Sim racing: champions develop consistency and adaptability
Can inconsistent sim racers ever break out of their unwanted accolade?
||Jonathan Simon | January 10, 2017The Simon Racing Report - RaceSpot TV Commentator
Here’s a question asked profusely. Would you rather have pole position on Saturday, or a podium on Sunday? Without the blink of an eye, I want the points. I need the points. Do I want to be remembered as a qualifying specialist or a race distance connoisseur? If you’re a savant at making smart decisions, championships only come with points and points only come on Sunday. Race winners are streaky, spontaneous and for some, lucky. Champions are consistent and create their own lucky opportunities. There are habits we can create and habits we can break to develop ourselves as a consistent and adaptable driver, otherwise known as your champion.
Sebastian Job’s recent retirement at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps – round 7 of the 2017/18 iRacing Road Pro Series
adds to a small history of unforced errors for the young Brit. Sebastian, Patrik Holzmann, as well as Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola all have the speed to contend for a world championship, but I've observed a common trait the trio share. There are certain drivers that ironically, endlessly can’t find an end to their consistency woes. If we knew why, the issue would be solved. Lewis Hamilton was known earlier on in his career for his inconsistent, balls out driving style. However he adapted to the modern day style of driving, saving tyre life and finishing races for strong points. It’s never too late for a driver to reduce their ‘Did Not Finish’ (DNF) troubles. History says though that this generally doesn’t happen and most drivers are stuck with a weakness and accolade none of them want to their name. Included in this list is myself.
Consistency is different when it comes to sports and sim racing. If you’re consistently monotonous – euphemism for consistently shit, you’ve already failed. Consistency is success and hard work at a routine level. The biggest commonality I’ve observed of successful people and organisations is that they have the ability to ‘show up’ consistently on a day to day basis. Sim racers need to be adaptable and drive out of their comfort zone, getting a feel for uncharacteristic things they wouldn’t expect or predict, but would’ve at least prepared for.
The modern day mould of a successful sim racer has evolved over the past ten years. Your average test session ten years ago included an abundance of hotlapping specialists with a lack of race practice. Now, up and coming racers understand that consistency over a full race distance is of championship winning importance. We all learn from the previous generations.
Total iWCGPS Starts vs DNF's
Throughout the years, the percentage of drivers not finishing races has decreased. This is due to the evolution of consistency and approach as mentioned, along with improvements to latency and the move to the McLaren MP4-30.
Of course, driving styles have also had to adapt to different eras of motor racing. The 2010’s has been associated with tyre management, scoring important race points, lack of celebration and care for pole positions or good qualifying performances, the drag reduction system (DRS), push to pass and more. Motor racing has evolved the same way every sport undergoes evolution. Basketball’s reliance on small-ball lineups and three point shooting has taken precedence in the modern day, taking over the slow and tall post-up ‘bang them down low' Pastor Maldonado style of play. Baseball has too shifted slightly towards a significant focus on pitching and away from big bat hitting.
Patrik Holzmann and Aleksi Uusi-Jaakkola, both talented and quick, have had plenty of success and failure at both the world championship level and other major events. They are two of the top sim racers I’ve ever seen. Matter of fact, I truly thought Aleksi was going to win the 2015 iRacing World Championship Grand Prix Series (iWCGPS) after the opening few rounds. Have a look at their numbers below when it comes down to starts and DNF’s. If unforced errors could also be tracked, a driver would find it impossible to exonerate themselves from the harsh reality of this. These drivers fail to finish races as much as an average level driver. The difference is, they have enough speed to contend at the front in and around world champions, so expectations increase.
In a total of 285 starts between iWCGPS world champions Greger Huttu, Hugo Luis and Martin Krönke, they have each failed to finish a race 6 times for a total of 6.32%.
All three are also insanely quick in qualifying, but have suffered from a number of issues in a race. On average, the trio lose around 4 to 6 positions from their starting grid slots when they receive the chequered flag. Although not all of these DNF's are entirely their fault. They've also all suffered from some form of a technical issue, whether it's connection or wheel/pedals.
Regardless, the modern era has also put further emphasis on drivers applying super smooth inputs through the steering and pedals. Easily degradable tyres are to both praise and blame, whether you like it or not. A smooth style keeps the rubber in check and rewards drivers the further a race progresses. It’s also coincided with drivers understanding that championship points for most series are only handed out on race day and not qualifying. Developing a setup that will position you well on the grid isn’t the ‘do all end all’, especially in a virtual sport where overtaking is much easier than the real world counterpart.
I was lucky enough to spend a couple months with Patrik when I joined GhostSpeed Racing back in my FSR World Championship days (when the series was last credible and good – just barely). He is by far the most deadly teammate I’ve ever had over a single lap – insanely swift and quick. Although our time was short together on the team, there was a common trait I noticed which also hindered me as a driver.
Patrik is renowned for being a hotlapper. Certainly not in a negative way – just that he’s able to string together a blisteringly quick pole lap that would break a virtual sound barrier if it existed. With all the world records he has set in Codemasters F1 video games in the past and present, this taught me a valuable lesson on feel, driving style and how you conduct practice. Park this thought for a second, we'll make sure not to get hit by the medical car in the next couple paragraphs (Taki Inoue) and come back to this discussion soon.
In my mind, every driver has an ‘error prone range’. Your maximum qualifying pace is 100% of your total effort and no driver can give more than 100% effort into a lap. The average driver is error prone when putting in effort at a range between 80% and 100%. This means once they start pushing past 80% of their skill level and ability, there is a dramatic exponential increase in the amount of errors made. From my experience racing in the FSR World Championship, the world’s best sim racers are capable of keeping an ‘error prone range’ of around 95% to 100%. For someone at the skill level of a Martin Krönke, Greger Huttu or Bono Huis, they’re generally within the 98% to 100% range. Just remember that nobody’s perfect, it’s how CLOSE to perfection you can get.
When a driver hotlaps, they develop their own overall pace, ability and skill. This raises how quick you are at 100% effort. However the more you hotlap, the more your ‘error prone range’ increases. Just remember, if a 100m sprinter starts running marathons, it decreases how quick they are in the short run. Vice versa for a marathon runner. To improve pace yet reduce errors, it’s about coinciding skill, experience, time spent in practice and instinct.
The medical car didn’t hit us, so back to talking about hotlapping. Better yet, how to improve consistency. One of the first things I would do during testing for a new track/round was put in a rough estimate of a full race fuel load, then lap around for as long as I could without spinning, crashing or making mistakes. I would try to find the limit of the car. Lewis Hamilton’s latest video of him lapping around the Nurburgring is the best example of this.
Lewis experiments with the car, learns the track, finds the limit, goes beyond it, backs off, then pushes slightly harder again. Bwoah, this is art. If you find yourself relishing when finding the limit as Lewis does, expect to go places in racing. The video also cements that perfection isn’t easy to come by. The worst thing you can do when focusing on improving consistency is worry about lap times from lap one. Drivers who post a screenshot of a remarkable stint, where laptimes are within a tenth of a second of each other every lap doesn’t necessarily indicate they are ultra-consistent. That’s the same person who hits the gym, runs for ten minutes then uses Instagram to post how puffed they are from an intense breathtaking workout.
A car changes from one lap to the next and as we mentioned before, consistency is adaptability. Consistent lap times fluctuate due to shifting conditions and an abundance of other variables. Once you’re used to adaptable long run pace, setting consistent laps, as well as consistently improving your pace too as you’re learning the track, you then start playing around with the basic package of the setup.
Setup adjustments were never made on the first day for me, with the exception of some basic braking, gearing and aero adjustments to make sure I was getting a feel for the most dramatic changes of the car. Once 7th gear and the wings were set up to max out at the end of the longest straight, I would pursue other setup avenues. This would include experimenting with different downforce packages to see which was quicker over a long distance and most of all, seeing which package you were most COMFORTABLE with as a driver. This is only day one, I wouldn't touch any other aspect of the car until at least day two.
If you’re the driver who mindlessly clicks on a setting and says “hey, that’s faster!” you’re not the only one. We’ve all done it, even the pros. I’ve never figured out how to ideally setup ride height and packers for example. I've tried reading MoTeC, using logic, it's certainly not the easiest part of the car to setup. I always stole the best setting from other teammates. Not understanding what you’re changing however, reduces your warm snug comfort with the car.
There’s two ways to go about a setup, the quickest option or the safest option. It also depends on how skillful you are at driving the ‘quick’ setup you can produce. That setup option may be a tenth or two quicker than your ‘safe’ setup. The catch: you’re susceptible to making errors as you’re not especially comfortable with it. Figured it out yet? Apprehensiveness with a car reduces consistency.
Michael Dinkel was an advocate for this – mentioning on my podcast that despite a quicker setup being faster over a single lap, you aren’t driving on rails for the entire race. You’re not a robot, at least not until 2050, when driverless cars will be taking over Formula 1 to everyone’s chagrin. You’re more prone to making mistakes every few laps and this increases overall lap time more so than a slower setup.
So how does this relate to consistency? By incorporating long stints into your practice sessions, you’re making calculated and comfortable setup adjustments. This results in greater consistency while also developing overall driving skill and most importantly muscle memory.
Further developing consistency are the long rhythmic stints. The more laps you complete, muscle memory is improved and in turn, the greater your consistency. Think of Tom Brady’s throwing motion that he’s mastered over and over and over again. All those long nights in Foxborough, staying late until 9:30pm at the New England Patriots practice facility trying to master his arm. It’s a carbon copy motion every single time.
I used to think the two weeks of practice between each race was sufficient enough to build muscle memory. After a while, I realised not every traction zone was the same at each circuit, neither was grip, corner radius and so on… While they share similar characteristics, muscle memory in sim racing relates to the steering and pedal movements in the body that you can replicate picture perfect repeatedly. The biggest eye opener for me was while playing a different sport. My free throw percentage in basketball was not based off of two weeks of practice. It was off a lifetime of constant failure, adjustments and then success.
Two weeks of practice is not enough to develop consistency and adaptability. So don't treat each circuit like a new venture.
Back on topic, comfort is what you’re trying to achieve to be consistent and that’s what hotlapping doesn’t achieve. Take 4 hours of hotlapping over 3 days. Roughly two of those laps would satisfy me and as a result, I’m dissatisfied, uncomfortable and far from snug in the car. As a driver, I would lose the serenity and sanity to adapt to constant changes to the weight of the car as the fuel decreases, tyre wear increases, etc. Worst of all were the random lock-ups that would occur, especially when you’d never experienced that in the two weeks of practice leading up the event.
To take a trip back memory lane, let’s go back to my rFactor 1 days. The tyres in a particular amateur league I raced in (the mod was created by the league itself) would turn to ice at a random corner around 79% of wear. As a result, you would spin in an instant, before the grip returned to normal at around 78% of wear. Realistic? No – but you have to adapt to the circumstances given to you. That’s consistency right? I wouldn’t have known the tyres turned to ice without at least lapping long stints in practice. To counter this issue, I took it easy when the tyres would get to this certain point of wear, then start to push again once the issue was long gone. Hotlapping and making setup adjustments for a low fuel qualifying setup would have put me in turmoil. I made most of my setup adjustments with around 50% of fuel load in the car.
Another quick anecdote – I vividly remember my Logitech G27 waking up the whole house at 3am in the morning after I locked the brakes in the early laps of a race. Thanks rFactor 2. The flat spot on the tyre allowed my wheel to have a voracious orgasm until I waited for my scheduled stop 15 laps later. I certainly never practiced that and rightly so. Do I want to foot a repair bill for a new wheel, broken table, new computer, desk, hospital bill for the amount of vibrations that were sent through my body? Get the fuck out of here.
My greatest lesson learnt on sim racing, consistency and racecraft, is to do a Bill Belichick. Prepare for every situation before it occurs. When the Patriots were down 28 – 3 in Super Bowl LI, the Patriots later tied the game 28 a piece before winning in overtime. You could tell they had prepared for this situation before, no panic whatsoever. I would intentionally lock up in a practice stint to understand how the car would react. Only for a couple laps of course…
If you’re going to struggle to qualify near the front and have an untroubled and super consistent race, then practice adaptability.
There was a common theme with team owners and managers that I noticed while racing. They were always impressed and respected talent who had the ability to couple quickness with consistency. Having one over the other wouldn’t razzle or dazzle anyone in the virtual paddock. Having both would not only impress team owners but would come out in the wash – the championship standings. I once heard from a dentist that the biggest thing that attracted them was a guy who had clean teeth. Think of dentists as team owners/managers and clean teeth as consistent adaptable sim racers. Don’t ask, I’ve hit on a dentist before.
Sebastian Job has a fork in the road mission on his hands. Become the future world champion he has the potential to turn be?
Maintain the high qualifying, DNF filled results due to mental errors. Can inconsistency ever be developed with a sim racer or will they forever be inconsistent? So far Holzmann and Uusi-Jaakkola haven’t managed to overcome this dilemma, next to prove the theory wrong is Job. Can he do it?
Don't forget, that Patrik and Aleksi have still had incredibly successful careers so far, even without Krönke's adaptable consistency.
It’s not a ‘young and dumb’ thing either. Just remember that Bono Huis was a world champion at 16 years of age without inconsistency issues. But there are still plenty of other young sim racers who have snapped out of being an inconsistent juggernaut.
The one lap qualifying specialist is a 100m sprinter, always quick over one lap and unstoppable in qualifying on the Saturday. Your race winners and champions are marathon runners, maintaining strong consistent pace over a long distance. Adaptable in all places, conditions and circumstances.
||Jonathan Simon provides commentary for RaceSpot TV on the iRacing World Championship Grand Prix Series. He also owns and hosts his own podcast called The Simon Racing Report which features guests from around the sim racing world, along with writing columns for the website.