From Simulation To The Track

By David Wiernicki, CEO / Force Dynamics

A while back, I was asked to write an overview of how I think simulation has helped me — and can help others — get started in motorsport. I should first qualify this by noting that this, by definition, is an anecdote: I’m only one person, and I’m a biased person at that! Despite that, though, I think my experience is relevant, and the results strong enough to speak for themselves. 

First, as a very quick background: I got started in simulation proper (as opposed to racing games, even good ones, like NFS: Porsche Unleashed, say) in the late 1990s with Dave Kaemmer and Papyrus’s Grand Prix Legends, the spiritual granddaddy of today’s iRacing. I co-founded Force Dynamics in late 2004, but didn’t turn a wheel on a racetrack until 2015: My father and uncle, both also co-founders of Force Dynamics, raced for many years at an amateur and semi-pro level, but I chose to concentrate on business since I was well aware of the distracting properties of racing! 

With that out of the way, I’m going to divide this write-up into three sections: General training, specific training, and results.

General training refers to the feedback I got from simulation over the decade or so prior to beginning real-life competition driving; specific training will cover the deliberate training I undertook to learn particular elements of driving before I took to the track, and results will sum up how I think it all went and how it’s continuing to go now, a few years later.

General Training

When people think of motorsport training, they tend to focus on a few particular areas: Basic knowledge of things like entry points, apexing, braking points, and so on; car control; and learning tracks. I’m going to talk about those parts first before I get into a couple of other critical elements of competition driving that I think are often overlooked. Simulation helps with all of these things, but beyond that, how does the high-quality feedback provided by a system like the 401cr help specifically?

Basic Knowledge: You can do a pretty good job of learning track layouts and racing lines in almost any competent simulator. Newer display tech like VR helps a great deal with some of these elements: A realistic visual ‘key’ provided by VR makes it much easier to understand lines, braking points, and so on than the oddly-translated small window of a conventional monitor or even triple-head setup. But even here, high quality motion makes a difference. Our (and my) experience is that a continuous rotation platform gives a much better sense of spatial positioning than even a conventional motion platform. In conventional simulators, I tend to apex early consistently; with the continuous rotation of the 401cr, and in real life, I don’t.

Car Control: This is a big one, and probably the number one thing people think about when they think about how motion platforms help train drivers. And in this case, people aren’t wrong! Even without motion feedback, enough time in simulations with high-quality physics can pre-train your hands, feet, and arms to respond the right way when your car gets out of shape, or even to respond before your car gets out of shape (which is the preferable way to handle the situation). I spent several years in relatively high-quality simulations before my company built its first motion platform, and a couple more years before the 401 and then 401cr added yaw and then continuous yaw to the mix.

My general feeling is that there’s a multiplier factor at work. 5 hours of time in the 401cr will give you the mental and physical training of 40 hours in a high-quality static or low-motion rig, or 100 hours sitting in a desk chair with a wheel clamped to your desk.

Without the direct physical feedback of motion — particularly the yaw axis — your brain is left to first convert visual cues (the horizon is shifting, that means I’m rotating!) into what it knows it ought to be feeling, and then convert that ‘intellectual’ knowledge into response. And then, when you go out on-track, you feel the real thing, and you have to do the conversion again in reverse. So without motion (and the continuous rotation of the 401cr) you take more time to learn the initial responses, and then you have a period of adaptation on-track where you have to hook everything together. It can work, but it’s inefficient, and there’s a kind of a danger-window when you first go on-track, where you have the mental knowledge but haven’t yet rewired everything, and you’re in a period where you may be a bit overconfident and run a greater risk of bending real hardware. The 401cr provides 1:1 feedback through the whole chain, so you eliminate that initial gap, which reduces the time spent to gain competence and reduces your risk window as you make the jump to real-world cars.

Track Learning: This is probably the area with the least advantage for a high-end simulator. Heck, enough YouTube videos can give you at least a passing idea of how to approach a given track. And this is the area where you’d first see mentions of pro drivers using simulation, back to the early 2000s. Get the basic shape of a track right in your software, and you can do a pretty good job of getting to 80% and saving (valuable) real-world track time when you show up. From there, the better the simulator, the more time you save. As before, high quality motion combined with a continuous rotation axis eliminates a translation layer, meaning that instead of feeling like you know which way the road goes, with a 401cr, you’ve actually been on that road.

Eliminating the translation window allows you to train more efficiently to begin with and to implement that training more efficiently in the real world.

Mental Discipline: Now we’re back to some things people don’t mention much. In the years before I began racing, I spent several hundred hours running long sessions and full races with real competitors. Sure, the stress wasn’t the same as it is in real life; nobody gets hurt, and more importantly, nobody’s hardware gets broken! But to be competitive, the same requirements exist. I learned to keep my cool. I learned to keep my head and relax after a moment or a spin, because that’s when you’re most likely to follow on with another mistake. I learned not to follow the previous guy off after he failed to learn that rule. I learned to wait for my moment. I learned not to hold the wheel so tightly. I learned how to relax while doing one of the least relaxing things you can do. What’s more, the 401cr provides an environment that’s at least somewhat close to physically being in a race car. Racing is not comfortable. The physical challenges make it more difficult to discipline yourself mentally, and the 401cr’s large motion range and ability to move rapidly and violently when necessary make it uniquely placed to replicate the punishing, distracting environment of a race car.

All of these things were things I didn’t need to learn when I got in the real car: The transition to real driving was one of degree, not of kind.

My biggest challenge when I made the switch? Hydration. The 401cr was accurate in many things, but not in terms of cockpit heat!

Specific Training

I had a few months to prepare for my first track session, which, adjusting for the hours I had to spend actually working and building the car, gave me a few hours a week to do simulator training.

One of my major tasks was to teach myself to drive a manual transmission. Yes, that’s right: Here in the United States, manual cars are thin on the ground, and while I learned to drive in a manual Saab, that was a long time ago, and I only had the opportunity to spend a few hours in manual gearbox cars before I started competition driving. For me, simulation filled a substantial gap, since there would be no practice session and I’d be getting into the car for the first time and driving into race traffic!

So, most of my simulator time was spent teaching myself shift timing, heel-and-toe, and other manual shifting techniques. Overall, I was able to devote about 30 to 40 hours to learning the gearbox and footwork and familiarizing myself with the rough performance envelope of the car (we race a 1990 Mazda Miata, and I train in a somewhat heavier and newer track model of the same car in iRacing).

Results

Before my first track experience, the closest I’d come to competition driving was a session in some quick-ish go karts. Essentially all of my street experience was in automatic transmission cars, aside from an hour or so here and there. Everything else was simulation.

My first track session was ‘hot’: The series I run in didn’t require previous racing experience, and there wasn’t a practice session, just two 8-hour endurance races. I had the second stint, so the first time I drove a race car, I got in the car in our pit box, and pulled out into full-speed, mixed-class race traffic at Watkins Glen International.

The most notable thing I can take away from my first few laps in the car is that I was comfortable. I felt like I’d been doing it for years. Out of the pits, into second gear out onto the track, up through the esses and into third, third up through the esses (staying to the left and letting the fast guys blow by on the right as I got up to speed up the hill), fourth on the back straight, checking gauges and mirrors down the straight and then brakes at the usual place for the chicane, blip, third, through the chicane, a little bit of slip angle through there and hold third around the loop down into the boot, stay in third, pass a couple of slower guys through the left hander and almost up to fourth again, then hard on the brakes into the toe of the boot, blip, second, and around the outside of another guy through the toe, exit, up to third — hey, I can do this!

As before, the transition was one of degree rather than one of kind. I didn’t miss a shift or put a wheel off in my first stint or my first race. I could handle the car and the traffic, and my pace was competitive with that of my three teammates, each of whom had many years of experience in competition driving. This should not be construed as my saying I was the second coming of Ayrton Senna; I was not. Rather, I am convinced that I was able to be immediately competitive (and consistent) due not to miraculous talent, which is unlikely, but due to experience that, thanks to the quality and design of our motion systems, allowed me to transition rapidly to real-world track driving without first fixing that translation window.

 

Conclusions

The high quality of simulation training afforded by the 401cr allowed me to hit the ground running with the equivalent of years of competition track driving, and enabled me to immediately — not just within hours but within minutes — be quick, consistent, and safe in a high-pressure race environment among 100+ cars at a fast, difficult track, with literally no time to find my feet or come up to speed, and with zero previous experience in even basic aspects of competition driving such as heel-and-toe shifting. In the years since, I have gotten quicker and indeed learned things in real life driving that simulation can’t teach quite yet (like when to chug a Gatorade and whether to buy that sausage thing from a track vendor). But simulation was, and remains, critical to my on-track speed and consistency.

While it’s not possible to extrapolate my own experience to the general case, I am absolutely convinced that without simulation, and in particular without the high quality motion feedback provided by the large motion range and continuous rotation of the 401cr, I would not only have not been nearly as fast, but would have been more likely to damage hardware either via offs, over driving, or both.

Professional drivers use our hardware for training, but my personal case is the only current one I’m aware of where high quality motion simulation was used to enable a 100% “hot turkey” transition to track driving, and my knowledge of simulation, training, and racing gives me confidence that my experience can be the start of a blueprint to help others make it to the track more quickly, less expensively, with less risk, and with better end results.