If you cast a net over the sim racing landscape these days you'll inevitably come across a large array of talented and fast drivers competing on many levels and platforms. If you've ever found yourself watching race replays and wondering 'how the hell is that driver so fast?' it's often because of one key truth: They know how to setup a car and understand the relationship between control input and car handling.
Don't get me wrong raw talent and ability certainly play a central role but there is no question that complete drivers also understand the mechanics of not only how to setup a race car, but also what adjustments to make based on 'feel'.
I’m going to lay out on the table some tips that I believe have helped me to become a faster sim racer over these past few years. I hope in time to expand on this subject and delve deeper into the inner workings of car setup, tuning and driving techniques.
Some have noted that I have picked up the game (Assetto Corsa) quickly, but that's not without some initial pain and suffering. Admittedly it took quite a bit of time adapting what I already knew about driving to this new game. Understanding setups is a huge part of AC, there are loads of them out there on the web (with loads of them now totally irrelevant due to the game updates that we have seen), or perhaps so particular to the sim drivers’ rig and setup that most people (myself included) find them undrivable.
What I have noticed is that a lot of these hot lap setups seem to be very agile and loose at the rear (as a general observation). I can only deduce then, that to drive alien quick one must be able to cope with a car that is very willing to throw itself off the road (but also into the corner, as directed by a skilled driver). A good driver will always be able to drive his way around a sub-par or lively hot lap setup. This is what I hope to impart here: Ways to approach and think about driving that will enable you to get the most out of any setup.
I truly believe you can get a car to do almost anything you want it to do with a little understanding.
The hardest part of AC, apart from the setup work, is being ‘in the moment’ and recognising what the car is doing out on track and being able to make the right setup changes accordingly. The way I see it, there are 6 basic areas with car handling to address when setting up the car, which are:
- Slow corner entry
- Slow mid-corner
- Slow corner exit
- Fast corner entry
- Fast mid-corner
- Fast corner exit
We will take a look at these further down the track in another article.
All of these are dependent on how you drive, the line you take in and out of corners, how you handle curbing and also where you have chosen to compromise handling in your setup for greater gains elsewhere on track – e.g low wings. Personally, I believe 90% of speed gained is in how your driving style influences the car, and it’s not until you can rule out your own driving approach that you can truly make changes to the car setup that will make you both faster and comfortable with the car.
On the subject of driving style, let’s start with the rubber band analogy:
Imagine for a moment that you have a rubber band. Cut it into 4 equal lengths. Tie two pieces on both sides of your steering wheel where you would normally place your hands. Now tie the opposite ends of those 2 pieces to the top of your accelerator pedal and then the other two to the top of your brake pedal. So you now should have two pieces connecting your left hand to both the accelerator and brake (and the same goes for your right hand). With no pedals depressed and the steering wheel straight, the rubber bands hang freely with a slight amount of slack.
You now get out on track and start accelerating, the rubber bands are pulled taught by the accelerator as you press it down hard and consequently align the steering wheel to be dead centre. The rubber bands are very strong. You then approach the first corner on this imaginary track and upon hitting the brakes, you transition from accelerator-off to brake-on, which re-tensions the wheel via the 2nd set of bands that are connecting the brake pedal to both sides of the wheel. These re-centre the steering wheel as you brake hard and as you lift-off the brake, the steering unloads as the bands loosen up, enabling you to turn the wheel into the corner. As you wind in more steering lock, the harder it becomes to get back on the accelerator (or brake for that matter). As you approach the turn apex, you start opening up the steering, and as you do this the bands loosen and enable you to get back onto the throttle gradually and then fully as you line up with the exit of the corner. At that point, the force of the accelerator is pulling the bands tight again, making steering straight your only option.
In reality there are no rubber bands, of course, to maintain this harmonious relationship between accelerator/brake & steering angle, which ensure maximum adhesion to the road at all times. The rubber bands are replaced by the reflexes and as well as nuanced touch of a fast driver via their hands and feet.
The lesson here of course is: Never accelerate or brake hard when the steering is at full lock. But you knew that already, right? Crucially though, understanding that there is a concrete relationship that exists in-between these extreme pedal/steering wheel states is the key to being fast as well as in control at all times (when you understand it). It's worth mentioning that this relationship will be dynamically changing with respect to different car speeds, due to aero loading, track undulations, track evolution and fuel & tyre usage.
In between these extreme states will be a gradient of appropriate pedal positions that correlate to a certain amount of wheel turn and ignoring these mean that you will unsettle the car (of course sometimes you will want to deliberately unsettle the car, for instance if it under steers too much at a particular corner – another topic for another day).
The relationship of the steering & pedals and how they work together is mostly the product of the way you have the car setup. The driver who understands this relationship will always maintain control of the car. This is why the driver can make a big difference, by either driving around a poor handling car, or driving a great one on the very edge. As long as they understand the nature of the handling, they will be extracting the most out of the limits of the setup.
Learning this relationship that I’ve been talking about requires a great deal of time in analysing your own driving style, but rather than spend hours looking at telemetry data and analysing where you lost time, I can boil it down to some very simple fundamental techniques...
In F1 2012, I really wanted to understand why I wasn’t as quick as Schmeval (Four time ASR F1 Champion). Late in the season he kindly did me the favour of sharing his telemetry with me where he ran my own setup, and did some hot laps.
I studied them closely and found that on the whole, my braking points were as late, if not later than his. Where I lost the time was through the mid-corner and exits though. The throttle trace was a bit of a giveaway. Whilst mine would start earlier than his in most cases, my application was not consistent to the point where I was having to lift off to regain traction during the acceleration/exit phase. Schmeval on the other hand was progressive and consistent, picking up throttle on or slightly before the corner apexes, and feeding it in very quickly without lifting off again. It did contain plateaus occasionally, but not once did it back track.
I also noticed that he was tending to turn in slightly more than me before the corner, as if to coax the car into the turns. At the apexes his steering was almost straight, and low and behold, at or just before the point where he was back at full throttle again. Fast corners, where I jabbed the brakes on, were just a simple throttle lift on Schmevals’ telemetry. Gear changes were also different, where I would take a corner in a high revving 5th gear, Schmeval would stay in 6th. These were some of the main differences that I noticed.
My take away lesson? Schmeval was, for lack of a better word, a perfect example of being 100% in-tune with the steering & pedal relationship I talked about above. It seems so simple to the point of being boring, brake hard in a straight line, turn in a little earlier (as you ease off the brakes), get the nose to the apex and feed the throttle back in when the apex is reached or the steering is at its straightest point in the middle of the turn. You should not have to lift off again. If you do, you applied the throttle too early or when you had a little too much wheel lock on. If you are only getting back to full throttle halfway through your corner exit and well past the apex of the turn, then you are losing bucket loads of time.
If you can master this simple approach to basic cornering you’ll begin to witness the car handling differently and the extra stability and control you gain will no doubt encourage you to explore more adventurous setup tweaks that will make the car a bit more loose and manoeuvrable. It took me 6 months to unlearn the way I was driving. I used to get back on the throttle way too early, burn up my tires, lose exit speed and compromise my car control. So use the replay function and analyse. The trick then is to become aware of what you are doing ‘in the moment’ and change it on the fly. You really have to focus on it like crazy until it becomes second nature. Anytime I find myself losing time, I always revisit this concept, and 9/10 I am losing time because I am not applying it correctly.