Do you think iRacing is adequate preparation for real-life racing? Does real-world racing help with sim-racing? Circumstances finally permitted TNT Racing's two co-captains to attend the Allen Berg Racing School in Phoenix, AZ to find out the answer to those questions first-hand.
Ben “Dingo” Lindsay and Mark “Crash” Ursel arrived bright and early on a chilly, rainy morning at Arizona Motorsports Park nervously looking forward to piloting ABRS's 140hp Tatuus Renault Formula 1600 cars around AMP's 1.5 mile, 7 turn west loop track.
Neither of them had any experience in open wheel race cars. Ben's office is the cockpit of an F-16 fighter as he is a pilot for the USAF, while Mark is the Chief Technology Officer at a New York City financial information services firm.
Both, however, are accomplished sim-racers on iRacing with hundreds of thousands of laps and thousands of races under their belts.
The sim-racing experience was enough for Allen to put them both into the advanced session (basically day two of his three day program) That meant a lot more open lapping and less instruction on the basics. It was certainly appropriate as running a couple of experienced sim-racers through an introduction to the racing line would have been time wasted.
The five members of the group consisted of Mark, Ben, two real-world racers and a teenage amateur racing enthusiast.
The first order of business at the school was a briefing from Allen going over the car, the controls and a mental exercise to help visualize heel-toe downshifting. Afterwards, Allen took the group around the track in a minivan to scout the course. His team had placed cones at all of the turn-in, apex and track out points to make the job of finding the ideal line easier.
Next up was a getting suited up with a firesuit, a helmet and driving gloves, then hitting the track for a lead-follow session with one of the instructors driving a red Mustang. The track was still wet, and the cars were outfitted with rain tires. The rain had stopped though, so things were looking up.
Both TNT drivers were fighting fit issues in the car, but the basic controls are straightforward and presented no problems. Dingo was trying to get used to shifting gears with his right hand while Mark decided that cones were the enemy and took out three of them while exploring the line limits. The instructors were displeased.
After a quick classroom session with Allen discussing slip angles, it was back into the cars for the first open lapping session. The track had dried out, racing slicks were back on the cars. The adrenaline was flowing and it was finally time to bring the cars up to speed.
Ben describes, “First lap, awesome! Lit it up out of the pits with a 10 second gap and hammered the throttle expecting grip everywhere because they put slicks on. Got to T3 (hairpin) lit the rears in 3rd gear and spun. Great start.”
Mark's experience was similar, “Got the car up to speed and tried to get the tires warm. Was still trying to figure out the downshifting spots when I went into T4 a bit too hot, downshifted and spun the car in the middle of the track. Was hoping it didn't set the tone for the rest of the day.”
ABRS' Cam Parsons provided the MoTeC data analysis after each open lapping session. In the session afterwards, Cam concentrated on our lines above all else. Both Dingo and Crash were pretty close to the ideal line on their fast laps, but there were areas to improve on. Dingo's best lap time was in the 54's while Mark's was in the 1:01's. Dingo was the best in the group, Mark third.
Fit issues were still plaguing both drivers. Dingo's long legs made it difficult to be fully off the pedals. The pedal box is so narrow that there is no dead-pedal to rest your left foot on when not on the clutch so you need to slightly rest your foot directly on the clutch. Crash's right leg was pressed so hard against the gear shift lever that pulling it back for an upshift was very difficult. These cars are definitely not made for larger people. Dingo was also battling aero buffeting as his 6'4” frame placed him higher in the air flow. Mark's helmet was getting significant and distracting aero lift down the straights, pulling the helmet up and backwards as speeds increased.
After a restroom/debrief/lunch break, the boys mounted up for the second open lapping session. Dingo got out on track and was really exploring grip limits, especially around the last corner. There's a nasty bump there right on the racing line that would really pitch the car sideways, kicking the back end out. He was hitting it at 100% throttle and then catching the back end as it stepped out. The instructors were having a fit about that and called him into the pits for a finger-wagging session.
Mark's fit issues were finally getting better as he removed padding both under and behind to get a little more room. Shifting became much easier and the reach to the steering wheel was better. The helmet lift was still a big issue though.
The classroom session was more of the same on line and braking, but also talked more about carrying speed through the corner and accelerating sooner. Once again, Ben was fastest in the group, breaking into the 52's while Mark was second, in the high 55's. Both Dingo and Crash were praised for good lines through the corners and good braking techniques. Dingo's weakness was more about not accelerating sooner, while Mark's was about over-braking and not carrying enough speed through the esses.
For the third and final session, Mark's helmet lifting issue was solved by the instructors taping a pad to the headrest. By pressing his helmet back into the pad, the lift issue disappeared and Mark was finally free to just drive the car without distractions.
Dingo was concentrating on being smooth during the session and lowered his lap times repeatedly into the 52's with a fastest time of 52.020. Mark was enjoying driving it without struggling with fit and did a best of 53.919 before the session was over. Once again, the TNT boys were the class of the group, with the nearest time in the high 55's.
The debrief for the final session was quite rewarding as it showed both of the guys made tremendous improvements. When reviewing Mark & Ben's fast laps, Cam said both had improved a lot and were hitting the racing line just about perfectly.
So does iRacing prepare you for real-world racing? These two drivers enthusiastically say yes.
“It was nice to only have to concentrate on learning to operate the car. Everything else, from braking points, hitting apexes, tracking out and car control were already second nature.” said Mark.
Ben added, “At the end of the day, the other competitors took an interest in TNT-Racing and iRacing as they found how much it appeared to help. For me, the benefit of iRacing was huge, and the ability to feel and understand corner grip as a function of g-forces was simple.”
iRacing doesn't prepare you for everything though. As Mark said, “The cars really give you a beating. The g-forces jam you hard against the side of the cockpit where every little bump goes straight into your bones. I gotta say, I'm really sore.”
What about the other way around - does a real racing school help you sim-racing?
"To finally be able to feel a formula car at the limits of grip definitely helps with iRacing. It's mostly that you now have a true seat-of-the-pants feel to go along with the visual, audio and force feedback from the sim." said Mark.
Overall, both said they had a spectacularly fun day. They left the track tired, beaten up, motivated and with goofy grins from ear to ear.
Dingo's wild ride through the final turn
Two laps on-board with Crash