Driving with low grip is a great way to improve your racetrack driving skill. That’s why the Kenny Roberts Ranch is a dirt track. It’s also why the Skip Barber Formula 2000 rides on BFG T/A Radials. If you want to get better at driving, leave the sticky tires at home and drive on all-seasons. The same is true of virtual training. Drive on loose surfaces and with hard tires if you want to improve your feel for vehicle dynamics and develop your car control skills.
My favorite rally sim is DiRT Rally. When I first discovered it, during the Steam Early Access release in 2015, I knew nothing about rally. But I soon became such a huge fan that I built my Yaris to do double-duty as a rally car. Truthfully, I haven’t done much rallying in real life. I attended the Primitive Rally School at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds and goofed around a bit at the Prairie City Off Highway Vehicle Park. Those experiences told me 2 things: that rally driving is the best kind of driving, and that DiRT Rally felt pretty realistic.
So why don’t I do more rally? I only subscribe to a few YouTube channels, but one of them is “Racing Fail!”. I like it so much that I donate to it monthly via Patreon (you can even see my name at the start of the videos). Every week, Racing Fail! shows motorsports crashes from the previous week. And every week there are multiple rally drivers wrapping their cars around trees, driving off cliffs, and rolling through fields like mechanical tumble weeds. Occasionally they catch on fire. That’s sort of terrifying. Racing Fail! is a weekly reminder to stay safe and not to wreck my Yaris (or burn myself crispy).
Back to the sim world. DiRT Rally is old enough that it can be picked up on Steam for as little as $10 when it goes on sale. There are newer rally sims from the same developer, Codemasters, but neither DiRT 4 nor DiRT Rally 2.0 is actually better. One of the downsides of DiRT Rally is that there is no community-created content. While DiRT Rally has some great vehicles (by great I mean lower performance cars similar to what I drive) the collection cars and tracks are fixed. There’s nothing new coming. Community-content is what makes Assetto Corsa great. So that begs the question “how good is Assetto Corsa as a rally trainer?”
Rally Training in Assetto Corsa
While you won’t find much official (Kuno Simulazioni) rally content, the community has created plenty of cars and tracks. While the choice of rally cars ranges from the modern WRC Polo to the historic Lada VFTS, you don’t need a rally car for rally driving. For tracks, there are rally stages on gravel, dirt, and snow, as well as hill climbs, street races, and stadium rallycross. As with all AC community content, the cost is mostly free and the quality highly variable.
For training purposes, it’s a good idea to drive both RWD and FWD layouts because they behave differently. For RWD I go with the NA Miata because Miata Is Always The Answer. I say this even though I no longer own a Miata. The Assetto Corsa NA Miata is such a great model that it’s the first thing I turn to, even on dirt. For FWD, I like the Chevy Monza. The motor is on the weak side and the suspension is on the plush side, just like the cars I drive. The Miata is faster on asphalt but the Monza is faster on dirt. But they are very close on any surface, and make a great set of cars to play with for any occasion.
One of the things that makes rally driving unique is the co-driver. In DiRT Rally, you can have visual or audio cues, and you can specify how early or late you want to hear them. Personally, I use audio only and have them announced as far forward as possible. I really enjoy having a co-driver, but for the purposes of training it’s not necessary or even desirable. So while you can download a co-driver app for AC, and you can drive long rally stages, the best way to use AC for low grip training is on a small, closed course. Below are three tracks I recommend and some target times for a Miata/Monza.
- Karelia – This is a fantasy rally circuit with a good mix of low and high speed corners as well as compromises. It’s probably my favorite rally trainer. Fast laps: 1:04.
- Gentlemen Rallycross – Although the graphics are sorely outdated, the track is a great mixture of turns and surfaces. There is a joker section. Fast laps: 1:12 (non-joker).
- Kouvola Rallycross – This is a stadium rally cross that alternates asphalt and dirt. The graphics on this track are much better than the others. There’s more than one fast line, so experiment. The lap features a joker. Fast laps: 0:50 (non-joker).
While DiRT Rally is the king of rally sims, there are a few things Assetto Corsa does very well. It gives you a HUGE selection of cars and tracks to play with. And if you want to change the grip of any track, simply edit the surfaces.ini file. I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert on force feedback, but the Miata and Monza feel really good. Good enough to program your muscle memory anyway, and that’s the whole point of virtual rally training.
Some people say that Richard Burns Rally (RBR) is the king of rally sims. That platform is so old that you can’t even buy it anymore. That said, there are people making content for it, even though the game never supported that. The only way to get RBR is by violating copyright, which I try not to do, so I don’t have personal experience with it.