I've been sim racing for 6 months now, and have found it invaluable at honing my skills. Since I don't get to drive on the track as much as I'd like, staying sharp (and even improving) in between events is important.
I consider myself to be an average driver at best, and don't have any real-life wheel to wheel competition experience. Despite this, my driver ranking in iRacing (iRating) is in the top 5%, after just 6 months on the service.
In contemplating how or why that is possible, I've come up with these 4 pillars of my sim racing success, for your consideration.
1) Racing Is The Best Practice
Before buying my sim, I thought that I would spend a lot of time in "test drives" or "solo practice," essentially driving on my own to learn tracks and improve my techniques. After all, that is kind of what HPDE and Time Trials are about – being out there on your own, trying to put in clean, fast laps.
As I've written about before, I have been surprised to learn that I am learning the most by racing, and not by practicing. It turns out that racing is the best practice.
I don't mean to suggest that you should not warm up before a race, or go in blind without knowing the track or car. Just that you probably need less practice before entering a race than you think.
If it's a new track or car that you aren't familiar with, spend 30-90 minutes to learn the combination. If you are signing in to race a track & car that you are familiar with, I'd suggest 15-30 minutes of warm up before qualifying.
Past that? I think you're wasting your time.
Jump in a race, and if you are an observant driver, you will quickly learn where you are slow and where to improve. You might have an overall competitive pace, finding that you are are faster in some corners, but getting smoked in others. Work on those corners you are losing the pack in.
2) Treat The Sim Like It's Real
Or, said another way, treat your virtual car like you'd treat your real car.
In real life, would you risk totaling your car into a concrete barrier on your out-lap with cold tires? I sure hope not. Treating your virtual car as if crashing it came with real-world consequences will help you become a safer and more consistent sim racer. Carlos gave me this advice early on, and it has really stuck with me.
Pace be damned. If you can finish races cleanly and with minimal mistakes, you will do well.
3) Think Big Picture
To finish well, you first have to finish. I see a lot of racers that contest every single corner, as if it were the last. And it often is the last when you drive that way!
Even in short 10 lap races, you need to have a strategy. If you are starting from the back row (and you shouldn't be, if you drove qualifying cleanly), perhaps then you have to press matters earlier.
But if you qualified decently, even mid-pack, you shouldn't have to try and make aggressive passes early on. Your goal should be to survive the first lap, settle in, and stay with a pack that is similarly-paced.
Unless you truly believe you are the fastest car in the pack, you shouldn't be trying to force yourself to the front of it or trying to break away from it.
In pack driving you need to focus on driving your own car (not the car in front of you), and staying clean. Use your keen observation to identify potential passing zones and opportunities for later in the race. Stay cool while others make mistakes and drop out of the pack.
When battling a closely-matched competitor, you don't want to make a move too early, or chances are they will pass you back before the end of the race. It won't always work to make your move on the last lap, but especially when there is a long straightaway before the finish line, you need to consider the probability of a last-second slingshot draft. [Daytona would be a good example.]
And remember, even if you can't make a pass stick, cleanly finishing 5th is better than trying to force your way through and crashing out in the process.
4) Exit Speed Is Everything
This one was another shocker to me coming from HPDE and Time Trials, since I don't spend a lot of time on track close to similarly-paced cars. On iRacing, I quickly learned that exit speed has a compounding effect up until the next braking zone.
When driving in packs, you'll often notice an accordion-effect going on, where the pack bunches up in the braking zone and the apex, and spreads out again beginning at the corner exit.
This happens because some people believe that winning the braking war (read: dive bombing the apex) is important, while in reality, optimizing the corner for the highest vMin and exit speed is what pays dividends.
There are some corners you will need to "give up" for the benefit of the next corner, but if the exit leads into anything resembling a straightaway, you need to exit well or you are going to get walked.
Even when you get a good run on the car in front, chances are you aren't going to clear them before the next braking zone, so it's important to be thinking several corners in advance as to how you are going to finalize the pass. Then, hopefully you have enough field of view (peripheral vision) to be safely braking and cornering door to door.
As an up-and-coming sim racer, you are going to start winning races and getting on the podium regularly, but as you progress into higher race splits, that will become less and less achievable.
I suggest focusing more on the top 5 finishes metric than on win percentages. Going for wins is going to be boom or bust. Consistent top 5s are fulfilling and rewarding. And on your best days, you'll still pull off some wins.