How do you learn a new track and is there a certain approach that you should take as a sim racer?
Firstly, I don't believe there is
a certain approach that will suit every driver. Different people prefer different learning styles and
techniques, or a combination of procedures. The main styles being visual, logical,
aural, verbal and physical. So for some, this article will possibly be no use at all, while others will
hopefully find it informative and it might possibly trigger something in the brain that helps the
track learning process.
Personally I struggle to visualise things. So if someone tries to teach me something in a visual
context, in most scenarios I will fail to grasp what they are trying to teach me, no matter how good a
teacher, or how good their advice is. In the same respect you may find that you can read oodles of racing theory without
improving or it might be the exact opposite. Finding the right balance of information and how you apply
this to your virtual driving is one of the keys to improving. Just because a fast driver you know learns things one way, doesn't mean it is the right
approach for yourself. Find what works for you and stick to it, there is no point in making life hard
Unlike when I started sim racing back in the days of Indianapolis 500, Microprose Grand Prix, joysticks and
keyboard, nowadays there are online resources to help the virtual driver. Probably one of the best and first
places to head to get a feel for a new track is YouTube. There are plenty of videos, either real world or
sim for most tracks that you will encounter when sim racing, there will even be onboard videos. These
will allow you to understand the flow of the track and a basic racing line before you even drive the track.
Seeing as a lot of simulations now laser scan the tracks, these seem like a great starting point, as you
can even use real world brake markers in a lot of instances, due to the nature of the accuracy of both
track and simulated car data.
Video clip: Things have moved on a long way since the days of the Amiga! Microprose Grand Prix from 1991 - showing my age somewhat.
Once you've watched a few laps of the track you are about to tackle on YouTube - unless this doesn't fit
your learning style - I would recommend driving your "goto" car. One that
you know well and isn't too fast, it will just make things simpler. For example the Toyota GT86 in Assetto
Corsa, maybe the Skip Barber or the MX-5 if on iRacing, whatever the game, choose a well balanced car
that you are fairly familiar with. If you drive one car a lot, after a while you will have a good
understanding of the car's braking distance and this will allow you a good estimation of where to brake even on
a new and unfamiliar track. This will help make the process of learning new tracks much easier, than if
you are learning a new car, at the same time as learning a new track.
The first time you go on a track - whether it's new or one you know - should really just be a familiarisation
exercise, more so if it's a new track. You can't just leave the pits and expect to be at optimum speed
immediately. Familiarise yourself with the track, the layout and the important zones. Think about how sharp each
turn is so you know how much to turn. The wider the arc of the turn the less you have to turn and the quickest way
is to turn in slow, unwind the wheel as soon as possible and then get on the gas early for maximum speed.
Think about what the straightest line through each turn is, straighten everything out you possibly can and driver
edge to edge to edge. Another way of describing this is, drive from the outside of the track to apex, back to the
outside edge of the track. Rinse and repeat, lap after lap. Unlike driving a road car where they tell
you to drive with your hands at 10 to 2, have your hands at 9 and 3. Keep your eyes up, look ahead. Get
everything done before the corner, then get consistent, if you can't hit consistent smooth lines, you're
never going to be able to find the speed.
Video clip: Toyota GT86 Vallelunga: Onboard with driving inputs - Basic racing line and consistency.
Once you understand the racing lines of the new track you are learning it's just a case of spending time
on the track getting familiar with them. If there are no brake marker boards then look for brake markers,
whether they be a marking on the track or something clearly visible to the side of the track. It doesn't really
matter what you use, as long as they are permanent fixtures. Try not to use shadows as a reference point
as they move over time - even if they don't in your sim of choice it's a bad habit to get into, in the
future they will and if go on a trackday on a real track and your brake markers are shadows, it's not going
to work for you.
In racing books corners are always depicted as a static affair, so finding the racing line is fairly easy.
However, rookie sim racing drivers can struggle with real life tracks as they find the corners
appear vastly different, some corners start off gradual but then suddenly become extremely sharp. Some have
elevation changes so it's barely even possible to see the apex. Whilst other corners/turns
are so long that the rookie driver is not exactly sure where the racing line is.
So while the rookie driver understands racing lines on paper in the conventional sense, they have
difficulty trying to apply it in context when actually driving.
Technically the racing line, means going from the outside edge of the track, to the apex, then back to
the edge of the track again (or tracking out). Or another way of thinking of it, is generally, the
shortest way through the corner. Sometimes there are a few lines that you can pick, but generally there
is one "short/racing" line. Below is a video I made that shows driver inputs and what my "thought
process" is as a driver. They may not be tracks you have driven or are even in the simulation you are playing,
but they may prove useful in some way.
Video clip: Longford 67 Assetto Corsa Toyota GT86 - Driver inputs and thoughts.
Don't be too anxious to go fast. Just because you are driving a virtual race car doesn't mean
that you immediately go at full pace, you must remember about technique and learning the subtleties of each
track before you can go all out. Don't go too fast too soon, without technique you won't be able to go
fast at all. Instead you'll end up spinning, not because you're going too fast necessarily but due to
The simplest way to describe the required technique would be brake before the turn, allow the car to settle (otherwise known as weight transfer),
steer and then accelerate, this will allow you to balance the car. There are more advanced techniques that can be incorporated but
there is no point in complicating matters with trail braking,
threshold braking or heel and toe when learning a track unless you are already familiar and comfortable
with the aforementioned techniques. These skills should generally be incorporated into your driving once you've learnt
the track and found consistency. Then you can start looking for speed. When learning a track, raw speed is not what you
are trying to accomplish, you are memorising the track and looking for markers, not looking for tenths of
a second, like when hot-lapping.
Another thing to think about is that if someone offers you advice and says to you that they brake at the 100 metre board, just
because they say that doesn't mean it's actually fact. I'm not implying that they are lieing to you, however,
quite often you will find that their brake marker is the 100 metre board, like they say, but they are not
actually braking where they think they are. This is because the absolute minimum time to do anything
that requires conscious intervention is 200 milliseconds (0.2 seconds). This is called reaction time and
is very consistent, varying only from about 160ms to 250ms among various individuals, as mentioned in a
previous article titled free your mind and the rest will follow.
The one thing that is definitive is that using a driving simulator to learn a track is a lot easier, cost
effective and safer than driving a race track in real life for the first time. In real life you can't
afford to make mistakes. Whilst sim racing, if you hit a wall or a barrier, although at the time it may
be annoying, it's not painful or expensive. Drive correctly in the sim and if you happen to go on a
track day in the future, most of the hard work will already have been accomplished, leaving you free to
enjoy your track time having already learnt the track.