How to get good in sim racing

Last Updated July 5th, 2021

Sim racing is a wonderful genre of games, but in-game tutorials are often hard to find. There’s an assumption that you already know what you’re doing if you’re willing to drop $60 on a sim racing game. Also, dev time is limited; I theorize that given the choice between putting time into tutorials or adding another track / car to the game, they choose the latter.

But this makes life quite a bit harder on beginners. In this guide, we’ll go over which games to choose, how to take a corner properly, and how driving assists work and when to use them.

Choose a sim, not an arcade racer 

There’s a place in the world for Need for Speed and Wreckfest. They’re fast, fun, and forgiving. But if you really want to get better at racing, you’ll have to choose a more realistic, and thus unforgiving, game. Well-modeled physics are essential to learning how to be a better driver.

A lot of sim racing fans claim iRacing has the best physics engine around, but it’s also a tremendous financial commitment (an ongoing monthly membership fee, plus microtransactions for the cars and tracks you want to use).

I’d recommend Assetto Corsa Competizione for its fair, consistent physics engine, variable weather modeling, and exciting lineup of GT3 class cars. The content is a bit limited for its $45 price tag, but it’s a solid sim.

Project Cars 2 has a wonderful variety of cars and tracks, but its physics engine can be wonky and somewhat unpredictable at times. Some cars feel great. Others are a mess. But its real-time weather modeling is awesome and its VR implementation is terrific. If you’re racing in VR, this is the way to go. Note – while Project Cars 2 ostensibly has rallycross racing, Dirt Rally 2.0 is a much better choice for that style of racing.

If you’re on PS4, Gran Turismo Sport is terrific, with a slightly more forgiving physics engine than some more hardcore racers. It also has a wonderful tutorial system that teaches you how to race as well as how to handle each corner of every track. Heck, if you pick up Gran Turismo Sport, you can probably just quit reading this right now and just play through the tutorial section. Its initial release was a bit barebones, but new content has been coming out frequently over a year now, and things have filled out nicely.

I wouldn’t recommend the Forza series because of its poor compatibility with racing wheel controllers. If you get serious about sim racing, you’ll want to be able to use a racing wheel. More on this below.

Manual first, manual always

Even if you’ve never, ever driven a manual transmission car, use manual transmission while sim racing. You get a great deal more control over your car’s speed, traction, and launch. Shifting into a lower gear can also help slow you down, which will help you maintain control as you approach corners. It’s also just more fun. Every day drivers used to automatic transmission will be frustrated for a bit, but after a few races, driving manual will be second nature.

Choosing assists

Some sim racers are vehemently against driving assists, and insist that the only way to play is to deactivate all of them. However, some folks stan for realism, and some of the cars you will drive have anti-lock brakes (ABS) and traction control.

If you’re new, try turning all of the assists off, and take a hotlap around a track. How well did you do? Did you crash in every corner? Slow down! Did you spin out while accelerating? Be careful of stomping the accelerator at low speeds, especially while turning. Did you lock your brakes? Brake more gradually, and let go of the brakes when you need to turn. 

If you’re still having trouble, try turning on ABS and traction control. Sim racing is still just a game and should be fun. If you’re getting frustrated trying to get around the track, you won’t practice, and if you don’t practice, you won’t get better.

Go slow to go fast – how to handle corners

It’s counter-intuitive but true. When you’re new to sim-racing, there’s a tendency to hold the accelerator down like your life depended on it. This strategy will fail you almost one hundred percent of the time (and by “you” I mean “me, two years ago”).

It’s an understandable misconception. Your lizard brain says “PRESS GAS GO FASTER TO WIN!” but doing so causes crashes, spin outs, and other mishaps, ensuring a loss.

In the Mario Karts and Crazy Taxis of the world, there’s little penalty for crashing into a wall. The side of your vehicle makes some nifty sparks and you keep going. Not so in sim racing.

Even if the game you’re playing doesn’t have a realistic damage model, a bad crash is probably the end of your race. Your competitors will rush by you, or worse, smash into you as they struggle to stop.

Here are the basics of how to attack a corner:

  • If you need to take a left turn, get onto the right side of the track, and vice versa.
  • Release the throttle and begin braking. If your ABS is disabled, make sure to brake gradually to avoid sliding, which will prevent you from turning properly.
  • Release the brake and turn, being sure to hit the turn’s apex. (Check out this video if you want to see the (highly caffeinated) math behind this.) The turn should be wide enough such that you’ll hit the side of the track opposite the turn’s apex, i.e. if you turned left, your car should end up on the right side of the track.
  • Accelerate once you’re out of the corner and your car has straightened out. If you stomp on the gas too early you can spin out or extend your turning radius, causing a crash or slowing you down.

A good rule of thumb to remember is “outside, inside, outside.” You start a corner on the outside of the track, you turn toward the inside of the corner, and then you end up on the outside again. You can see the right way to approach a corner by turning on the driving line (an assist option that exists in almost every sim racing game).

Turn on your driving line, but learn to read the track.

The driving line will show you the ideal route through the track, and the fastest way to approach each corner. Some recent games like the F1 series will actually change the driving line’s color to show when you’re going too fast for the upcoming corner.

But you won’t want to leave this on forever. If you just follow the line, you won’t learn why the line works, and once you’re vying for position against other drivers, if you strictly obey the line, you might have a tough time.

As you’re driving with the line activated, look for reference points in the track that will let you know when to start braking before a corner and when to accelerating after you leave the corner. This reference point can be a sign, a kerb, or even a random tree. When you turn the driving line off, these reference points will persist.

One track, one car, many laps. 

Many racing games offer a stunning array of cars and tracks, and that’s a great way to keep a game fresh over time. But for the purposes of learning, you’ll learn faster if you find a car you really love and a track you enjoy, and hotlap on that one track over and over again. Get familiar with each corner of the track and how they all fit together. Get used to a car that you like a lot and learn how to squeeze the most performance out of it.

Take it slow, and make sure you can handle each corner consistently. If you’re practicing well, you’ll see your lap times decrease over time as you learn to take each corner faster. If you’re using assists, turn them off, one by one. Each time you turn one off, your lap time will suffer. Learn to compensate for this, and get faster still. This will give you a strong grasp of the fundamentals of sim racing, and you can transfer that knowledge to other tracks and other cars.

Racing against real or AI players is great, and very exciting, but it can be easy to get distracted by other racers and focus on passing rather than basic technique. Hot lap for a while and once you get a strong handle on that, add in additional racers.

Get a racing wheel

If you decide that you’re serious about sim racing, consider getting a racing wheel with force feedback. While expensive, a racing wheel provides immense amount of information and much improved control.

Force feedback on console pad controllers often just means a little bit of rumble when firing guns or beating on an enemy. But the force feedback on a racing wheel can deliver information about how well your wheels are gripping the tarmac, what your car’s suspension is doing, and from what direction some jerk just hit you from. I write a lot about the transition process here.

I use a Thrustmaster T300RS hard mounted to a GT Omega Apex Stand. The stand, while pricey, folds up nice and tight, and is sturdy when unfolded and deployed. You may be able to skip the stand if you’re playing on PC and your desktop is good and sturdy; the T300RS comes with a desktop clamp that allows you to lock the wheel down.

One of the best things about the T300RS is that it’s compatible with both a modern PS4 and PC. If recommend playing on PC because doing so gives you access to the Thrustmaster control application, which allows you to set force feedback intensity as well as setting your rotation angle (I like 540 degrees, personally). 

Also, if you have a VR headset, give it a try, particularly if you own Project Cars 2. The implementation is slick and well done, and a lot of fun.

That wraps up the basics for now! Do you have more questions or suggestions for noobs? If so, let us know in the comments below!

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