Reflections of a rookie: from simulator to real life #2020 #racing #LotusChallenge

By Nick Hodgson

As we hurtle our way to the end of a year that has simultaneously flown by and seemingly dragged its proverbial feet, it seems only right that I take the time to look back on a year of racing with more ups and downs than Formula Rossa at Ferrari world. To set the scene, AA style, my name is Nick Hodgson and I’m a rookie racer in the Lotus Challenge. However, that being said, I’ve been a sim racer for many years, have been part of multiple championship winning teams and even managed to pick up a championship win myself. While hardly a dominant force in the sim racing community, I’d like to think that by now I’ve picked up a few things here and there along the way and as such can give you an insight into the differences, challenges and mostly importantly, fun to be had along the way in both worlds.

We all know sim racing and real racing is probably the closest esport to real sport comparison there is. Actually turning a wheel, pressing pedals and possibly sitting in a bucket seat is to a large enough degree performing the motions and actions that mirror what you’d do on track. This however is where the two diverge in a few key areas and certainly for those of us who are self-funded amateurs. Having chatted to a professional racing driver friend of mine, I know some of these comments won’t apply, but hey, we can’t all be living the professional racing dream.

As an experience, both practice day and race day are as they say on the tin. A whole day. Should I wish to practice for a sim race, I’ll meander my way through to my rig at any time of the day convenient to me, turn on my PC and within 5mins be on track running through whatever preparation program I feel like. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be as structured as that.

Time is just so cheap in the sim racing world it’s why you see the top drivers putting in hundreds of hours of track time preparation per race. Switch over to the real world and there’s a huge amount of preparation required just to get to the track, let alone on it. Fuel? Best make sure you have enough for the day beforehand.

Safety gear? Pack it the night before as if you forget you’re not getting out on track at all. Trailer? If you’ve not loaded the car properly you risk dropping your beloved race car behind you at 120kph on the highway. Then of course you’re only allowed out on specific days. Not like you can wake up on a random Tuesday and decide today is the day for some practice, you’ve got to fit your life into what’s available, not the other way around.

This makes any time you can grab on track exceptionally precious and your on track time problems have actually only just begun as you’re not alone. There’s others there with you in all manner of machinery and this dictates the need for timed sessions. So sure you’re there for the day, but it’s likely you’ll get only a handful of fifteen minute sessions with which to learn and improve. For a rookie that also includes learning the track outright.

Track time for everyone is fleeting and you’ve got to make it count. Over in virtual land it becomes painfully obvious just how much of difference time in the seat makes, giving real world racers with experience a massive advantage. When preparing for a GT3 race, I know that after my first evening of around 2-3 hours’ worth of practice, the next session I do will probably result in just over a second of outright pace, once I’ve reviewed how I was running, compared laps to the professionals and performed a pretty basic analysis program.

Again unless you’re a professional racer, you just don’t get this kind of luxury. In the sim racing world, you can have the track entirely to yourself under controlled conditions, learn at your own pace, whether that’s aggressively or cautiously and there are no consequences for getting things wrong.

And there are real consequences of getting things wrong in the real world. Hit a barrier in a sim and it’s a quick escape to pits, tweak the setup and back out on fresh rubber and a fresh car, identical to the old one. During a race a Red Star Raceway this year, first race of the day, first lap in anger of the day and I end up running into the back of someone. Probably the most pathetic accident you’ve ever seen in your whole life as well.

If I was doing 40kph it would be a lot. The result was a mangled front section, wheel practically ripped off and even worse, a bent chassis. No quick escape back to pits here. First, wait for the race to finish in the beating heat complete with feeling like a complete idiot and lamenting what could have been.

Second wait for the tow truck to come along and haul you off the track, a process that once again is hardly an ego boost. At least the marshals are all the nicest people you’ll meet, dedicated to helping us all have a fun day out. Once back in the pits it’s quickly established that the car is too far gone to repair and that’s your day done.

You’re on the side lines, promoted to budget mechanic and helping hand for everyone else. Following race day will come at least a full days’ worth of work to get the car back on the road and if you’ve got chassis damage like me, more likely two days. Then you need to re setup the car and find a day in which to test, hoping against hope that the car is as good as it was before the accident.

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Having said this though, there’s nothing quite like getting out on track to make all the preparation and repair time worthwhile. The adrenalin that’s triggered the instant you start your race car up and slam the visor on your helmet down. The smell of the brakes, squeal of the tyres and vibrations running through your hands.

And the G force. You cannot forget the G force. The one part simulators cannot hope to replicate and such a crucial element to the real racing experience. There’s really nothing quite like flinging the car into a corner and feeling the grip communicated through your whole body. It all feels so much more natural and alive than having to rely on just the sound through your headphones and vibration through the steering wheel. It’s tiring too.

Unless you’ve gone out for a leisurely Sunday jaunt, you’re guaranteed to come back dripping in sweat. So much of racing is being able to maintain concentration and make clear headed, controlled decisions while in the heat of battle. That’s so much easier to do in a sim where there’s little to no physical exertion required. Plus, there’s no sense of fear in a sim. The adrenalin kick you get from running wheel to wheel with someone out on track is incredibly addictive, but it also brings an element of fear to it, a sense of self-preservation that can be entirely removed from the equation in a sim.

But let’s be honest, the people are so often what makes any sporting endeavour worthwhile. Over the years I’ve built lasting and meaningful relationships at SimRaceSA. It’s proved to be a wonderful community of dedicated people, all passionate about racing and achieving that goal however they can.

The unfortunate reality is the nature of an online community means it does take longer to make those meaningful connections. The Lotus paddock proved this emphatically to me and in particular my fellow competitors from Leet Racing. People noticed a new face wandering about, no doubt looking somewhat lost, and immediately came over to introduce themselves and no time a rapport is built.

It doesn’t end there either. Tools and hands are readily lent to help a fellow competitor. Ideas on setup and more importantly driving tips are handed out without a moment’s hesitation. “The dice is sacred, preserve it” may as well be the mantra stamped onto everyone’s back. The delight and excitement that runs up and down the paddock when the whole field is within a few tenths of each other is electric. It means we’re in for a good race and that’s what everyone is there for, what they’ve paid so much more for and where the excitement is to be had. An atmosphere that just cannot be recreated in the online environment as you’re not physically there.

Online does provide the opportunity to race often though. With so many good quality leagues around there’s plenty of chances to get your racing kicks and with plenty of variety too. Single seaters, touring cars, GT4 and of course the staple of any online league, GT3, is readily available and ensuring you’ll find something to your liking. There are even thriving leagues out there specialising in just historical racing. In the real world you’re lucky to get a race a month in. If GT3 racing is your cup of tea, then you’d quite easily be able to find multiple league races a week to satisfy your craving.

At the end of the day many of you may be wondering which is better? The truth of the matter though is they both provide such differing experiences and opportunities that I don’t believe you can make a statement which one is “better”. Of course real racing is more visceral and engaging, gets the adrenalin going and generates wild stories that go long into the night beside a good fire.

I do however vehemently believe that sim racing has a worthwhile place in the overall world of racing. I cannot spend my Monday evenings running round Zwartkops Raceway, however I can spent it traveling the world racing all kinds of exotic machinery I could never even afford to replace the spark plugs on, let alone race.

So I’m very glad to be part of both worlds and will continue to be for as long as I can, singing the praises of one to the other as I believe the cross pollination of real racing to sim racing and the other way around can only be good for both.

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