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Sim Racing - Learning a race track
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 for yourself.

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 incorrect technique.

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, degressive 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.
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