In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that in 2009, after working as a free-lance motorsports journalist for the best part of 25 years, I got a real job working for iRacing.com, a company which – with plenty of justification – touts itself as “the world's foremost online motorsports simulation service.”
With that in mind, I don't think it's out of line to note that Jan. 25-26-27 was a remarkable weekend for motorsports simulation (aka “sim-racing”) in general, and iRacing in particular. Last weekend at Daytona, iRacers co-drove in five of the six class-winning cars in the Rolex 24 and the BMW Performance 200. Specifically, that would be Juan Pablo Montoya (DP), Dion von Moltke (GT), Nelson Canache/Jim Norman (GX) and Jack Roush Jr. (GS).
Meanwhile, in Sebring the inaugural Skip Barber Racing School IndyCar Academy Shootout featured 32 drivers (a 33rd was a no-show) with no racing experience who showed promise in a Skip Barber three-day school. Not only were 14 of those 32 registered iRacers, eight of the top 10 scorers including the top three – Andre Gomes, Connor Clifford and Javier Cantu-Lucero – were iRacers.
Back at Daytona, the Road Racing Drivers Club dinner saw another iRacer – Cliff White – honored with the RRDC's Mark Donohue Award in recognition of his winning drive in Spec Racer Ford in the 2012 SCCA National Championship Runoffs at Road America.
Taking my iRacing hat off for a moment, it's worth noting that Gomes and Clifford also qualify as experts on Gran Turismo, so much so that they had previously participated in the PlayStation GT Academy. And iRacing and Gran Turismo are but two ways of experiencing the astonishingly realistic realm of sim racing – see rFactor, Simraceway, Forza, GT Legends, F1 2012 . . .
The point is that motorsports simulation has ceased becoming a useful tool in a racer's arsenal; it now borders on the indispensable. The reasons are legion. Increasingly draconian limits on testing, coupled with the astronomical costs associated with running state-of-the-art racecars, have seen many teams (and every F1 team) spend millions developing their own simulators. And apart from the fun factor, sim racing is a proven method for aspiring racers to learn the basics and experience the mental stresses of competition (less the worry of grievous injuries to their bodies or bank accounts). Increasingly, driver coaches require their charges to use sim racing to do their “homework.”
Established drivers also use sim racing to stay sharp in the offseason and (if they don't drive for team with a full-on simulator) prepare for tests and races at unfamiliar tracks or with unfamiliar cars. J.R. Hildebrand ran scores of laps at iRacing's Phoenix International Raceway prior to his tryout with Panther Racing; Jordan Taylor used iRacing's Corvette C6.R as part of his preparation for his rookie GT2 campaign; Simon Pagenaud practiced on iRacing's Texas Motor Speedway last year to, among other things, get his pit entry and exits down pat.
What's more, in the case of iRacing, drivers can avail themselves of the same Atlas Express data acquisition system used in F1 to analyze chassis setups, tire pressures, aero packages and driving styles until their eyes glaze over . . .
How significant is that? Consider that the Skip Barber IndyCar Academy Shootout offered each driver four, 20-minute on-track sessions over the course of the weekend. The sim racers who had familiarized themselves with the two-mile Sebring short course likely spent a lap or two of their first session confirming the braking points, turn-in points, apexes, etc., they developed in the sim did, in fact, work in real life. Then they got on with the program. In contrast, those with no seat time at Sebring in real life or sim racing, spent all or most of the session learning the track.
Do the math. The sim racers effectively spent four sessions going fast; the others spent one session learning the track and three going fast. In other words, the sim racers enjoyed a 25% advantage – this in a sport where fortunes are spent in quest of performance gains measured in fractions of a percentage point.
This is not to say sim-racing has completely replaced real world seat-time as a training tool. Or that it ever will. Minus a motion simulator, iRacing and the like only provide visual and aural input, none of the seat-of-the-pants feel, let alone punishing g-forces, searing cockpit temperatures or inclement weather that factor in to real world racing. And it will always be easier to keep the throttle planted entering the virtual – as opposed to the real – Turn 1 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But the numbers don't lie. Whether it's the Rolex 24 or the Daytona 500, the 12 Hours of Sebring, the Skip Barber IndyCar Academy or the SCCA Runoffs, the Monaco Grand Prix or the Indianapolis 500, sim racing is as much a part of a modern race driver's preparation as a proper diet and a rigorous physical training regimen.