Driving Simulator 101 – Challenging Yourself

G’day fellow racer, I’ll be your instructor today. My name’s Grubdog but you can call me Grub. I’m not a racing god by any means but I’ve had my fair share of struggles and success to share some words and hopefully help someone out. There are many different ways to enjoy driving simulators and many people will choose the passive approach with all assists on and easy AI, just to enjoy the sights and sounds of the racetrack. Mmmmm, nothing like the smell of sweet asphalt and burning rubber on a Sunday afternoon. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that approach and it can be a very chill way to spend your gaming time. There’s no right or wrong way to play a game that has this many options.

For people who DO want to challenge themselves as much as possible, there is a whole new world waiting for you. Whether it’s Forza, Gran Turismo, Assetto Corsa, Project CARS or F1 you have a lot of difficulty options at your disposal that can change the game significantly. With every assist you turn off, your car will get faster as you unlock more potential from it. It will also get more difficult to control. Playing these games without assists can be daunting at first, but it’s very satisfying if you find your groove. A big strength of these games is mastering all different sorts of cars and tracks, kinda like using different weapons in a shooter, or different movesets in a fighting game. Instead of going in-depth about driving technique, this article is going to be more about the mindset of change, and approach. For advanced driving there’s far more qualified people and articles out there. I’m going to keep it simple and throw up my biggest personal tips for a console gamer without much driving experience.

1) Go offline. There are two things wrong with the above picture. Firstly, the racing line. The very first thing I recommend is turning the racing line and braking line off. I see so many streamers leaving that on and it’s painful to watch. Not just because they ruin the track aesthetic but it’s just not very exciting to be on autopilot. The visual aid can teach you the fundamental layout of a track, but relying on them is a bad habit. It won’t teach you anything about the concept of racing lines if you stick to these like glue. If another car gets in the way you need to know the second best line around a corner. If you make an inevitable mistake (fastest way to learn) you need to know the fastest way to recover. Learn where the braking points and corner apexes are by driving yourself and you’ll be much better equipped not just for the current track, but learning new tracks faster. Slow in, fast out, is a good general approach to a corner. You also need to adapt to weather conditions like rain which can change the optimal driving line. When it’s raining you will go faster by avoiding puddles and finding the part of the track with the most grip. Copying the racing line is the equivalent of learning a single song on guitar or piano. If you learn the fundamentals then you can play any song and you’re better equipped in the long run.

The second thing wrong with that image is the third-person view of the car. The car looks great but cockpit or first-person view will give you a clearer reference point for corners and braking points. I have seen a couple of pros driving in third person view however, so if you really love it then don’t let it stop you.

2) Switch gears. Automatic to Manual gears is the biggest change you can make in these games if you aren’t used to gear changing. Suddenly you are pressing two extra buttons, monitoring the revs and wondering what gear is optimal for each corner. This will all come together slowly and it’s okay to do bad laps at first. Soon you’ll get used to the button placement (or if not, try to remap them). Soon you’ll start identifying which corners require which gear. You start to get a feel for how long each car stays in each gear, and how soon to upshift. The biggest point I’ll make here is that gear changing doesn’t have to be perfect. You might lose a few kph off the top speed with a bad shift, but you’re still gaining more time than using automatic. Most games will have very slow automatic gear shifting on purpose to reward those who try manual. I suggest just really nailing one single track first. If it gets too overwhelming in an actual race, feel free to go back to automatic and spend a few laps just looking at what gear each corner goes in with less pressure. You can also upshift just by listening to when the engine revs peak, without needing to look at the speedo.

“To finish first, first you must finish” – Rick Mears

3) One thing at a time. Turning off all assists might be the fastest way to get a car with potential raw speed, but you will learn more by taking it slow. Changing one setting at a time will give you respect and understanding for each part of the car. Turning off ABS for example will immediately make the car more unstable under braking, and you’ll realise you can’t always slam the button down. Then turning off Traction Control will change the way the gas pedal works on the corner exit. If you turn everything off at once you might not understand why you spun out at a corner. This is the same principle with tuning a car, change one thing at a time and test it to build an understanding. Then keep whatever works for you.

4) Avoid the grind. A lot of racing games these days have endless career modes that just pad out the experience. That sort of structure is not designed to make you a better driver or human being, it’s designed to get the game a high metacritic and sell lots of copies with a nice quote on the box. The campaign of Forza 7 for example can take over 100 hours to fully complete. But is that really what you want, to tick a checkbox? No, you’re here to improve your skills and enjoy the core gameplay to its maximum potential. This is where you decide to be a gamer or racer, instead of a consumer. You have control over this experience. The only use for campaign mode is to unlock cars you might want to drive. If you start finding the races are too easy then bump up the difficulty a bit, or just find a new way to challenge yourself. Chase after good laptimes instead of the AI. Separate the grind from the mind. Making sure the grind never stagnates is important to keep that flame burning. I personally feel like a lot of modern racing games are poorly structured and you have to make your own settings in Free Play sometimes to get the most out of them.

“If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough” – Mario Andretti

5) Believe in yourself. A pretty universal tip for any challenge in life really. To apply it to driving specifically, find things that you’re doing well and give yourself a pat on the back. Just completing a lap for the first time without going on the grass is a good accomplishment. Finishing an online race on the same lap as the leader can be an accomplishment. Being the only person in a long race to not disconnect is an accomplishment (so I tell myself). There is always something good inside you, hiding. If you crashed out of a race, you might still have the best laptime. That is proof you can win that race. Looking back to your progress from a week ago can help too. Don’t feel too discouraged looking at other people’s leaderboard times as well, most of these people have been playing for years and found the perfect setup by now. Some people play on controllers and some use racing wheels. There are too many variables to compare yourself directly to the top times. It’s much more natural to challenge yourself than a ghost. If you keep building on the different aspects that are in your control, you will inevitably get faster with time and effort. The longer it takes to get something, the sweeter it will feel. You can do it.

6) It’s just a game. It might be an awesome game, but it’s still just that. The results in a videogame don’t have any weight or meaning beyond your own definition. You can do poorly in a game and still be growing as a person. If you got a poor result online then you can still call it a good day if you tried your best. If you’re not finding the game fun however, then there’s no harm turning assists back on and simply getting what you want out of it. Sometimes I’ll switch back to automatic gearbox just to mute the sound and listen to my own music, without caring about my laptimes. At the end of the day the goal is to have fun. This will come back around to benefit you, as the smoother and calmer your driving, the faster you will be.

See you on the track.

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