Racing simulators are proving their worth during the motorsport shutdown, as some drivers use them to keep their eye in and ‘virtual racing categories’ spring up to fill the void.

Courtesy TCR Australia

31 March, 2020

It’s as whisper quiet on the race tracks of the world as it is at other sporting venues, landmarks and public venues right around the globe. But while most professional athletes are left with little more to work on than strength and fitness in their personal isolation, ironically, it is a sport that requires the greatest amount of space to operate that will be up and running again soon – albeit in a virtual format.

Come this Thursday night (AEST) and Mount Panorama will come alive with the first round of the carsales ARG (Australian Racing Group) eSport Cup, a virtual motorsport series featuring drivers from TCR Australia, S5000, Touring Car Masters and the Trans Am series, all doing battle in Audi RS 3 LMS cars. And while this will see the drivers take part from their respective homes around the country, don’t think for a second it won’t be fiercely contested.

Racing simulators are nothing new, and according to Audi Australia’s chief Driving Instructor, Steve Pizzati, they are anything but toys. 

They are used by Audi in developing new models as well as being used by the brand’s own race teams to learn new tracks and fine-tune cars ahead of competition.

Now more than ever, racing simulators are filling the void for individual drivers looking to ‘keep their eye in’ and stay sharp during the stand down. Where actual practice is off limits, the accuracy and real feedback of today’s top simulators are the next best thing to actually getting out on the track – and of course there is the added bonus of not damaging cars or wearing out components to consider.

“There is a real benefit to drivers using simulators, with some of the younger ones really embracing it as a genuine training tool,” says Pizzati.

“It’s very much a a generational thing, with younger drivers who’ve been brought up on video games and Playstation far more comfortable with them than perhaps older drivers.”

“Even the better video games reproduce famous race tracks faithfully and give drivers the chance to develop muscle memory of where the turns and the braking points are before setting foot on the track, and the really advanced simulators take that to another level and allow engineers to fine tune suspension and aerodynamics ahead of racing a new track.”

A case in point is Garth Tander’s recent pole position at the sadly cancelled Australian Grand Prix weekend. Driving an Audi RS 3 LMS car, Tander took pole position for what would have been the first TCR race to be held at the Grand Prix weekend. As part of his training for the race, he used a new racing simulator purchased by Melbourne Performance Centre (MPC) to learn the track and work with engineers to set up the car.

MPC’s Simworx V3 simulator is particularly impressive, simulating everything from elevation changes, to covering g-forces and even changes in track surfaces. This not only allows drivers to learn track geography, braking and turn in points, but also allows engineers to take real-time data from the car during each session. 

“The sims [racing simulators] are evolving. I’ve never been one to use sims, but I’ve been using this one a lot,” says Tander. 

“One of the important things is not treat it like a computer game. You need to drive it exactly like you drive a race car. The brake pressure, how you use the throttle, obviously not spearing off the track left, right and centre.

“If you use the sim as a race car, then when you jump in the real race car, it becomes second nature.”

The benefits of simulators to train specialist professionals have long been seen in the proliferation of flight simulators used by airlines all over the world to train and update pilots. But automotive simulators have taken longer to reach a high level because of the difficulty in accurately replicating the movements of a car as opposed to an aeroplane, says Pizzati, a qualified engineer who also trained as pilot and has extensive experience e with flight simulators.

“Flight simulators only have to factor in aerodynamic forces, while car simulators have to take into account the same aerodynamics forces as well as the mechanical forces from the tyre interaction with the ground,” he says.

“As a result it takes more computing power to accurately duplicate all of the forces on a car than it does a flight sim,” says Pizzati.

“Although it’s not the real thing. Racing simulators have proved themselves for many years and certainly while the present situation exists, every little bit helps to keep that edge,” Pizzati says.

Now, racing simulators are not just being increasingly employed as individual training tools, but will be at the heart of a crop of new e-racing series springing up to fill the motorsport void. 

The aforementioned carsales ARG eSport Cup, will be a fully fledged, 10 round series, split between TCR cars in the form of the Audi RS 3 and Formula 3 (the closest thing to ARG’s S5000 category). Run on the iRacing platform, which is known for its accuracy, there are three Australian tracks currently ‘scanned in’ to the system, with Bathurst, Phillip Island and Oran Park (back before it was a suburb!). The other rounds will take place on various famous tracks from around the world, but ARG will not divulge which class of racing (TCR or Formula 3) will take place on which track until a week before each fixture – obviously to stop time rich, highly competitive drivers wracking up thousands of hours of virtual practice.

One driver pairing that be particularly of interest to Audi race fans, is reigning Touring Car Masters champion and Audi driving experience instructor, Steven Johnson, will take up the virtual challenge with 15-year-old son.

The dual generational team will bring a wealth of actual knowledge and experience, as well as plenty of virtual experience as well. 

“I’ve certainly been on the simulator before and done plenty of online racing, but it has mainly been for fun. This will be something different,” says Johnson. 

“If you treat sim racing seriously, you can get a lot out of it in terms of race craft and hand-eye co-ordination – that’s what I find it good for,” he says. “As a footy player, you can’t get online and practice your passing. It’s not really relevant, where motorsport is unique is that we have these great tools.”

As for Steve Pizzati, the benefits he says, speak for themselves – even for race fans now spending more time at home.

“I bought a Playstation a while back so I could play when my niece and nephew were visiting. But it’s also proving handy at the moment to really come to terms with the twists and turns of the Nurburgring, for the next time I find myself in Germany” he says.

Purely as a matter of professional research you understand.

Certainly, the race tracks of the world are silent for now, but across the country, living rooms are about to come alive with the sound of motorsport. Tune in to the TCR Australia Facebook page this Thursday, April 2 at 8:00pm (AEST) for the first round of the car sales ARG eSport Cup. With an absolute capacity grid all battling for position into Hell Corner, you can just imagine the cost of the virtual panel beating bill.