Welcome to the second part of a series where I try to. Last time I learned that hardware won't necessarily make you immediately faster, but it can surely make you more consistent and, perhaps more importantly, more inclined to actually get out there and run some laps.
Having secured all the sim racing advantages available within my budget, it was time to get down to the business of actually improving the most important part: me.
In real racing, particularly at the amateur level, it's hard to know just how good you actually are. Too many variables factor into a given lap time. Is your competition running a fresher motor? Are those newer tires? Are those copper-colored dampers I see under there?
Even in a spec series, truly level hardware is rare. In iRacing, it's perilously easy to know how far off the pace you are. Did a pro just post some outrageous lap time? You can go into the sim, drive the same car on the same track in exactly the same conditions with the same setup and try it for yourself.
In other words: if you're two seconds off the pace, it's your own damned fault. While that knowledge can be depressing, it can also be powerful. But, knowing what to do with it is trickier. There are so many ways to lose time on a race track that just finding the places where you're screwing up can take ages. Thankfully, there's a way to short-cut the system.
Ever watch a professional race and wonder what all those dudes with laptops are doing in the back of the pits? Chances are they're poring over telemetry, which you can think of like an electrocardiogram for your car. Most modern race cars, and even consumer models such as the, feature a suite of sensors monitoring everything from engine performance to suspension compression and driver inputs.
Collectively, that stuff is called telemetry. And to nerds with a need for speed like myself, it's a treasure. With telemetry, you can accurately compare one lap to another, showing exactly what the driver and the car were doing, theoretically showing the path to maximum performance for both.
iRacing records a comprehensive suite of telemetry channels with every lap. The trick is knowing what to do with it, because the service doesn't really provide you with any tools. It's easy enough to convert and import into pro-level software like Motec's i2, but even then it's difficult to make real progress on your own.
Thankfully, finding some guidance is just a few clicks away.
Virtual Racing School
A cottage industry of online racing schools have popped up to fill that need and, as I was struggling to find those tenths, I was tempted to try one out -- not so much for instruction, but for more data.
Why? Having telemetry is great, but just looking at your own laps only gets you so far. You really need to compare yourself to someone else, someone faster, to really learn anything.
I decided to go with Virtual Racing School to see if it could help. Full disclosure: VRS gave me a free month sample, but I was immediately hooked and have since paid for my own $100 annual membership. (There's also a $50 annual membership if you're not such a data addict.) What does VRS give you? A lot, actually: Everything from setup tutorial videos to hands-on coaching and instruction. However, the bulk of the service is encapsulated in what are called data packs.
Data packs include setups, replays, telemetry data and even video walkthroughs. For each of iRacing's seasons, VRS pros create new packs covering most -- though sadly not all -- car and track combinations. That means if you decide to run the iRacing Le Mans Series this season, for example, you'll find setups and guidance for everything from round one at Silverstone to round 13 at Road Atlanta.
VRS covers all seven cars in that popular series. If, however, you chose to run the iRacing Rallycross series in the, as I do, you're sadly out of luck. I suppose you can't cover everything.
In my experience the setups are on the money, offering both an aggressive and a "safe" race option, plus a qualifying flavor as well. You also have access to the telemetry from one of VRS's tame racing drivers and, perhaps most importantly, a clean and easy web interface for comparing your data to theirs. VRS provides a small program that automatically runs on your computer and uploads your data in the background.
With a click, VRS boots up iRacing to the track in question with the exact conditions the instructor faced. You can then enable their ghost replay and drive against them for a few laps before jumping back to the VRS web interface and comparing your data.
When I first tested VRS, I was running the BMW M8 GTE in the IMSA Sportscar Championship. I was new to the car and, after an hour or so of practicing at Spa, I was struggling to break into the 2:17s. When I booted up the VRS data pack and saw that Coanda Simsport's Mack Bakkum (you can read his ) was running a 2:12 on race fuel, I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me.
After watching Mack's walkthrough video, my very next session I was running in the 2:16s consistently. Still a long way off, but how long would it have taken me to find those two seconds on my own?
As I got more comfortable with the M8 on more tracks, I found that my first laps were typically around four percent slower than the pros. After analyzing telemetry and practicing, I'm generally getting down to just under 2% off their pace. I still have a way to go but, for an amateur on limited time, I'm pretty happy with that.
For me, it's all about optimizing my time, and Virtual Racing School immediately lets me know where I'm losing time and where I need to focus. The service isn't perfect -- the video walkthroughs are often too long-winded and, as I mentioned above, the data packs aren't fully comprehensive -- but it has helped me make a significant improvement. And, perhaps more importantly, it has made it perfectly clear where I still need work.
Areas like the above. The middle, red dashed line is my brake pressure leading into Turn 2 at Le Mans. Blue is the VRS pro. Why the heck am I so jerky on the brakes, and can I fix it? I'll dig into that more next time.