When I first bought my racing simulator, I guessed that I would spend a lot of time driving solo (test drives) to learn new tracks and simply practice.
That assumption probably stems from the singular nature of HPDE and Time Trials. Coming up through HPDE, you are rarely on track nearby any cars of the same type, same build level, or same pace as yourself. That means that you are usually "out there on your own," unless you are still driving with an instructor.
While you might actually be nearly alone out on the track, this phrase can also be figurative. It's up to you and you alone to figure out the best line through a corner, proper braking points, and when to apply advanced techniques such as trail braking.
Some drivers do this through experimentation on track (a), others do it by asking their peers and mentors for advice (b), and others will simply fall into a routine of repetition (c) – whether what they are doing is good or bad.
I'm realizing that I tend to fall into groups (b) and (c). I ask other drivers what they do, and I try to practice consistency on the track (hitting my marks), which leads to a lot of repetition.
What do I mean by repetition? Following the same lines, using the same braking points, always applying the same techniques. For better or worse.
That may work assuming that all those things were nailed down perfectly before aiming for consistency. However, the reality is that we are likely doing a few things wrong every lap, over and over.
Enter sim racing
My first exposure to wheel-to-wheel competition has been in sim racing; specifically I have been on iRacing using the Mazda MX5 Cup car. You could generally refer to it as "spec" racing, as in all my competitors are driving the same car.
I have been more attracted to the actual races than I expected to be. When I practice solo, it's only to prepare myself to enter a race in the same car and at the same track (each iRacing series rotates the tracks weekly).
Part of my draw to racing (versus just lapping/practicing) is because I am enamored by learning race craft – the knowledge and psychology of wheel-to-wheel competition.
The other part, I have come to realize, is that I am learning a ton by being surrounded by the same cars on track. It's very obvious when the car in front of you nails a corner exit and gaps you on the following straightaway, or when you out-brake an opponent and reel them in by 2 car lengths before the apex.
Throughout a race I find myself mentally-bookmarking several things that I observe about the cars around me. Sometimes they are bad things (as in, don't do that things they did), but most of the time they are good things (like, that car carried way more speed through that sweeper).
How it differs from Time Trials / HPDE
When I'm in Time Trial sessions, I try my best to be away from other cars, especially other cars that are running the same pace as me, lest they potentially hold me up. There is nothing worse than aborting a flyer because of someone else's mistake. In HPDE I've found it to be rare to be around cars driving a similar pace to your own, whether that's due to vehicular- or skill-based differences.
Conversely, when I'm racing in the sim, I might spend an entire 35 minute race a pack of the same cars, everyone vying for every inch of the track.
You would think that due to the defensive driving going on in the pack, that our lap times would be pretty slow. I've found quite the opposite to be true.
I usually do my fastest laps in races, not in practice or qualifying.
Granted, that is partly because the drafting effect in iRacing is pretty significant (maybe too much so?). However, by the end of a week's worth of racing at the same track in the same MX5 Cup car, I'm usually cranking out lap times that I never would have thought possible.
My real-life simulated example
Last week I raced the SimLab Production Car Challenge, a multi-class series, in the MX5 Cup class and at the famed Nurburging Nordschleife (Industriefahrten). I did a couple of hours of practice before doing any races.
By the end of my practice session, my lap times were right around 8:20. Being able to finish a Green Hell lap without hitting anything is something to be proud of, but I actually believed that I wasn't leaving much time on the table, and that I'd be competitive in the race series.
After my first few races I found that I was pretty competitive, but mainly because I wasn't crashing, not because I was fast. Nevertheless, I was already picking up on the sections I was slow through, and improving on them.
By mid week I had already broken under an 8:10 lap, and thought that was a huge achievement.
Towards the end of the week I had some great races where I battled in the lead packs and secured several podiums. My times at the end of the week? Sub-8:05.
Even more surprising was my "optimal" time was showing as 8:00 flat– theoretically, if I could have strung all my best sectors together into one perfect lap, I would have been 20 seconds faster than at the start of the week.
Throughout a week of racing, I had improved my times by 3%. It may not sound like a lot, but that was worth over 15 seconds at the Nurburgring. Even at a track like Sebring, with lap times around 2:30, a 3% improvement would equate to 4.5 seconds!
Left to my own devices, I am sure that I would have been able to get faster throughout a week's worth of practice, even driving solo. But I don't think that it would have been anywhere near as dramatic of an improvement as 3% / 15 seconds at the 'Ring.
I always thought that "spec" racing was about having equal equipment (ha!) with your competitors, but I am realizing now that it's also about being close on track to drivers using the same equipment and close to the same pace as yourself.
As Time Trial drivers, we like to think that we are good at putting down a fast lap, even if we couldn't sustain that same pace lap after lap (race pace). What was surprising to me was seeing that my race pace is usually my fastest pace, due to ability to learn from what the faster guys around me are doing.
I don't doubt that everything I'm realizing on the sim is true of real life spec racing. Racers of all levels are constantly learning from those around them. It's how back-pack guys become mid-fielders, and mid-fielders become front-runners.
My tendency to run the same lines over and over on the track is something that I wish I had come to realize sooner. I'm not sure yet how I am going to translate this realization into improving my Time Trial driving, but it certainly has me more excited to try out wheel-to-wheel racing sooner rather than later.