Racing Simulators_edited-2A few months ago I got the opportunity to go hands-on with the recently-implemented Oculus Rift support for Project CARS, a no-nonsense racing title that’s one of the most honest driving simulators you’ll currently find on a store shelf. The last few years has seen a new effort in the gaming industry to develop automotive titles that offer a genuinely realistic racing experience, and Project CARS is one of the entries that really makes an effort to include every last bit of minutiae from both a physics and format standpoint.

It’s easy to assume that’s been the goal all along, but the truth is that real-world performance driving is dramatically different than the way it’s depicted in popular series like Need For Speed and Forza Horizon – and for good reason. Driving fast in real life is difficult, often times frustrating, and requires a healthy dose of patience – none of which are particularly desirable traits for an entertaining, easy-to-pick-up game. Instead, popular titles often blend realistic visuals with a simplistic physics engine – one which is far more forgiving than what you’d experience in the real world – even when you’ve disabled all the built-in assists that most games turn on by default.

There's no question that Oculus Rift brings a new level of immersion to driving simulation, and the notion of being able to physically look into a turn is a revelation for would be sim drivers. The headgear itself also mimics a helmet in the way that your field of view filtered through an eye port rather than the unobstructed view you'd have without a helmet on.

There’s no question that Oculus Rift brings a new level of immersion to driving simulation, and the notion of being able to physically look into a turn is a revelation for would-be sim drivers. The headgear itself also mimics a helmet in the way that your field of view is limited to what you’d see through an eye port rather than the unobstructed peripheral vision you’d have otherwise.

But combining Project CARS with Oculus Rift was, if you’ll pardon the pun, an eye-opening experience for me. The event was held at CXC Simulations in Los Angeles, a facility dedicated to designing, building and fine-tuning high end driving and flight simulators. To say CXC takes the simulator experience seriously would be a major understatement. Frankly, I think you’d have a hard time finding more advanced rigs outside of a Formula One team’s training facility.

While waiting for my chance to put down a few fast laps at Spa in an Audi LMP1 car, I struck up a conversation with one of the CXC staffers who was on hand to help new drivers get acclimated to the system. I soon discovered that this enthusiastic lad, Michael James Lewis of MJL Racing, is a professional racer in the Pirelli World Challenge series, where he competes in the GT class driving the No. 98 Calvert Dynamics/Curb-Agajanian Porsche 991 GT3-R.

Lewis attacking the Mid-Ohio course in the No. 98 Calvert Dynamics / Curb-Agajanian Porsche 991 GT3-R during a GT class race in the Pirelli World Challenge last month. Image: MJ Racing

Lewis attacking the Mid-Ohio course in the No. 98 Calvert Dynamics/Curb-Agajanian Porsche 991 GT3-R during a GT class race in the Pirelli World Challenge last month. Image: MJL Racing

It’s not every day that you get a chance to hear a pro racer’s thoughts on the current state of driving simulators, so I asked Lewis if he thought simulators had reached a point where they could serve as a legitimate coaching tool for drivers of various levels of experience. “Oh absolutely,” Lewis responded. “And it goes a lot further than just learning the track layout.”

After considering this for a moment, I made plans to come back to CXC Simulations for a one-on-one coaching session with Lewis so I could see for myself how driver coaching and simulators now come together in practice.

The Simulator Rig

Panoramic screens and high fidelity surround sound creates the effect of the action happening around you rather than just in front of you.

CXC Simulations’ rigs replicate the sights, sounds and sensations you’d experience out on the track through a sophisticated combination of different technologies. A low-mass motion system works in conjunction with multiple vibration replicators and seatbelt tensioners to create the G force effects you’d experience at speed, while panoramic screens and high fidelity surround sound creates the effect of the action happening around you rather than just in front of you.

It should come as little surprise that these simulators aren’t exactly cheap – CXC’s base model starts at $49k and goes up from there with custom options, but they also offer the option to visit the facility and purchase some seat time on one of their systems, or rent a simulator rig for use at another location, if so desired.

We chose to use a traditional screen setup rather than the Oculus Rift mainly due to the fact that it would be easier to provide coaching, particularly with visual landmarks on-track, using regular screens. The CXC simulator rigs are fairly modular in design, offering various steering wheel and gearbox options along with the custom choices also available for seats, video, audio, and so on.

The cost of entry might cause some initial sticker shock, but if you’ve done any organized racing in the past, the math quickly starts to make a whole lot of sense.

“The cost of expendables; tires, brake pads, fluids, etc, along with safety concerns, are obvious advantages that a simulator offers versus real-world coaching and driving,” says Chris Considine, CEO of CXC Simulations. “But there are other big advantages that are initially easy to overlook, like being able to get a one-to-one ratio of time dedicated to training to actual on-track time. In a traditional scenario, a whole day of your time might be spent traveling to the track. Then you have the time spent waiting for your run group’s session, tuning the setup between sessions, briefing with your engineer, etc. So at best you might get two hours of track time on a testing/coaching track day. Simulators allow you to get the perfect ratio of time dedication to on-track time.”

The rig I had used during my Oculus Rift session could replicate the feeling of hitting high speeds in an open cockpit car by way of this pair of heavy duty fans, which operate at different speeds depending on the rate of travel of the car at any given time.

The rig I used during my Oculus Rift session could replicate the feeling of piloting an open cockpit car using a pair of high speed fans, which operate at different speeds depending on the rate of travel of the car at any given time.

Simulators also allow you to approach the process in ways you’d never be able to in the real world. “You can try every different setup iteration of a car on the fly, stop on the middle of the track during a session to discuss technique for a particular section, and slow the entire learning process down to really establish a deeper understanding of the track and car,” Considine added.

A New Era Of Driver Training

You can try every different setup iteration of a car on the fly, stop on the middle of the track during a session to discuss technique for a particular section, and slow the entire learning process down to really establish a deeper understanding of the track and car. – Chris Considine, CXC Simulations

Upon my arrival at CXC for my coaching session with Lewis, we decided on a track and a vehicle. I wanted to use a course I was already familiar with, but one I hadn’t had a chance to drive on in the real world yet; and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca fit the bill. As for the car, I wanted something forgiving but rear-wheel-drive, so I’d be forced to contend with both understeer and oversteer, and the BMW Z4 GT3 was the recommended choice given that criteria. iRacing was the simulator title in use during my coaching session due to its ultra-accurate car and track modeling, along with its deep integration of car setup and the way those setup changes affect the car’s behavior out on the track.

“A simulator like this provides repetition and that idea of being at a race track,” Lewis explained. “By having the data system, video analysis, and someone on the radio with you, all of those things make the environment more serious and encourage the driver to be in the frame of mind that he or she takes at the track. The driver then tends to overcome the virtual aspects of the simulator in this way, like being able to obtain a perfectly new car after an incident.”

Before I strapped into the simulator and headed out on track, Lewis and I consulted a track map, where he pointed out some of the unique features of this particular track. “It was designed as a motorcycle course,” he explained. “So the curbing is very forgiving, and you should use it to make the track wider so you can carry more speed through the corners.”

Before I hopped behind the wheel, Lewis got on the simulator to establish some baseline telemetry data to compare to my own later on in the day. After that was taken care of, we took a look at a track map of MRLS so he could go over some of the unique characteristics of the track, as well as any specific features I needed to be aware of before getting on course.

After getting situated in the simulator, we did CXC’s version of a track walk, essentially driving from corner to corner and discussing the aspects of each. I admitted that although I’ve done endless laps around MRLS in video games, I’ve never really understood how to properly tackle Laguna Seca’s famous Corkscrew – a blind s-curve situated in the midst of a steep elevation drop.

It’s here where using a simulator started showing its obvious advantages over a traditional driver coaching session. We headed over to the Corkscrew and once there, we stopped in the middle of it – something you wouldn’t be able to do in the middle of a real-life track session. We discussed turn-in technique, how to center the car during the middle of the section to come out the other end properly by using a specific trackside tree as a visual landmark, where to keep my eyes focused, and other considerations.

Our initial on-track outing with me behind the wheel consisted of a virtual track walk, where we discussed how to tackle various elements of the track. The Corkscrew is a particularly tricky feature of Laguna Seca, and we spent a few minutes going over what visual markers to use (and where to use them) in order to point the car down the blind approach to this twisting stretch of the track. Once I was up to speed, we used headsets to communicate while Lewis monitored the telemetry data coming in.

“A lot of coaching, from being on both sides of it, is from experience,” Lewis told me. “You need to have gone through those various situations to be able to explain it to the driver. Also, going through so many different styles of relaying information over the years really helps in understanding who you are working with and how to best get him or her to get around the race track in the best way. Everyone is different and needs different tools to go fast; maybe one uses more data analysis than another or one uses more video. Experience sheds light on how to approach it.”

After the track walk we began the lapping sessions, using a pair of headsets to communicate while Lewis monitored the telemetry data and real time throttle/steering input information. The initial sessions were kept to a third gear maximum, as this allowed us to progressively ramp up the pace while Lewis offered instruction as I approached braking zones, turned in for corners, and positioned the car for different sections of the track.

Budget Alternatives

Although much of the hardware that CXC uses is proprietary, and you obviously won’t have the benefit of a professional driver offering instruction, you have a few options for basic home setups.

To maintain a solid 100-130 frames-per-second rate on-screen, CXC’s machines use Intel Core I7 Extreme CPUs backed by nVidia Geforce GTX 1080 GTX GPUs and solid state storage. In terms of input methods, here are a few popular options for wheel and pedal setups:

With a handful of low-speed instructed laps under my belt, Lewis suggested I open up the taps and set a baseline by running a few hot laps. Although reasonably informed and fairly brave, my laps showed no shortage of room for improvement, and my baseline looked to be in the range of 1:30.

Here we took a break from lapping to analyze the data and see exactly where I could make up time. I tend to be inherently cautious on-track in real life because my general rule of thumb is that it’s better to over-brake than under-brake, and I’d rather leave extra track width on the table than go two wheels off and risk losing control of the car. Although these are situations that drivers still want to avoid in a simulator, the repercussions for mistakes are far less dramatic here.

CXC Simulations uses MoTec data acquisition software to capture real-time information about how the car is being operated on track. It allows the coach to overlay his or her lap with the student's to provide a visual representation of where a driver might be able to brake later, get on the throttle earlier, and other ways to improve lap times. CXC can also use the glasses pictured on the right to track eye movements in order to determine if a driver is keeping their vision focused where it should be while at speed.

Lewis had set a baseline run of his own before my session started, and using an overlay of the telemetry data that compared his fast lap to mine, it clearly indicated where I was braking too early and/or too much, where I could carry more speed, and where my turn-in technique could be adjusted to get the car to apex with the minimal amount of steering input required (thus allowing for higher speeds through the corner).

“Once the driver is consistently turning laps without making too many mistakes, the driver then has a ‘base,’ Lewis explained. “Data then enters the picture to take that base and compare it to other pro drivers to give quantifiable evidence of what ‘braking later means’ or ‘turning in earlier’ means. Data is not only useful to fine tune, but also to see general trends when starting out at a track that you have never been to before (i.e. knowing what gear ratios to use, brake pressures, and styles of corners).”

Results Achieved

By the end of my last session of the day, I’d knocked out a fast lap of 1:27.4, about three seconds quicker than I’d been able to manage earlier in the day. That’s an eternity in the context of racing, and that’s despite the fact that I’ve (virtually) driven around this track countless times before my coaching session with Lewis.

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The numbers don’t lie, as they say. More importantly, my laps felt smoother in general, and instead of feeling like I was reacting to each corner as it came, it was more of a continuous thread around the course.

Of course come race day the adrenaline, heat inside of the car, and the helmet strapped to your noggin have a way of fighting off any preconceived plans you might have had before heading out on track. But as Lewis explained earlier, experience is one of the most important tools in a racer’s bag of tricks, and I can’t think of a more effective way to quickly bolster one’s track experience before (and after) setting foot on the road course in real life.