Tiernan’s Sim Rig

Racing buddy Tiernan and I recently put together a sim rig for him. Like race cars, sim rigs are never truly complete, so this post is really just documenting version 1.0.

Seat

An authentic sim rig needs an authentic seat. So we went to Pick-n-Pull and started picking and pulling. Some of the seats we didn’t choose had water damage from open windows. We eventually found a nice clean seat from a Mitsubishi Eclipse.

Triple Monitors

The first thing you have to decide is what kind of monitors you’re going to use.

  • Single screen
  • Triple screens
  • VR goggles
  • Projection

I use a single 2560×1080 screen. It’s basically a typical 1080p monitor that is 50% wider. My previous monitor was a 1920x1080p, and it was great. The extra width adds a tiny bit to the immersion, but not that much.

I had an Oculus Rift, but it made me motion sick, so I stopped using it. The sense of immersion was amazing though. When I tried a triple screen setup at Turn2 Racing, I was shocked at how similar triple screens are to full VR. It’s very good and doesn’t give me motion sickness. ¬†Projection screens aren’t mainstream, but I can imagine they could be even better.

We decided to build a triple monitor rig.

Computer

To make life simple, you should have 3 of the same monitors, and all of the cabling should be the same type. While you can mix HDMI, DVI, VGA, and Display Port, it’s a pain having multiple adapters. Also, mixing analog and digital signals is not recommended. So the first order of business was to match monitors and graphic card ports. Since this was a newly built rig, it wasn’t hard finding a cheap-ish computer and cheap-ish 1080p monitors that played well together.

The computer is a SkyTech Blaze (R3 1200, 8GB RAM, RX580 GPU), and the monitors are Dells. The RX580 has 3 Display Ports, so the cabling is 100% Display Port. The monitor stands came from Amazon, and the fancy power strip was something I picked up at a secondhand electronics store.

Cockpit

Before building the cockpit, we took various measurements of Tiernan sitting in an ideal driving position. Then we drafted some plans to put that into action. Half way through construction, we realized we had cut one piece of plywood incorrectly, and it would require actually purchasing plywood to continue (we were using scraps from an old Lemons theme when the Miata was outfitted as the Can’t Am). So we just said fuck-it and started eye-balling every measurement around a 2×4-inspired design. It turned out pretty robust as the 2x4s were connected with grade-8 transmission bolts picked up at Pick-n-Pull.

Controllers

I had an extra G25 and DFGT wheel lying around, as well as a G25 shifter and G25 pedals. The pedals have an AP Electrix load cell on them and Bodnar cable, so they feel much better than stock and can be connected independently of the wheel. That’s good because G25 pedals are much better than wheels. I really don’t like Logitech wheels with Assetto Corsa. Thankfully, Tiernan found a Thrustmaster T150 on Craigslist for $30. It came with a shitty 2-pedal system. So we mixed-n-matched to arrive at a pretty good setup.

Summary

The project took a couple weeks to build because our schedules didn’t mesh well. I’m sure we could build another one in a day. The all-inclusive cost was about $1250, and most of that was because of the new computer and monitors. With some patient hunting on Craigslist, the price could be cut in half.

 

Test Drive

I just returned from a visit with Tiernan and got to try out his rig in Assetto Corsa and Forza 7. So how does it work? Pretty darn good. Here’s my report card.

  • Cockpit 4/5: This is as good as a static rig needs to be. Sure, the extruded aluminum rigs might look more high-tech, but this does the same job for a fraction of the price. To get a higher rank it would need a button box and cup holder.
  • Monitors 4/5: Once the sim is running, it’s very immersive. I thought I had VR goggles on.
  • Sound 1/5: The mono speaker isn’t great. A $20 headset would make this a 4/5.
  • Wheel 2.5/5: While the T150 wheel is definitely a step up from the G25 and DFGT (in AC at least), there’s a big gap between a T150 and a TS-PC Racer. You can definitely have fun and learn tracks with a T150, but as a tool to train your muscle memory, it’s only okay.
  • Pedals 3/5: The AP Electrix load cell brake pedal is better than a spring-n-potentiometer, but it doesn’t have the feel of my PerfectPedal hydraulic unit. The load cell works, but its dynamic range is small. The clutch and throttle are decent.
  • Shifter 4/5: I used the paddle shifters on the T150. I actually like paddle shifters on a sim rig. I don’t get much immersion from a fake stick shift.
  • Forza 7 3/5: I hadn’t tried it before. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be. The graphics are really good. The force feedback is plausible. The track I tried was Laguna Seca, and it was definitely not laser scanned. I can’t believe they are allowed to use the Laguna Seca branding on a track that is so horribly inaccurate.

2.0?

Here’s how I would take this rig to the next level.

  1. USB headset.
  2. Thrustmaster wheel base, wheel adapter, and eBay wheel. I like having a full-size steering wheel, and it’s cheaper to go this route than getting a Thrustmaster wheel. The downside is not having any buttons. But it’s pretty trivial to make a button box with a $20 Amazon kit and if you want shrink-wrapped solution, a numeric keypad is just $8.
  3. A PerfectPedal kit is $250 and turns the G25 into a top-of-the-line pedal. But for $250, one can also get a Fanatec pedal set. Hard decision.

DIY: Camera Mount and Sequential Shifter

Camera Mount

I normally mount cameras to the roll cage. It’s stable and I like having the camera positioned in the center of the car. In a car without a roll cage it’s more of a challenge, and one solution I’ve seen is to mount a camera support to the headrest. I looked at several designs and decided I could make one. I came up with the design below because I had some box section aluminum and RAM mounts lying around. I got the J-hooks and twist knobs at the local Ace Hardware. Wingnuts would have been much cheaper, but I hate twisting those things. The hooks were a bit long, so I trimmed them with an angle grinder. Overall, it’s very sturdy, and inexpensive.

Sequential Shifter

My G25 shifter is old and having problems. So I decided to build my own shifter from an arcade kit. The last time I built a USB controller it was a lot more expensive and complicated. The one I got was $22 and included the stick, 8 buttons, and a USB board. I mounted the stick and one button to a scrap of bamboo flooring. The shifter works okay, but I wish the return spring was a bit more robust. Ultimately, it works just fine, and it was a fun project. However, if I was doing this again, I would look for something more robust.

Sim rig updates

Recently, I made a few improvements to my 2×4 sim rig in order to give it more of a car-like feel. Here’s the rundown.

Steering Wheel

Most simulator wheels are much smaller than the steering wheel in your car. I’m not sure why this is, but they tend to be around 10-11″ while cars are 13-14″. For reference, the stock NA Miata wheel is 14″. The wheel in my Yaris is a cheap eBay wheel measuring 350mm or about 13 3/4″. I want my sim rig to be as similar to a car as possible, so I bought another eBay wheel. These things run about $35 and the quality is good enough for racing. For another $35 you can get an adapter that will allow you to mount a standard 6-hole steering wheel onto a Thrustmaster base. You can buy a Thrustmaster base without a wheel for about $200, so $270-ish for a high quality wheel is a good deal. The only downside to this is that you won’t have a bunch of buttons on the wheel or paddle shifters. That’s okay because I don’t have those on my real vehicles.

 

Button Box

Since I lost some steering wheel buttons, I wanted to replace those with a button box of some kind. What do you use a button box for? Ignition, windshield wipers, lights, pit requests, etc. While you can use a keyboard for that, it’s usually not within easy reach while driving. For that reason, many sim rigs have dedicated button boxes mounted like a dash. I salivated over button boxes like the one below from DSD. I even contemplated building my own using a USB chip from Bodnar (I’ve done that before for flight simulation).

In the end, I let my frugal side win and bought an external numeric keypad from Amazon for $8.99. I put a RAM mount on this and position it just left of my wheel.

Hand Brake

I wasn’t sure if I would like a hand brake, so I ordered one from Amazon because they have a convenient return policy. I was expecting it to act like an on-off switch, but it outputs a range of values when operated. You can mount the handle horizontally or vertically. Mine is horizontal, like in most cars. Is it worth $90 for a hand brake? If you do a lot of rally driving, yes. Otherwise, no. Since DiRT Rally is one of my favorite titles, the answer for me is yes.

Shifter

I’ve had a Logitech G25 shifter for a while, but it isn’t always connected to my rig. I started using paddle shifters when I got my Thrustmaster wheel, and they take up less desk space. But now that I don’t have paddles, I have to go back to the shifter. I don’t have that much of a preference either way. I feel like the shifter is the least important part of a sim rig.

Completed

In the picture below, you can see the current setup. The curved monitor is 2560×1080 at 144hz. There’s also a tiny 1280×720 monitor below on the left. I use that with DashPanel to monitor tire temperatures and such. Just below that, behind the steering wheel you can see the numeric keypad. Both the mini-monitor and keypad are attached with RAM mounts because I mount everything with RAM mounts. The hand brake is visible at the bottom.

Untitled #1

I had a lot of competing titles for this post. Ultimately, I couldn’t choose.

  • ABA testing
  • Logitech vs Thrustmaster round 2
  • Assetto Corsa and Logitech don’t play well together
  • Silky smooth vs. the ragged edge
  • Hardware matters
  • Software matters

When I first started sim racing, I went through several iterations of Logitech gear including Momo, G25, G27, and DFGT. I did a lot of iRacing with a G25 rig. I quickly upgraded the brake pedal to a PerfectPedal hydraulic unit, and I maintain that at $300, it was worth every penny (they now cost $250). I went from G25 to G27 to DFGT steering wheels, each one being a slight upgrade (believe it or not, the DFGT is on par with the G27 and has some nicer buttons). Much of my DiRT Rally time was with the DFGT. I spent a lot of time using Logitech products. They never broke, and I was really happy with them.

For some reason, which I don’t recall exactly, I decided to plunk down $500 for a Thrustmaster TS-PC Racer. I went back and re-read my review at the time and here were the 3 important take-aways:

  1. Logitech is a great place to start
  2. TS-PC Racer offers more feel
  3. I was immediately a little faster with the TS-PC Racer

This week, I hooked up my old DFGT to a set of G25 pedals with an AP Electrix load cell brake pedal. The AP isn’t sold anymore. It’s not as good as the PerfectPedal, having much less range of motion and precision, but it’s better than a spring on a potentiometer. The whole setup is pretty similar to what I used a couple years ago, and I was feeling a little nostalgic to give the old rig a whirl.

So I loaded up Assetto Corsa and here’s the shocking thing I found: I can’t drive it for shit. I can’t sense or catch oversteer at all. I can drive a few fast laps by driving from memory, but I can’t feel the track, and I end up spinning. I hardly ever spin with the TS-PC Racer. I’ve looked at online guides and messed around with various force feedback (FFB) settings, but I can’t get it to feel good. I want to turn up the FFB gain, but that causes clipping, and a total loss of feel.

I thought maybe it’s a problem with Assetto Corsa, so I loaded up rFactor 2 and DiRT Rally. The DFGT works a little better in rFactor 2. I can definitely feel slides better, but it’s like I’m driving with welding gloves on. The same is true of DiRT Rally. I kept asking myself how I drove like this. The Thrustmaster TS-PC Racer isn’t a small upgrade, it’s a huge one. A Logitech wheel will teach you how to be smooth. In fact, it will punish you badly if you aren’t smooth. But it doesn’t let you drive the ragged edge the way the Thrustmaster does. Give me 100 laps with the Logitech and I’ll be able to put one of those within 0.1 sec of the Thrustmaster top lap. But those 100 laps will feature a lot of frustration and spinning. Furthermore, I’ll be driving more by wrote rather than feel, and ultimately, that’s not what training is for.

Update #1: ORP Experiment

YSAR reader Eric asked me to try the Skip Barber at Oregon Raceway Park. I don’t know ORP very well, and hadn’t driven it in some time, so it took a few familiarization laps to get reacquainted. After 12 laps I had posted a 2:03.6 on my Thrustmaster rig. No crashes, no spins. Then I switched to the Logitech rig. I had to be really careful with the throttle pedal because it’s hard to catch oversteer with the Logitech, but knowing that, I changed my driving style. After 15 laps, the best I did was 2:04.4. My last lap was a real burner, and I was a half second ahead when I crashed out. I would guess that I went off course on about half of the laps, and most of those were the early ones.

Eric also asked me to post my difficultly/assist settings. That’s easy because everything is always off. The only time I use any assist is when the car came with ABS from the factory. But my favorite sim cars are all pre-ABS models, so it’s rare that I tick the ABS box.

BTW, ORP is only available in rFactor 2, so this was all conducted there. rFactor 2 plays much better with Logitech than Assetto Corsa.

Update #2: Tiernan Experiment

Let’s see what Tiernan has to say. I think Tiernan’s claim to fame may be that he’s driven more exotic cars than almost anyone on the planet. All at parking lots speeds however. You see, he is hired annually as the official car mover by some famous auction or other. Of course, none of that matters here. What’s important is that (a) he’s a sim racing noob (2) he generally knows cars.

I first set Tiernan up with Assetto Corsa at Laguna Seca in the Chevy Monza in the Thrustmaster rig. After running enough laps to run out of fuel, he switched over to the DFGT rig. At which point he threw up his hands and declared that it was total shit. No feel at all. He did get within a couple seconds of his Thrustmaster time, but he was crashing all over the place. He was pretty frustrated and not enjoying it.

Then I switched the software to rFactor 2 and he perked up an said “this is totally fine”. While he didn’t try rFactor 2 on the Thrustmaster rig, I’m sure he would have liked that even better. But the main point is that Logitech FFB is basically broken on Assetto Corsa.

We’re in the process of building him a sim rig, and the question is this: buy a Thrustmaster T300 RS GT ($300) and play anything or inherit the DFGT (free) and avoid Assetto Corsa? Only he can answer that question.

Conclusions

I still think Logitech products are an excellent place to start with sim racing, but if you’re serious about training, you will be better served with a higher-end steering wheel. I have used Fanatec and direct drive wheels, and they don’t feel much different from Thrustmaster. But who knows, maybe if I used a direct drive for a couple years I could never go back to a belt drive like the TS-PC. I really love my TS-PC and while $500 seems like a lot for a steering wheel, it’s cheaper than real racing stuff.

What about iRacing?

If you noticed above, I didn’t report on iRacing. I had an iRacing subscription for several years, but I recently let it expire. Before I say why, let me say a few good things about iRacing.

  • Everyone should try iRacing for a few months minimum. There are some experiences there that are hard to get elsewhere.
  • iRacing has incredibly useful forums. Whether you want advice on software, hardware, or driving, there is a huge community of helpful people. Unlike most forums, there isn’t much flaming. Possibly this is because iRacing requires you to sign up with your real name. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. This community is really great.
  • The Rookie ranks are worth the price of admission. Whether it’s a 10 car pileup in Turn 1 or getting crashed out by a backmarker on the final lap, the Rookie experience is a no holds barred crash-fest. How can this possibly be a good thing? Because you learn to recognize idiotic drivers and dangerous situations. I think one of the reasons I’ve never had a black flag in a Lemons/Chump/Lucky race is partly because of the iRacing Rookie experience.
  • Lots of iRacers use the iSpeed application to record their fast times and compare telemetry traces. While the application isn’t as full featured as MoTec i2 or AiM RSA, for example, it’s good enough. And the real gold is having access to everyone else’s traces. Oddly, this may be the single best reason to use iRacing, and if you’re an iRacer who isn’t using iSpeed, well you suck at training.
  • In addition to the official race series, you can also find custom races or private leagues. Both Lucky Dog Racing League and ChampCar Endurance Series run private leagues. Some leagues require membership, but I think the LD and CC leagues let anyone race at any time. It’s a lot easier to run a league from iRacing than setting up a private Assetto Corsa server.
  • iRacing has a great collection of high quality tracks and cars you won’t find elsewhere.

So if I’m such an iRacing fanboy, why did I let my membership expire?

  • I wasn’t using it very often. It doesn’t make sense to pay $10 or whatever per month for software I’m not actually using.
  • I don’t really like wheel to wheel racing very much. I like perfecting my craft more than beating the other guy. That said, iRacing does have a time trial system. But it’s not a big enough selling point to keep me subscribed.
  • The cars aren’t crappy or vintage enough. Where are the NA Miatas, E30s, and Civics?
  • The FWD selection is tiny and uninteresting.
  • The force feedback isn’t on par with rFactor 2 or Assetto Corsa (with a Thrustmaster wheel, Logitech may be about the same).

If you’re having a great time in iRacing, keep on doing it. There are lots of reasons why it’s the most popular racing sim. But if you get curious, have a look at Assetto Corsa, Automobilista, DiRT Rally, Project CARS, RaceRoom Racing Experience, and rFactor 2. Each has something interesting to offer.

Just 1 mph faster

I think most people who read this blog would like to go just a little bit quicker around a race track. In fact, that may be your New Year’s resolution in a couple weeks. Rather than trying to make a huge leap, like 5 seconds, focus on something more realistic, like averaging 1 mph faster. How much faster is that in terms of lap times? It depends on the car and track. For example, in the Global MX-5 Cup at Laguna Seca, lap times ran about 1:40 in the ND2 Cup car. That’s a nice round number because it’s 100 seconds. Anyway, it turns out that 1 mph amounts to about 1.3 seconds.

As a complete aside, if you’re wondering how much faster the ND2 MX-5 is compared to the ND1, both models are raced in the Global MX-5 Cup (in different classes of course), and the answer is about 2 sec at Laguna Seca. That’s a pretty significant gap, but there’s a lot more gap to be found among the drivers. The top ND1 driver runs about the same speed as the middle of the pack ND2 driver. The difference between the two cars is 26 hp. It’s kind of amazing that even among very good racers, some drivers are effectively 26 hp better than others. Among HPDE drivers, the gap can be huge.

So back to that 1 mph faster. How are you going to go about averaging 1 mph faster? It turns out there are two ways.

  1. Enter the corner with more speed
  2. Enter the corner with more yaw

1. More Speed

For most people, more entry speed is the low lying fruit. That’s because most people brake too much and enter the corner several mph too slow. To go 1 mph faster, just enter every corner 1 mph faster and everything should sort itself out, right?

Let’s take a look at some real data from my team at a Willow Springs race a couple years back. The driver on the red trace is braking way too much, on the order of 8-10 mph in T1 and T2. That results in a lower speed all the way to the next corner and a lot of time lost. You might think the red driver is a novice, or this isn’t his fastest lap, but he isn’t a novice and this is his fastest lap.

If you’re over-braking your corner entries, as do most drivers, then there’s certainly room to enter with more speed. But how can you determine if this is the case?

  • The best way is to compare your driving to someone in an identical car with identical setup and identical weather. That’s easy to do in the sim world, but hard elsewhere.
  • Have a coach or local hotshoe drive your car so you can compare data between drivers.
  • Compare your data to someone else driving a similar car. Perhaps you both have an GT86/FRS/BRZ.
  • Compare your data to someone else in a different car. If you’re on similar tires, your entry speeds should be similar.
  • Compare your data from different laps. You might find some laps you go in faster than others.

Perhaps you’ve noticed a theme here? You’re going to need some data acquisition gear and do some comparative telemetry analysis on the speed trace. Phone apps like Harry’s Lap Timer, RaceChrono, CMS Lap Timer, Track Addict, etc. work well enough. What if you can’t use a smartphone app? I’m not sure what world you’re living in where you’re worried about lap times and can’t use a phone app, but here’s my simplest advice.

  • If you can get to 100% throttle immediately, without any kind of maintenance throttle mid-corner, you probably entered too slowly.

One of the reasons people enter corners too slowly is that they’ve heard the phrase “in slow, out fast” too many times. Another reason is that going faster would scare the shit out of them. In any case, one of the problems of entering slowly is that being under the limit gives you an invitation to add a lot of throttle mid-corner. Here’s a pretty common sub-optimal control input sequence that’s very common among intermediate drivers.

  1. Mash brake pedal – leads to low entry speed
  2. Mash throttle – leads to mid-corner understeer
  3. Lift throttle – to prevent running out of room at the exit

One of the misconceptions of the intermediate driver is that they should mash the throttle mid-corner. That will get the car to rotate, right? Somewhere in their past the driver not only heard “in slow, out fast”, they also heard “loose is fast”. So they think mashing the throttle will get the car to loosen up. Spinning the rear tires isn’t the same as transferring weight to the front. Drifting greatly reduces the overall grip of the car. Transferring weight does not.

Too much speed

As you get better at optimizing your entry speed, you will eventually run into another problem: you can’t actually enter any faster. Let’s assume that 66 mph is the limit for a specific vehicle in a specific corner. What happens if you try to go 67 mph? The corner radius has to get bigger. The equation that relates speed, grip, and radius is: speed = sqrt(grip * radius). If you decide to enter a 66 mph corner at 67 mph, the radius of the corner will have to get larger to compensate because grip is a constant. In other words, you’ll fall off the track at the exit. If you don’t want that to happen, you’ll have to lift off throttle to tighten the radius and now you’ve basically done the corner backwards (in fast, out slow).

The intermediate level of driving is a mixture of too little and too much entry speed. In both cases, drivers are fighting understeer at the exit, but for different reasons. In either case, if you have to lift at the exit, you’re killing your lap time. The whole point of the typical late apex racing line is to optimize the power of the car in the second half of the corner. Lifting ruins that.

Even if you’re not lifting at the exit, you might still be in the “too much entry speed” category. Some drivers have enough discipline not to mash the throttle, so they don’t have to lift later. Instead, they spend a lot of time coasting in the mid-corner and are late on throttle. The time to add throttle is actually before the apex, but mid-corner coasters add throttle at or after the apex.

The high intermediate performance plateau

There is a very natural performance plateau associated with optimizing entry speed. Eventually you can’t go any faster and you learn the exact entry speed that maximizes every corner. If you accidentally enter 1 mph slow, you add a little extra throttle mid-corner, but not so much that you run out at the exit. If you accidentally enter 1 mph too fast, you coast a bit mid-corner, and end up a little late to throttle. This style of driving, where you modulate mid-corner speed with the throttle can be pretty fast and consistent. It isn’t actually the fastest or safest way around a track, however. Breaking out of this style of driving can be difficult, especially if you’re good at it. If you’re a racer whose been hard stuck 1-2% behind the front runners, this is probably the reason.

Brace yourselves, another tennis analogy is incoming…

One of the greatest tennis players of all time was Steffi Graf. She had a huge serve, killer forehand, tireless legs, and a consistent slice backhand. But no matter how good your slice backhand is, it is a liability against a serve-n-volley player who loves slow rising balls. In order for Steffi Graf to beat Martina Navratilova, she had to learn how to hit a topspin backhand. It’s a completely different stroke requiring changes as fundamental as how she held the racquet. Eventually she learned the stroke and the rivalry ended shortly thereafter. A similar situation existed with Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe. In case the analogy isn’t crystal clear, slice backhands are like intermediate driving. If you want to get to the advanced levels, you’ll have to learn how to rip a topspin backhand.

2. More yaw

The other way to lap 1 mph faster is to enter a corner with more yaw. There are two main advantages to this technique.

  • The front wheels do less steering
  • The drive wheels are pointed towards the exit sooner

Steering slows the car. The phrase “in slow, out fast” is not nearly as important as “the driver who steers less wins”. Having the drive wheels straight sooner leads to opening throttle sooner. Entering a corner with more yaw means less loss of speed and more gain of speed. It’s a win-win scenario. So why don’t more people do it?

  • Yaw leads to spinning

That’s reason enough. Spinning is dangerous. It wrecks cars, injures people, and gets drivers kicked off track. Lose-lose-lose. So why bother learning how to do it? Safety, paradoxically. A driver who can deal with yaw can deal with other adverse conditions such as rain, dirt, oil, and off track excursions.

How are you supposed to learn to drive with yaw when practice may endanger people or property? Thankfully there is sim racing. Your body can learn how to drive with yaw without breaking stuff. All you need is a sim rig and the motivation to unlearn your bad habits. But wait, what about that blog post a couple weeks ago where I was giving 12 reasons not to buy a sim rig? Those reasons are good reasons. But training your muscle memory to automatically correct for oversteer? That one positive is worth a few dozen negatives.

Shootout: SBF2000 @ LRP

The most famous racecar driving program in the world is probably the The Skip Barber School. In 1975 they started training drivers in Formula Ford style cars which later became codified as the Skip Barber Formula 2000 (aka SBF2000 or “Skippy”). The cars are not very powerful, have hard tires, and minimal aero. This makes them excellent training cars that provide a direct interface between the driver, car, and track. Although the Skip Barber School operated out of several locations, it originated at Lime Rock Park, and the combination of the SBF2000 and Lime Rock Park is an absolute classic for driver education. What’s true in the real world is often true in the sim world, and one of the best ways to develop your sim racing skills is in the Skippy at LRP.

There are several simulators that offer this combination, including my favorite hardcore trio of Assetto Corsa, iRacing, and rFactor 2. Let’s take a quick look at each package as a virtual trainer.

Assetto Corsa

Pros

  • Available on Steam for $20 or as little as $5 when it goes on sale
  • Official DLC (downloadable content) is cheap
  • Huge amount of community-created DLC cars and tracks, most of which are free
  • Supports Race Studio Analysis, Track Attack, MoTec i2, and others for telemetry analysis
  • The Russell Alexis Formula Ford Mk 14 is an even better model than the Skip Barber F2000 (I think)
  • You can modify the grip level of the track to simulate rain, for example

Cons

  • Community-built DLC is highly variable in quality (Lime Rock is good)
  • There is no way to automatically keep your DLC up to date, so you’ll have to manually search for updates

iRacing

Pros

  • Both the Skippy and Lime Rock were just updated in December 2019
  • All tracks are laser scanned
  • Best match-making if you want competitive racing
  • Supports MoTec i2, Track Attack, iSpeed, and more for telemetry analysis
  • iSpeed has a huge database of telemetry data, which is useful for comparing your laps to others

Cons

  • Costs $12 for each additional car and track
  • Costs $12 per month
  • The SB model has way too much grip

rFactor 2

Pros

  • Available on Steam for $32 and much less when it goes on sale
  • Growing amount of community DLC that is easily installed and kept up to date in the Steam Workshop
  • Supports MoTec i2 for telemetry analysis
  • SBF2000 model is the best model of any car in any game

Cons

  • Some good DLC is not in the Steam Workshop
  • Not as many cars and tracks as Assetto Corsa
  • Least popular for online racing

Comparing the SB2000s

If I’m going to sit down for a serious sim training session, my first thought is rFactor 2. The Skippy feels perfect. Every input has an effect on the handling no matter how subtle. I wish every car in every sim had this feel, but they don’t. Some cars are totally broken. Some sims are totally broken. The rF2 Skippy is the best that sim racing has to offer.

The Assetto Corsa Skippy isn’t quite as wonderful as the one in rF2, but it’s still pretty good. However, my favorite trainer in AC is actually the Russell Alexis Mk 14 Formula Ford. It’s a free download, but you can PayPal the author to say thanks (I gave him $10).

I was really excited when I heard that both the Skippy and Lime Rock would be updated in the latest build of iRacing. That excitement didn’t last long. iRacing force feedback offers very little feel compared to AC and rF2. Also, the car grips way too much and there isn’t a way to turn that down far enough to make the car a good trainer. Overall, it’s a real disappointment, and I can’t recommend it.

UCD FYS HPD recap

At UC Davis, I usually teach classes on genomics, bioinformatics, and programming. That’s where my expertise lies. But it turns out that one can teach almost anything in college. I find it funny that if you want to teach kids in elementary school you need degrees in teaching but nobody even cares at the college level. So I teach classes on writing and driving, topics I haven’t studied nearly as much.

Since this was the first time I taught a First Year Seminar on High Performance Driving, the course organization and content was a bit scatterbrained. It will get better in the future. On the last day of class, we went to Turn 2 Racing so the students could drive some high-end simulation rigs. That was good fun, as expected, but it also turned out to be surprisingly educational to me.

Left foot braking

With the exception of the few times I’ve been karting, I never brake with my left foot. It feels alien to me and I have absolutely no subtlety. It’s like an on/off switch. Unfortunately, some of the rigs are set up so that you have to brake on the left. While that might be okay in some cars, we had set up an NA Miata without assists, so there was no auto-blip. This meant that shifting could really upset the car if you did it at the wrong time. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could adapt to both left-foot braking and no heel-toe. It took me about 2-3 laps to figure out how to blend the brake and throttle so that shifting didn’t upset the car. I didn’t analyze the individual movements and commit them to memory. I just let my body take over and it worked out okay. After 10 minutes I had set lap times less than a second off of what I do at home where I’m much more comfortable. That was a HUGE surprise.

Not everyone starts from zero

Another educational experience for me was watching the other students drive. The fastest student (high 1:03) had done a lot of Xbox-style driving but never on a sim. And yet his steering corrections and pedal work were pretty refined. Where did he get those skills? The next fastest student (low 1:04) had done a lot of real racing, but not sim racing. Some people don’t adapt well to the virtual world, but he did very well. Most of the other students were several seconds off pace. At the novice level, people can have very different abilities. I think that after a month of training, the rank order could be very different. Just like in math, music, or basketball, not every starts at the same level and not everyone learns at the same rate. And the order may change again several years down the line because some people have the motivation to keep learning after the shine wears off.

Reviews

Overall, the students thought the class was fun and educational. But they wanted more simulation driving and more videos. What did they want less of? Math and physics. They say you lose half your audience with each equation. But I think it’s more about the pacing. There’s a time to talk about math, and it’s probably not the first thing.

Homework

If you want to pretend you joined our class for the day at Turn 2 Racing, load up Assetto Corsa and choose NA Miata and Brands Hatch Indy. Use all of the defaults including weather, tires (Street 90), camber, fuel, etc. Note that this is by no means the fastest way to drive the NA Miata. You get two 15 minute sessions.

  • 1:06.X – you’re a good student
  • 1:05.X – you beat the TA
  • 1:04.X – you’re in the elite group at the top of the class
  • 1:03.X – you’re teacher’s pet
  • 1:02.7 – my left-foot braking time
  • 1:01.9 – my right-foot braking time (at home)

Next time

I’m teaching the class again next quarter. I have some new ideas how to make it more fun and more educational, including a non-linear unschooling syllabus. More on that later.