Updated: April 13, 2022
With the world travel less optimal than it should be lately, I found myself spending insufficient time inside a car cabin, in the driver's seat, be it casual cruisin' or race track days. This is unfortunate, because I really love driving. So what does one do when they are afflicted thusly? They seek adequate alternatives.
As it happens, several years ago, I bought Assetto Corsa, a serious racing simulator, and I found it delightful. Accurate, difficult, unforgiving, splendid. And then, as it also happens, there was my G27 racing wheel and pedals set, waiting to be assembled and used. Well, I thought, let's recreate that track day feel.
Does it work?
Yes it does. Very much so. There are only three things that make the Assetto Corsa setup unrealistic. The first is the knowledge you're playing a game, so if something goes wrong, you can stop, reset, ignore the problem. In real life, you don't have that luxury, and there's genuine, healthy (physical and financial) fear of crashing your car. The second is that your body does not experience any acceleration, so you can't fully "feel" the road. And the third one is, you will most likely have the game displayed on a relatively small screen. However, these are only small issues. Let's dig into details.
I decided to try my luck with the Audi S1, which is available in the game's default car set, although I have all three so-called Dream Packs. I selected Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium as my preferred race track, because well, it is my preferred race track! I've driven (in real life, yes) there twice, once in a Megane RS 265 and the other time in a Lotus Exige S. Lovely jubbly.
I started driving, and my early results were around 3:11-3:15 (minutes:seconds). Not bad. But we can do better. So I kept on lapping and lapping, and time kept drifting past, hours, days. Soon enough, I was gaining both speed and consistency, and learning from my mistakes. Indeed, you probably need about 100 laps to figure out the finer technical details of every bend and corner.
Early on, my exit speed out of Eau Rouge would be about 160 km/h. Later on, I managed 170 km/h and even higher - all the way up to 176 km/h. Consequently, my speed before braking at the end of Kemmel would be only about 190 km/h early on, but then, as I improved, I managed to hit 202 km/h. Similarly, at the middle section of Blanchimont, just before turning left for the last stretch, I would be doing about 170 km/h. Later on, I even managed 185 km/h.
My times improved and dipped below 3:10, then became 3:06, 3:05 ... 3:04. I got to the point where I'd make a mistake, know I did it, get angry, but still finish the lap at a respectable 3:07 or so, a time that would amaze me only a month earlier.
Best part? The G27 wheel and pedals do offer a degree of realism, and you have a sense of spatial awareness and road feel, despite data traveling through electronic cable, and not via tires and chassis into your body sensors.
To make things even more interesting, I lured in a friend, another car aficionado. We would start a private multiplayer session, and then race (and not compete, because it's about self, not the other). There were a few instances where my friend would beat me by a second or two, or I'd do the same on a different day. At first, these results felt awesome and infuriating at the same time, until I did the math.
If I assume it takes about 190 seconds to drive around Spa, then 1% improvement in a lap time results in as much as 1.9 seconds off the final record. Two seconds = 1%. That's how small and yet huge the difference can be. Make a tiny mistake, a little bit of wind, you're not fully concentrating, and your results go up by a couple of seconds. In reality, it's just one tiny percent of your skill not being fully utilized. Or vice versa.
At one point, I completed a lap round the circuit in 3:04.699, while my friend did his in 3:04.999, both of us in Audi S1 cars. The 300ms difference amounts to a single eye blink, or only about 0.2% difference in how we drove. Now, in about a month, and many hours spent behind the wheel, I improved by a total of about 10 seconds. That's pretty impressive, but still amounts to only about 5% bump in my skill. Eventually, I was able to do 3:00 plus change, but haven't dipped below the three-minute mark just yet. Almost.
In comparison, in real life, I clocked in at 3:50-ish in Megane in the wet, and about the same in the Lotus in dry conditions (that wasn't a fun track day or a fun car, but you can read about that in the article). Now, I wonder what kind of times I'd be able to do now, but then, you can't hero around the track as you please.
Getting better ... by driving other cars
After a while, I decided to try my luck in some other vehicles, like BMW M235i Racing. Previously, playing it with the keyboard or even the mouse, it was almost impossible to control the vehicle. With the steering wheel, as I alluded in my first Assetto review, yes you can do it. And you can feel the subtle differences in handling among these different machines. The little Abarth is vivacious and spinny, with a light tail. The S1 has a somewhat heavy steering. The Mito is a bit underpowered. And the M235 is fast and nimble, with fast steering, a light and yet precise front end. I found it quite enjoyable, but you do need to react much faster than with slower cars.
Then, after a few sessions, I'd go back to the S1, and always, I'd break a new record shortly thereafter. I guess, with my brain and reflexes accustomed to a more demanding (and significantly faster) car like the M235, I was able to drive more smoothly and precisely with the Audi, resulting in a few hundred ms shaved off my record. In comparison, my M235 tally stands at 2:42 and change for now.
And so, I found myself a niche of joy. It ain't quite like the real deal, and there's no fancy little restaurant for when you want a break from the driving. But then, nothing beats home food, and you can turn the weather off in Assetto Corsa, unlike the hills around Spa. All in all though, mission accomplished.
I think the best evidence to the fun I am having is the amount of sweat infused into my T-shirts. 'Tis a game right, but your brain does exert itself working at speeds well above anything ordinary. And you end up sweating that proper ripe "stress" sweat. Draining, captivating, engaging, a total blast.
There is also a humbling lesson to be had here, of course. The game isn't real life. It's easy to be a "racer" when there's no penalty to whatever you do, and you can amp ABS and TC all the way up (or down). In real cars, you don't always have that luxury, and besides, if you are triggering either, then you're doing something wrong. Then again, a racing simulator is a racing simulator. It's accurate and fun, and it provideth in the hour of need. If you happen to be a fellow tracker (as opposed to Trekker, which you can also be, yes), then you may want to consider Assetto Corsa as a solution to your earthly needs. Take care.