One of my favorite things to do in sim racing is preparing for a track I’ve never seen before. Not only is it fun to experience new challenges, but it also increases your corner vocabulary, which helps you get better at every track. Here’s how the process generally works.
- Pick a track, usually one where I imagine I might drive one day
- Drive the track blind, without any preparation
- Do some online research: read track guides, watch videos
- Drive more, working on specific goals inspired by the online research
- Do some mental imagery, focusing on reference points
- Drive more, trying to lap as fast as possible
I don’t always record telemetry in these sessions, but I thought it would be fun to do a post where I show how much I improve by learning the track over the course of a couple sessions on a lazy weekend.
When learning a new track, I usually drive a Miata or Formula trainer (e.g. FF, FV, Skip Barber). I’ve actually never driven a Formula car of any kind, but I think Formula trainers are great for exploring a track because they have unrivaled visibility, enough power to get into trouble, no nannies, and no downforce. It’s the purest form of driving. Maybe I should get one in real life. I do look longingly at Thunder Roadsters…
Session 1: Jumping in Blind
OK, time to choose a track: Pacific Raceways in Kent, Washington. Why? It’s on my Pacific North bucket list along with ORP and The Ridge. Lucky Dog has been hosting races there, so there’s a good chance I could race it in the upcoming year. I don’t know the track at all, except that I’ve seen some video clips of really awful wrecks there. I heard that they changed it a little to make it more safe, but I doubt the version I have in Assetto Corsa is that up-to-date.
The car: Russell Alexis Mk.14 Formula Ford. Like many cars in Assetto Corsa, you can download this free from Race Department. There’s also a link to send the author (Nicholas Murdoch) money via PayPal. I sent him $10. It’s as good a model as you’re likely to find in any game, and I really appreciate the author’s efforts. Certainly I will get at least $10 of enjoyment out of it, and $10 is tiny compared to real car stuff.
Driving without any preparation is somewhat suicidal. But in a good way. You very quickly figure out which corners will catch you unawares. Here’s a rundown of my lap times: 2:24, 1:57, 1:47, 1:51, 1:45, CRASH, 1:47, 1:43, 1:43, 1:42, 1:42, 1:40. There isn’t much point in reporting tenths at this point. I ran off track a few times early on, which accounts for some absurdly long lap times, and I had to restart once due to a horrific crash. In a blind session like this, I may do 10-15 laps.
There are some very tricky parts to this course! There aren’t any brake markers, so you have to look hard to find reference points. There are also places where the asphalt widens for other configurations (drag strip), making it difficult to figure out exactly where the track is going. This makes it difficult to plan the optimum line. There are also a few connected corners where compromises are necessary. Or are they? I need more time to experiment, but before that, I should hear what others have to say about the track.
Session 2: Track Guide
Why didn’t I start with track guides and videos? I find that until you drive a course, it’s hard to picture the specifics of each corner in your mind. While I would have gotten a little more out of Session 1 had I read some track guides first, I’ll get a lot more out of Session 2 having a mental movie of each corner in my mind. This isn’t a strategy I necessarily advocate when going to a real track for the first time! Do all the research you can before getting there and then review again after your track day.
I found the following videos helpful. The quality is pretty terrible, but the instruction is good. There aren’t any of the cone markers in the sim though, so those reference points aren’t there.
- The main thing I took away from the videos was how simple T1 can be even without brake markers. If you’re on the left side of the track and gently turn in towards the end of the concrete wall, the track opens up for you.
- Turn 2 is a huge decreasing radius corner, which is a hard corner to optimize. If you overslow the entry, you can’t make up for it by adding gas later as the radius pinches in. So you have to gradually bleed speed for a long time. That leads to a desire to hold as much speed as long as possible, but there’s a risk of going in too hot and washing out.
- Turn 3a is really about finding a good braking marker. If you brake too late, and end up going off track, you could end up crossing the traffic on the other side. Not sure if there’s something to prevent this in real life. If you brake too early you end up in a weird situation where adding throttle seems like the right thing to do, but it isn’t.
- Turn 3b is all about positioning yourself for a good exit. It’s a really long corner though, so the late apex is a long way around.
- Turn 5a requires some early braking to scrub speed and then back on the throttle to stabilize the suspension. It’s possibly my favorite corner because it is so unusual.
- Turn 5b is tighter and slower than it looks with a nasty curb at the apex. The best entry angle requires sacrificing the exit of 5a, and the next corner entry requires sacrificing the exit of 5b.
- Turn 6 isn’t very exciting if you set up for it properly.
- Turn 7 is tricky because the elevation robs you of vision and there aren’t good reference points. The track opens up absurdly wide due to the drag strip. What’s the line through here?
- Turn 8 is puzzling to me. It feels like a decreasing radius corner but it doesn’t really look that way from the map. Like T7, there’s a heck of a lot of room and many potential lines. Not sure what is best.
- Turn 9 isn’t very exciting in a low powered car, but I can imagine in a high powered car, you might have to sacrifice the exit of T8.
- Turn 10 is just a mild bend. If you drive point-to-point, there’s a nice setup to T1.
Session 3: Corner Work
With a better idea of each corner in mind, I drove about 20 laps. The times were 1:48, 1:48, CRASH, 1:42, 1:39, 1:39, 1:39, 1:39, 1:38, 1:39, 1:38, 1:38, 1:43, 1:38, 1:38, 1:39, 1:38.6, 1:38.4, 1:38.3, 1:38.0, 1:38.0, 1:37.9. Let’s take a look at the specific areas of improvement between the two sessions and see how picked up over 2 seconds.
- On the 1:40 lap (red) I steer a lot and let off throttle in T1 at 2500′ feet. In my mind, this was one area I was doing really poorly, but it turned out to be only 0.25 sec.
- I gain another 0.25 sec by managing my speed better in the decreasing radius T2.
- Surprisingly, figuring out how to brake for 3b nets me 0.5 sec. (5000-5500′). That’s a lot of time in one braking zone. It is a weird braking zone though, because it’s downhill and turning.
- The biggest gain is in the esses (7700-8400′), which isn’t what I was expecting. I didn’t focus on this in my offtrack studying, but the gain is nearly 1.5 seconds. Hustling the car before, during, and after 5a was the key. This one complex of corners amounted to the same gain as everything prior.
- The fact that I didn’t see much improvement in T6-T9 suggests I might be able to find more time there.
Session 4: Mental Imagery
I fell asleep going through each corner in my head. I didn’t even make it 2 laps before I was asleep.
Session 5: Setting Flyers
The black trace is the same as the 1:37.9 above. The green represents the best in this session: 1:36.8. I was able to improve another second in two areas.
- Better trail braking through T2 gained 0.4 sec.
- A new understanding of how to connect T5 through T7 (7800-10000′). In this stretch, I was able to knock off 0.75 sec. by focusing on the compromises.
If I drove another 20 laps, I could iron out some of those losses and get into the low 1:36s. But for me to get into the 1:35s will require something new.
If you want to compare your times to mine, drive with all nannies off, default weather, and default setup. Just in case they change the defaults at some point, here are the particulars:
- Weather: 8:00, Mid-Clear, 26C, Optimum track surface
- Traction Control: Factory (none)
- Stability Control: Off
- Mechanical Damage: 100%
- Tyre Blankets: Off
- ABS: Factory (none)
- Fuel Consumption: On
- Tyre Wear: 1x
- Slipstream Effect: 1x
- Gears: 13:38, 15:30, 16:23, 24:26, 10:31 (final)
- Tyres: Formula Ford East, 16 psi all around
- Fuel: 13 liters
- Camber: -0.1 F, -0.2 R
- Toe: 4 F, 12 R
- Bump: 1200 F, 1950 R
- Brake Bias: 52%
- ARB: 15 F, 7 R
- Height: 10 F, 20 R
- Wheel Rate: 11 F, 22 R
As you can see, Formula Fords have a huge range of setup choices. Setting the car up for the clockwise direction and a gearbox that maximizes gear usage will certainly drop lap times. Tuning is something I do when I’m searching for tenths, and as you can see, over the course of a few sessions, lap times were improving by whole seconds. The low lying fruit is almost never setup.
Pacific Raceways is a really interesting track that appeals to me because of its mix of difficult braking zones and compromises. It’s not just a bunch of 90s that require precision. This is a thinking person’s track.