Ecotec swapped Miata, built by Martin Sarukhanyan out of AR Motorsports in Portland, Oregon.
The car used on Forza was Christian’s build designed to replicate the car he used as closely as possible. The lap time was within a few tenths of the times Christian was setting, although the higher powered car Kirk used was considerably faster.
Youtube clip – in-car IRL:
YouTube clip – in-car FM7:
We will be running more of these features in the future, with more in-depth analysis from racing drivers and their experience with other sims, such as iRacing.
All of the excellent track day photography is used under license from Kirk Myhre @ MyhreCreative – Motorsport Imaging & Design
© MyhreCreative. All rights reserved
Any copying, editing, distribution or unlicensed use of these images is strictly prohibited.
You can find more of his work at https://myhrecreative.com
Christian Guirguis races for Dragonfly Motorsports. If you’d like to show them support by giving them a follow, you can find them on Facebook.
Kirk Myhre can be found on his social media channels:
And the team he races for, here:
Race Invaders Facebook: @shinygoldtooth