From amateur to professional, race simulator use is getting to be de rigueur, so how are sims being used to win?
Computer-simulated racing is the fastest growing segment of the motorsports world and, for the most part, it’s catching traditional racers by surprise. For about the price of an SCCA Summit Road Racing weekend, anyone can purchase a functional setup for their home and join iRacing. Once they have demonstrated basic skills, drivers can enter multi-player races and compete against others, win real money, and gain fame in the sim racing world. It’s just like racing, but without cars.
Indeed, race simulators used to be for the elite, but now it’s an everyman’s game. Earlier this year, SCCA announced its involvement with iRacing to form a virtual SCCA racing league using Spec Racer Fords, and it’s been well covered in this magazine that the SportsCar staff uses race simulators to prep for the Runoffs. Then there’s the story of Bryan Heitkotter, who had scored multiple Solo National Championships, but used a Gran Tourismo online competition to launch into professional racing.
Automotive manufacturers also see the connection between the two worlds and, in 2018, Mazda Motorsports, in conjunction with iRacing, brought their simulated and real-world racing programs closer together by creating the Mazda Hot Lap Challenge. The idea was to find the best sim racers and give one of them a chance to drive a real Global MX-5 Cup car – a car that fits in SCCA’s Touring 3 class.
The rules of the challenge were simple. Anyone with iRacing on their home gaming system could participate in any of seven scheduled time attack competitions set on various tracks, or they could use Mazda’s full-scale simulator at the same seven tracks during MX-5 Cup events throughout the year. For 2018, the qualifying tracks were Daytona, Lime Rock, Watkins Glen, Road America, Gateway, Laguna Seca, and Road Atlanta.
The fastest of the year’s time attack players and the fastest among the at-track competitors were invited to a shootout at this year’s Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. Mazda set up two simulators in the paddock and each driver got 30 minutes to lay down the hottest lap in a simulated Global MX-5 Cup car.
Real World vs. Sim Speed
The finalists in Mazda’s competition were Charles Mayer from Granby, Conn., and Logan Clampitt from Orange County, Calif. Mayer is a regular at Lime Rock track days in his Porsche 944, and that’s where he set the fast lap on Mazda’s simulator. Clampitt qualified from his home system, where he is a leading iRacing competitor.
“Logan is one of our top drivers,” says Kevin Bobbitt, Director of Marketing at iRacing. “He’s pretty well known in our world. He races in our highest-level NASCAR series, which has a $100,000 prize pool at the end of the year.”
Clampitt decided to make the Hot Lap Challenge part of his racing program for the year. “I practiced quite a bit for the online race,” Clampitt says. “I got the pole in that, which was awesome, and it helped me a lot. After I won, I turned a few laps [of Daytona] once or twice a week just to get a feel for it. I think that really helped.”
There, Clampitt easily won the shootout with a best time of 2:14.827; about five seconds faster than Mayer’s best time. The prize is a test day at VIRginia International Raceway in a fully equipped Global MX-5 Cup car.
“Racing has been an aspiration of mine since I was just a little kid,” Clampitt says. “I got onto iRacing and I’ve been on there for six years, but that’s been the goal the whole entire time.”
On the Pro Level
For an aspiring driver, using sim-honed skills to win a test day in a real racecar is a dream come true, but at the highest levels of racing, professional drivers use simulators rather differently.
“I have an iRacing rig at home,” says Mazda Team Joest driver and past SCCA member Tristan Nunez. “I’m not as talented as some of the sim racers. It’s crazy how fast those guys are. I use it for extra seat time before a race, like just before coming to Daytona. The more seat time you get, the more comfortable you get experimenting with different lines.”
Pro series often limit the amount of practice a driver can run on a given track. For an event like the Rolex 24, there’s also the reality that available practice time has to be shared among several drivers.
“I found a little technique on iRacing with braking in the horseshoes that I apply here,” Nunez says. “Really, I use iRacing for that extra seat time that you can’t always get in the pro division. We only have a couple practice sessions. When you’re running four drivers in a car, there’s really no time to get everyone through.”
Another benefit of a simulator is that you can change the time of day at will, to practice running with the sun in different positions, or at night.
“We practice night racing at certain tracks like Daytona and Sebring, especially,” Nunez reveals. “Sebring’s even more crucial because there’s no lights there. At Daytona, we have the stadium lights, so it’s not as dark as some of the other races we go to, but Petit at Road Atlanta and Sebring, those are the two darkest ones we go to. Being able to run in the night, for hours and hours as much as you want, is crucial for finding reference points and just getting your visuals right for when it comes down to the real thing.”
Sometimes the simulator also works to familiarize a driver with a new track. “Last year was my first year of racing full time in the states,” says Joest driver Harry Tincknell. “I knew Daytona, but after that, I’d never been to any other track. So, for me, the simulators are fantastic because they gave me a whole day’s worth of running around to learn Road America, Detroit, Long Beach, wherever it may be. And, by the time I finished there, I knew exactly what gear I was going to be in for each corner and exactly what speed I was going to be carrying and the optimum line to take.
“I learned where the pockets were, what curbs I could use, what curbs I couldn’t use,” Ticknell explains. “I learned where my natural driving style was a bit slower, compared to someone like Jonathan [Bomarito], who is much more experienced. I knew what I needed to do to improve when I got to the track. So, when you turn up, you’re just ready to go and you get on with it so much quicker.”
Investing in Engineering
Mazda Team Joest uses simulators for engineering development work. They will routinely send their drivers and engineers to use the simulator at Multimatic Motorsports in Toronto, Ontario.
“It’s more cost effective to send drivers there to test instead of flying 80 people [to the track], buying tires and fuel and all that,” says John Doonan, Director of Motorsports for Mazda North American Operations. “The other thing is that I can send three or four young drivers up [to Multimatic] and not put a million-dollar racecar at risk. I send them up there and we can gauge their talent instantly.”
“We call it the D-I-L machine,” Nunez says. “It stands for Driver-in-the-Loop. We use it to run through changes that we otherwise might not be able to take a chance on because it’s such a big change. The engineers have infinite lists of changes that they run through, and you never know which one’s going to stick. They can really just throw the kitchen sink at it, and you just press the reset button if it doesn’t work.”
Using the simulator, drivers and teams get a baseline setup ready for each race. “Essentially, we are as close to reality as possible in a simulator version of the car,” Tincknell notes. “We’ll go there before each race and basically treat a simulator as if it’s a proper test day. I’ll have my performance engineer there, and my data engineer. Probably have someone from the simulator team as well. So, it could be up to five or six people engineering the simulator with me actually in the car. It’s a hell of an investment, but we really see gains in it and that’s why we continue to invest and keep going forward and pushing on with it.”
The Payoff is Real
Racing is a business, and the bottom line is that simulator work has to pay off on race day. For Mazda Team Joest, the payoff was real. In qualifying for this year’s Rolex event, Olly Jarvis drove the Mazda RT24-P Daytona Prototype around the Daytona circuit faster than any other car in history. Jarvis not only captured the overall pole position, he also broke the all-time course record set by P.J. Jones in the All American Racing Toyota Eagle back in 1993.
“This is the result of all the hard work that’s gone in back at the workshop,” Jarvis says.
And the drivers at Mazda Team Joest have no doubt that simulator training helps them stay on top of their game. “At [the professional] level, everyone’s probably doing something on a simulator…it’s something that you have to do to keep up,” Tincknell says.
“I think in this day and age with the way technology is growing, the track models are getting better, the car physics are getting better,” Nunez says. “Everything is just getting more and more realistic. I mean you’ll never get the real sense of being in a racecar, but you can definitely hone your skills at being in a car.”
So, how does this transfer to the Club level? After all, you don’t have Mazda’s resources or Multimatic’s simulator setup – but if you own a computer, you can affordably sign up for a sim racing account that will help you familiarize yourself with a new track – or racing at night or discovering what suspension tweaks make to a racecar’s handling. For those who want a more complete experience, there are sim racing facilities opening up worldwide (SportsCar’s staff utilized Base51 in Southern California prior to the 2018 Runoffs). Simply put, race simulators are another tool in the toolbox, and an effective one at that. It’s also a tool that your competition is probably already using.
This featured appeared in the April 2019 issue of SportsCar magazine.