How much does practice on a sim help in real life?

17th April 2024
Ethan Jupp

To those of us with even a little bit of a fear of death (which is vanishingly few among track driving enthusiasts), the prospect of taking on a new circuit in your own car, surrounded by other drivers going at full tilt, can be a little daunting. Obligatory pre-session car prep notwithstanding, what else can be done to set one’s mind at ease? It’s now a time-honoured practice for all from casual enthusiasts to F1 aces, but some time on a simulator is said to do a world of good. We thought we’d test the theory.


And so the opportunity arose. Booked for a short session around Silverstone during a Japanese car show, it was time to see if a bit of pre-game on the sim rig would help me when it came to the real thing.

So the night before, I set up my wheel, booted up Assetto Corsa, selected Silverstone National and picked a comparative car. As I would be driving around Silverstone in my own Lexus IS-F, the closest car on Assetto was the E92 BMW M3, the car the IS-F was developed to do battle with. In terms of power, weight, handling and performance – both accelerative and in braking – the two are a very close match.


Track practice on the sim: what I learned

The importance of this has nothing to do with working out lap times. Rather, I really needed to get a rough idea of A) the latest points at which I would need to start braking before every corner and B) what kind of speeds I could be expecting to see before needing to anchor up.

In the M3 I found roughly 125-130mph was the sweet spot for all three straight sections, on the way into the pre-Beckets kink, Copse and Brooklands. For entry into the latter, hanging right and braking just before the curbs began got me to the speed I needed to be down to before turn-in.

Secondly and perhaps more obviously but in terms of safety, less importantly, a few laps of Silverstone National on the sim reaffirmed my understanding of what the best lines to take were.

Obviously sharing the track with 40-odd cars for real would mean ‘the line’ wouldn’t always be available but it’s good to know. And that’s exactly how it transpired.


What the sim can’t prepare you for

Which sort of leads me on to one of the most important things to remember about practising on a sim. It categorically and unequivocally, will not prepare you for everything.

Let’s stick with the idea of sharing with other cars. Unless you get a good few mates online with you, potentially with a curved screen or VR, you can’t learn the kind of peripheral awareness that is absolutely essential on a really busy track session.

Depending on what you’re driving and your skill level, there will likely be faster cars and drivers and there will likely be slower cars and drivers. The latter are easier to deal with, as they’re usually ahead of you when it comes time to deal with them. The former on the other hand, requires you to constantly monitor your rear-view mirror.

Then more generally, you have to remember that the track on the sim is at best a representation of what you’ll be driving on. Yes the layouts and distances are more or less the same, but in terms of what the track looks like currently, for instance physical features like sign boards, flags, and so on, it will not be up to date.

The surface also will not be representative, due to prevailing weather conditions in real life, or how the surface has evolved since it was last mapped.


And circling back to the beginning and car preparation, the car on the sim will be representative of a car in the best condition possible. In real life, it’s up to you to make sure your car has the right tyres and brakes that are in good condition and set up correctly. It’s up to you to make sure your car is up to snuff on servicing and your engine is in a top state of preparedness for abuse.

How the car will behave will of course be a lot more fluid in real life, with things like braking power degrading over time. My brake pedal – a stock all-Brembo set-up with dot 4 brake fluid – went soft after five laps, for instance. In games, at best, you’ll feel a bit of tyre degradation. In real life, it’s still important to pay attention to everything and not assume what you felt in the game will translate directly to your first-hand experience.

You also won’t get certain sensations in a simulator. Yes the sense of speed is different, but so is steering feel, brake feel and especially the sense of pitch, roll, yaw, grip and slip. That should be obvious given that on a sim rig, you’re not actually moving. The important point to note around that is that where learning those sensations are concerned, there’s no replacing the real thing, even slightly.

Perhaps the most obvious thing too is that unlike in a simulator, where you can just pause to jump up and get a drink or go to the loo, you’re stuck in your car in real life until you drive off-track. So make sure you’re well-hydrated and in good condition overall to be able to manhandle your machine safely and effectively. It’s also worth noting that it gets hot wearing the mandated long-sleeves and helmet by comparison to the comfort of home.



So, simulator prep before driving on track for real. Is it worth it? Whatever your level, whether you’re on a multi-million-pound professional rig with multiple data points that’s as close to real life as possible, or you’re a ham-fisted average joe in a £150 Playseat, with a Logitech and an XBOX, absolutely yes. At the very least, you are forming a familiarity and however basic, it’s incredibly useful.

What’s important when it comes to the real thing is that your car is prepared and that you heed the rules laid out in the pre-session briefing. If you measure your inputs, you pay attention, you build up the pace in a safe and steady manner and learn your car and the track for real, you’ll do fine. A bit of pre-session sim practice is affirmably not a reason to skip any of the above but it's definitely worth a look. Happy tracking, folks.

Photography by Jordan Smith and courtesy of JapFest

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